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Does Pot Make You A Better Athlete?

In America's mecca for both endurance training and legalized marijuana, one competitive triathlete is challenging the definition of "recreational" drugs.
Joao Canziani

The first tingle of THC hits him as he's stretching his calves. 

“I’m locked in,” he says, squishing two headphone buds into his ears. “This is going to be a great pace.” 

The sun hasn’t yet risen over Colorado’s Front Range peaks, but Cliff D. (who asked not to be named), like many working-stiff triathletes, juggles a career—he’s a full-time strength and conditioning coach—with his own training and racing, and that means plenty of predawn workouts. But unlike the other guys circling Denver’s Washington Park in the early hours, Cliff has just eaten an energy bar that contains enough marijuana to numb a small elephant. To be precise, the homemade bar was packed with about 30 milligrams of the plant’s psychoactive chemical, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). For a newbie pot smoker, the THC dose would be a knockout punch. For Cliff, that’s just breakfast. 

Standing 5'6", Cliff, 39, a hardcore athlete and former Division I soccer player who trains upward of 23 hours a week, has a thick chest and lean, muscular arms and legs. A lattice of tattoos peeks from below his sleeves, and his skin is tanned an even olive brown. He regularly completes Olympic-distance triathlons—which comprise a one-mile swim, 25-mile bike, and six-mile run—in a blazing two hours and five minutes. He’s won his age group at the South Beach Triathlon, and this year he finished third in his age group at the New York City Triathlon.

This morning, Cliff jogs off to run his warmup, which consists of two easy laps around the park’s two-mile loop. Then he completes four sets of one-mile fartlek intervals, which blend fast-paced speed work with recovery-paced jogging. The efforts are designed to ready his heart, lungs, and legs for the blistering 10K run that finishes off the triathlon. 

His style is distinct and disciplined: He runs out over his feet with short, quick steps, emphasizing turnover instead of stride length. Each of his sets he completes with methodical precision; each foot strike is a mirror image of the previous one. By the time he’s finished, he’s drenched in sweat and panting, but grinning from ear to ear. “That was epic,” he says, as he extends a high five. His eyes are as big as soup bowls. “I found a guy who was running a 5:50 [per mile] pace and just sat on him. We were flying.” 

The "Works Forever" Workout >>>

Cliff is affable and even-tempered, and when you’re talking to him it’s easy to forget that his bloodstream contains a controversial chemical that’s fueled billion-dollar criminal empires, been the focus of Drug Enforcement Administration raids, and repeatedly commandeered national politics. But times appear to be changing. 

Now legal as a recreational drug in Colorado and Washington State, and as a medical therapy in 21 other states, marijuana is slowly being seen as a socially accepted drug in the eyes of most Americans. According to a 2014 CNN poll, 55% of respondents believe it should be legal. Meanwhile, here in Denver, where pot shops now outnumber Starbucks, the drug’s former stigma is long dead and buried. Most Coloradans look upon pot as a weekend fun-enhancer, or a handy substitute for beer. 

To Cliff, marijuana is something else entirely: It’s a genetically engineered workout supplement—a combined focusing agent for exercise and a pain reliever that numbs his post-workout aches. During a workout, he says, the THC allows him to stay focused on things like his heart rate, or stay motivated during a four-hour bike ride. “My mind is always all over the place, I can get caught up in what’s going on around me,” he says. “Weed helps me keep my mind focused, if you can imagine that.” 

Crazy? You decide. 



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