Hot, Hot, Hot.
Anatomy of the hot long run.
I ran 20 miles in the full heat of a New England summer day last weekend. It was not my intention to do so but circumstances led to this event and I thought I’d walk you through it that you might profit from my folly.
I have run thousands of miles in hot and cold and I know what my body does, I know the symptoms and I know the cause and effect. You may not. Let me walk you through the progression, the context and the symptoms of what hot running can do to you with my narrative of the hot run.
I had a 20 mile run scheduled. I saw the forecast was for 90+ degrees. I planned to get out early. The best defense for hot weather long runs is to avoid the heat by going early. You have to plan to leave so you can finish before the heat of the day. The challenge to this is long are long. Just because you leave the house when it is cooler doesn’t mean it will matter 3 or 4 hours later when the sun comes up.
I should have gotten up at 5:00 or 6:00 or even 7:00 but I rolled out of bed after 8:00 because of the Stanley cup playoffs. I ate my breakfast and drank my coffee. I knew it was going to be a hot day. I had put bottles of water in the fridge to get cold the night before. I got in the car and drove out onto my course to position the cold water bottles approximately every 6 miles.
Since it was already late morning on a Saturday I had trouble discretely dropping bottles. People were out and about and I couldn’t just throw the bottles out the window. I had to find some hidden nook in the shade where they wouldn’t be found and discarded. In the past I’ve actually left bottles with notes on them that said “Marathon Training, please don’t take”.
I figured 4 water bottles plus the one I stared out with, carrying would be enough. It wasn’t enough. I made a tactical mistake dropping the smaller 16oz bottles instead of the big 24oz bottles that I favor, because that’s what we had in the house. That mistake would leave me short of water in the desert when I really needed it. That’s 8 less ounces over 4 bottles or 24oz total over the course of the run that I would miss.
I’m comfortable training into a bit of dehydration and thought I could bridge the gap between water drops. I didn’t have time or opportunity to buy a bunch of 24oz bottles for this run. I figured I had the experience to get by.
I also did not take any Endurolytes or nutrition with me, or any other gels. You may think this was some sort of mistake or oversight on my part but it wasn’t. 20 miles for me is only 3ish hours at a slow pace. I’ve got plenty of fat to burn and one of the purposes of the long run is to train your body to scrounge for that deep fuel when nutrition gets scarce.
It is part of the training. If you train to be dependent on a constant stream of sugar intake it makes you less flexible in long races. My solution was to start with a Gatorade mix in my hand held and dilute it as I hit each drop. That would be only 2ish hours without nutrition on the back end. 2 hours without taking nutrition on a slow run isn’t going to cause me any crisis.
I got back to the house after dropping the bottles and tried to get ready. It was going to be hot so I had to take time and make sure I lubed up all my pointy bits well. That took some time. I had to make sure to go to the bathroom about a thousand times. That took some time.
In the end, I got caught. I got a late start and dithered around too much. I would have to run at the extreme hottest part of the day if I left when I was ready.
The final straw was trying to download some extra-long podcasts for the run and my mp3 player wasn’t cooperating. I had to reinstall the drivers. Before I knew it, it was after 10AM and I hadn’t left the house yet. Doing the math on a slowish 20 mile run meant that I would be doing the last third in the hottest part of the day. I’d be running through high noon with no shade and wouldn’t get back until after 1:00.
The thought crossed my mind that it was too late now, I should bail out. Wait for the next day or maybe run in the evening. I had one of those line-in-the-sand moments that you get in the middle of a training plan. “If I skip this long run just because it is going to be hard and hot and uncomfortable what message am I sending myself? What am I going to do in the middle of them marathon when it gets hard?”
Sometimes this is a good moment of truth and sometimes it’s just stubbornness. We poor mortals are ill-equipped to divine the difference in the moment of decision. We are, it seems, only human. When I am in the wind I default to honoring my commitments.
I knew there was no lubricant in existence that would protect my nipples from the quantity of sweat that I was about to excrete so I chose to go shirtless. I’ve reached that point in my life where I really don’t care what you think. If my abundantly-hairy, albino-clydesdale visage bothers you then hide the children ‘cause I don’t give a …
I grabbed a bug hat for the extra shade factor since I was forgoing a shirt. What’s a bug hat? That’s a standard technical running hat that you pin a full sized bandana to the back of. The bandana hangs down like a desert Arab’s turban to cover your neck and shoulders. When the black flies are out in August this will keep you from getting bitten. On a hot day it adds a layer of shade.
After all this delay, I finally set out. The dog protested that I should take him with. I assured him that if he came it would be the last run he ever ran and he would be better off sitting this one out.
