Elliot deBruyn is a video and photo journalist living in Shanghai, China. He is in training for his first marathon in Inner Mongolia.
Cramps and cravings
I love running. I also love smoking. Sometimes, that makes for a difficult week for my marathon training.
To be honest, until moving to China, cigarettes were my biggest hurdle in the running game. Addictive, limiting, and perfect after a long race. But after running the Shanghai half marathon with Natalie in December through some of the soupiest pollution in the race’s history, I realized something about circumstance.
Of all the things required to be a runner, a smoking habit may be the least important. Wanting to put one foot in front of the other; being able to push through that cramp; knowing you have to wake up an hour earlier just to get your run in that day; these things make a runner. Not whether you light up every once in a while.
I’ve seen chain smokers, alcoholics, the overweight, the undertrained, the good, bad and ugly finish marathons. I once saw a man cross the finish line of a marathon smoking a cigarette in celebration (my personal hero, in a way). In China, it’s common to run in whatever shoes and clothes you have handy, be they Nike shorts or a nice suit, Sauconys or slippers. But they all have the drive to finish, like everyone else.
I used to smoke more than a pack a day. In China, everywhere is a smoker’s lounge, so it’s difficult to slow down. I’ve quit so many times that I’ve lost count. Basically, if you want to smoke, smoke. The air is far worse for you, anyway.
But don’t think for a second that your lungs, or race times, will thank you.
Since I started training for my first marathon three weeks ago, I haven’t bought a single pack of cigarettes. I’ve averaged one cigarette a day while living in an apartment where my roommate and I used to smoke inside all day, everyday. I’ve been able to reduce my 5k time from 27 minutes to 21, average 40 kilometers per week and eat healthier. I only run outside when the pollution is at an “acceptable” level (which is so disappointingly high for China, I won’t even tell you). I wake up earlier, see clearer and think faster.
How much of that is due to healthier lifestyle? How much is because I’ve reduced my smoking habit? I think that’s impossible to separate.
Specifically, the relationship between smoking and running has manifested itself in a few ways in my life. First, when I run the cravings lessen. The endorphins released by physical exercise fills that role perfectly. Also, smoking usually fills my appetite, so running on top of reduced smoking has me eating lots of small meals all day which keeps my blood sugar at an even level. My energy is more evenly distributed throughout the day. Finally, when I do smoke, because my maximum volume of oxygen is higher from running, I need less nicotine to feel a buzz.
It might seem dualistic, first saying cigarettes are only one small piece of the puzzle then stating that reducing my smoking habit has single-handedly changed my health and running stats. But that’s exactly what I’m trying to tell you:
As a runner-smoker, I need the self control to push through the pain, whether it’s a cramp or a craving. I still have a cigarette after a run sometimes. But I know that I’m going to do my best to finish my first marathon (the Grassland Extreme Marathon in Inner Mongolia on July 5). I know now that can’t accomplish that while smoking as much as I used to. But if I have a cigarette waiting for me at the finish line, I don’t think I’ll say “no.”