Intimate Understanding

When the idea struck me to conduct this ultra run fundraiser, probably instigated by a considerable dosing of caffeine intake, it was one of those ideas I HAD to do. It was important, it was exciting, it was beyond anything I’ve done with my running to this point, and it was just a touch frightening. It just felt right. And I knew, no matter what unforeseen obstacles might come my way, I would do it. I will do it. I will complete 50 miles each day, for seven days straight, without faltering….I hope.

Admittedly, as I’ve been putting in the work for this run, I’ve encountered the usual training difficulties I’ve faced during competitive marathon training. Weeks of fatigue and slow progression. Periods of decreased emotional motivation. Mild injuries. Weather that simply can’t be overcome. And, of course, there are all the success too. Continued excitement. Mile paces that drop and drop. Mileage totals that climb and climb. And the joy of feeling my body handle incredible amounts of stress and strain from continuous, dedicated training.

I’m completely excited to accomplish this ultra running feat…except…

Except, it’s no longer as romanticized as I initially imagined when I first came up with the idea. To address my greatest concern with completing this run, I’m worried about the weather. I mean, whose idea was it to plan this 50 mile a day attempt during the month of August. AUGUST! Oh right…me. I have my reasons for the week I chose, but while training through the most recent episode of increasingly hot and incredibly humid, I’m wishing I found other reasons to push it into September. Oh well, no turning back now.

But really, of all my concerns I need to manage for this run – nutrition, timing, road hazards, post-run recovery, etc. – it is the weather that is tempering my excitement. Runners intimately understand their bodies through years and years of training. We know what it feels like to be strong and quick, and we know how our legs feel when we’re not yet recovered. We know what we are capable of on race day and we know what a weakened cardio system feels like when things aren’t going our way. We know when we can push and when we need to just hold on. We know our sleep patterns, our injury rates, our fluctuating hunger, our nutrition needs, etc. All this understanding allows us to adjust and compensate to help us run at our best when it counts the most…but some obstacles of understanding simply can not be overcome.

I’ve learned, over the many years of training, that I run poorly in hot, humid weather. When I ran my 2:25 marathon PR, it was within an air temperature that never rose above 39 degrees. The next year when I tried to run 7 minutes quicker, the air temperature started at 60 and quickly rose to 70. Things did NOT go well the second half of the race. In studying my past racing and training performances, it became very clear that I feel most powerful, most unstoppable when the temperature drops. The lower the better. Scientifically / Biologically speaking, I came to learn about skin surface area and sweat ratios, understanding that taller runners have to work harder to keep their core temperature down in hotter weather due to skin surface area. The body pulls needed oxygen away from legs and lungs to dissipate sweat and cool the body, causing complete shut down if it becomes overworked in the effort.

I can now generally expect a certain degree of discomfort or quickened weakening of my body when running on days that are both hot and humid, compelling me to adjust my pace or change up my workout. Easier said than done. Even when compensating for the weather, things get difficult for me quick, which is why I’m worried about this obstacle and seriously preparing for this ultrarun.

Today I went out for a 15 mile run a little later than usual, ending up running in a blanket of thick, humid air and under a blazing sun beating out mid 70 to 80 degree temperatures. I knew it was going to be a struggle further into the run, but I didn’t expect the struggle to be so great. At about 9 miles in everything started to fall apart, quickly. I started walking periodically, trying to get my heart rate down and strength back into my legs before pushing on. With each successive mile completed, the effort seemed to get worse and worse, with more walk breaks, and lungs that felt like they couldn’t expand at all…maybe even shrinking. At a street crossing I bent over and grabbed my knees, only to rise back up and watch the ground in front of me go out of focus, become swallowed by blind spots, and threaten to meet me head on if I stumbled or fainted. I had to consciously take deep breaths and get the oxygen back to my brain. Pushing on further, the walks became more frequent, the weakness building greater and the whole experience quite unpleasant. I just imagined the trouble I was going to face should this be the weather on my ultra run. I managed to complete the 15 miles and couldn’t shake the 35 more I would have to run in just over a month.