The first 5 miles were easy. I was a bit worried that I was going too fast, but the trees provided plenty of shade and temperature was just over 80. The early morning sun slanting in at an angle was shielded by the leafy New England canopy. It was nice.
I got to the first water drop at 5.5 miles with my 24oz bike bottle hand held of Gatorade mix almost empty. Hmm… My sweat rate was very high, and I knew the drop bottles were smaller so I worked on conserving water and slowing down.
My next drop bottle was going to be at 11.5 miles. Closing in on 8 miles, even though I was rationing, I was almost out of water again. The sun was now up and high. There was much less shade and there was a big hill to climb on this part of the route.
I wasn’t suffering yet but I was starting to work in some walk breaks. I was dry mouthed. It was heating up to 90 now and I was thinking about how I could find some more water, looking around for garden hoses and public parks.
At the bottom of the hill I saw a building with a hose coiled up at the back. It was a restaurant of some sort. I went back and it was a black hose, hanging in the full sun. I turned on the water and it came out boiling hot. I let it run but it didn’t seem to be getting any cooler. I thought it might be a hot water only spigot for some sort of cleaning use and was going to give up and move on but then it started to turn cool.
I had no idea if it was potable water but it was water, so I drank my fill and topped off my hand held.
I ventured on confident that I had filled the short fall in my hydration planning and that the two remaining drop bottles would get me home.
Here’s a hot weather running symptom that you need to remember. Since I had been rationing my water up until I found the hose, my stomach was empty and I was feeling the effects of initial dehydration. Dry mouth, thirst, excessive sweating – these are all normal in the initial stages. They are just your body telling you that you need to find some water.
When I subsequently drank a big batch of water all at once it didn’t make these symptoms go away. Your body needs time to process the water and if you are too far into dehydration your body doesn’t process the water well. I realized this when I was climbing the next hill and was still thirsty but felt the water sloshing around in my stomach.
The best choice is not to let your dehydration get to this point. If you can continuously take fluids your body can keep up and you can stay ahead of it. That’s why I carry a bottle when I race, so I can continuously and consistently feed my machine.
If you find yourself in this situation, dehydrated with a sloshy stomach, don’t panic. When you feel that sloshing stop stuffing fluids in or you’ll just make yourself sick. Even though your body is telling you that it is thirsty, you have to give it time to process what it has. You’ve got to slow it down and wait it out. You have to be patient. These symptoms are not cause for panic.
I had worked the water out of my stomach by the time I got to the next drop at 11.5, but I had a long hilly haul in front of me in the full sun. I set out slow running with plenty of walk breaks. Tip: when you take walk breaks in the heat you should time it so you walk in the shade. Run the sun and walk the shade. The shade is much cooler than the full sun and you need to minimize your exposure.
I plodded on to the final water drop with 5.5 miles to go. I was out of water when I got to it, but thought I could manage 5 more miles. I was wrong. Because it was so hot and I was moving so slowly I was out of water again with over 2 miles left to go. This is when I started feeling the advanced stages of dehydration and heat sickness. I didn’t panic, but I know the risks so I was cautiously worried for my health.
When things start to get serious you will start to get woozy. By woozy, I mean dizzy and mentally out of sorts. I got to this point with about 2.5 miles to go. I stopped and leaned against a stone wall for a couple minutes.
I gathered myself and kept going, but I was again on the lookout for another water source.
I was a bit concerned because of the amount of water I had taken in without any electrolytes. This can cause dangerous imbalances in your system. I had also been out much longer than I had planned. I know the dangers. I wished I had taken a handful of Endurolytes with me. I do when I race.
With only 1.5 miles to go to get home I pulled into a business to beg for a refill on my handheld. It was one of those places for kids where they climb around in the ball pits and plastic tubes. I must have been quite a site, shirtless, wild-eyed and sweat matted – like some crazy old homeless guy. I was self-conscious but I didn’t want to die. They were mortified but they didn’t want me to die either, especially in their building.
I got my fresh bottle and jogged off to finish up my 20 miles.
The final stage of dehydration and heat sickness, (that I never got to), are severe dizziness and disorientation as your core temperature goes up and your brain is affected. You may experience severe cramping in your legs. You may actually stop sweating and get sort of pale and clammy. You will get involuntary chills. You may experience extreme nausea.
My points are these.
First, even with my experience I should have not gone out unprepared in that heat. I probably shouldn’t have gone out in the heat at all. I shouldn’t have let my machismo for completing the workout override my good sense.
Second, I know the symptoms and I tried to manage my way through the workout, like I would in a race. Panicking never helps. Make sure you know the warning signs and how to manage them. Be aware of your body and what you are experiencing and manage your workouts accordingly.
Finally, don’t be afraid to walk up to some stranger’s door and get help. Pride is not worth dying for.