I got to the locker room at the Y and weighed myself to see what sort of damage I had done with all the water loss, the scale reading a new weight low of 136, which was not comforting. Admittedly, I didn’t bring water on the run, or fuel, but still, I’m not sure how much that would have helped.

All is not lost though. The experience taught me just how quickly the more severe weather will affect my running-specific body functions and distinctly drove home how much I’ll need to cut my pace in order to fend off the worst of the weather conditions breakdown. It’s going to be crucial to understand my body as intimately as possible during this run, not only to make it through each day successfully and relatively enjoyably, but to also keep myself from digging too deep a recovery hole. The period of recovery I’ll be managing when the run is over might be as important as the run itself, as I prepare to repeat the same mileage the very next day….again and again. I won’t lie, I’m looking forward to those air conditioned, soft-bedded hotel stays at night (Thanks Holiday Inn’s!).

I can admit the romanticizing of this run is, well, a little less romantic, but I expected that. There is a wide gap between imagining and doing. With proper planning however, for these relatively worst-case scenario conditions, in the end, the experience might even outshine my initial perceptions. Whatever happens, I will have done everything possible to prepare, and the reward of knowing how much the fundraiser is helping the families and patients of Family Reach will be more than worth it.

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5 responses to “Intimate Understanding

  1. I can relate to your aversion to running long distances in hot weather. I wilt like a flower when running in temps above 70 degrees, especially in high humidity. Have you considered wearing a bandana or arm coolers? I’m not sure how much they would actually help to cool you, but maybe they would provide a psychological boost? Do you have any plans to run a little extra distance on days that are cooler than normal? In any case, here’s hoping that August weather in Indiana sets some records for lowest temps! πŸ™‚

    • Pete…I’m right there with you. Wilting is putting it lightly. Unfortunately, there are some genetic disadvantages one simply cannot overcome. I’m considering ways to fend off the heat, but I’m not sure anything will work better than simply slowing my pace considerably…and getting up as early as possible to start the run. I can’t run any further than planned each day because I have housing set up at various hotels/homes along the way. Oh well…I’ll manage. And yeah, hoping for a freak polar vortex!! πŸ™‚

  2. As a victim of heat stroke that left me unconscious on the road and hospitalized for hours, I constantly have to consider what/where/when I’m training and racing so I can try to “manage” the damage. I’ve DNF’d more than I’d like to admit to save myself. I simply can’t handle heat anymore since the heat stroke. I am often reduced to a walk – more like a stagger – and am familiar with those foggy, dizzy spells.

    I am a fan of the arm coolers (I actually use the wings) – they aren’t a magic bullet but any little assistance can help. They do make a difference. This year I feel like I made a great stride when I started using Skratch Labs Hyper Hydration. Again, it’s not helping to keep my body cool and preventing a meltdown but it does help load my sodium and water stores. I’m about to order some more and will send you a few packets of you want to try it… May be helpful when you’re piling days of heat training on top of one another.

    • Wow, I didn’t know about any of this. I’ve been really paying attention to hydrating at night with GU Brew, but I’ve been neglecting bringing any with me on my runs. I don’t know how much it would have helped…but I should be doing it anyways. I’m definitely into trying the Skratch Labs stuff if you’ve got extra. I also have some white compression sleeves for my arms, so I should probably bust those out too and see if they help at all. I’m gonna look EXTRA weird running in short shorts, no shirt and compression sleeves. πŸ™‚ Whatever…people don’t get it. Thanks for the suggestions.

  3. People who matter get it! I also don’t like to carry, but in this weather I buck up and take two frozen bottles. I hold them against temples and wrists, and drink as they melt. Sometimes they’re just water, other times they’re electrolyte something or other, vegan brands. Keep up the smart training; your fans are behind you!

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