By Christopher Cudworth
Lessons learned are like bridges burned, you only need to cross them but once… Is the knowledge gained worth the price of the pain, are the spoils worth the cost of the hunt? –Dan Fogelberg, from the song Lessons Learned
With a major heat wave predicted across much of the West and Midwest this weekend, and heat seeming to be on the increase thanks to global climate change, it pays to do a little thinking about your heat tolerance. Temperatures of 119 are predicted in Phoenix, Arizona this weekend, and 101 degrees in Boise, Idaho. There may be world record heat in Death Valley, with temperatures predicted to climb to 134 degrees. That, my friends, is hot as hell. No questions asked.
LESSON ONE: HOW TO RIDE THROUGH HELL, AND A LITTLE BEYOND
It was 96 degrees outside. My wife and daughter dropped me and the Felt 4C at a parking lot near the junction of Genoa Road and Interstate 90 just east of Rockford, Illinois. I planned to ride home from there.
The three of us had spent the morning in Madison, Wisconsin visiting the university and tromping around the fantastic Farmer’s Market in the square around the capitol building. I’d planned all along to ride part of the way home that afternoon and had brought my bike along in the back of the Toyota Matrix. The remaining jaunt from Rockford promised to be between between 40 and 45 miles, depending on which route I’d take.
Uh Oh. Hotter than hell.
But 4 miles into the ride, heading south into a blast furnace breeze and heat rising off blacktop in visible waves, I knew I’d chosen wrong. It would not matter which way I rode home. It was foolish and hot to ride in any direction.
Wanting to stock up on cold drinks, I stopped at a gas station in the town of Genoa. It was a tricky deal figuring out what to do, but 3 Gatorades seemed like a wise investment. I stocked two in my shirt and used a bigger bottle to fill two ice-filled water bottles.
They were melted within two miles. So this really was a form of hell on earth. The Gatorade inside my bottle was getting hotter by the minute. The two bottles stashed in my shirt, freezing cold just 15 minutes before, were now almost two warm to drink.
A deal with Beezelbub?
Then I realized I’d taken a wrong turn 10 miles into the ride. Suddenly I thought; What the hell? Where did I miss that road I know? But it was one of those circumstances where it’s just about as far to go back as it is to take a risk going forward. So I kept on rolling.
And wound up in the outskirts of Sycamore, about 5 miles off my planned route. Ooops. It was like a deal with Beezelbub. You don’t come out winning either way. One way you melt. The other way you bake.
An angelic break
At one point the only sane thing to do was stop in the shade and try to breathe smooth and slow. My skin tingled. It felt like little angels were fluttering around inside my hot noggin’.
All the fluids I had were now actually hot, not just warm. I drank anyway and glanced to see a cool blue pool behind a house where it looked like no one was home. Tempting, I thought. But the little cycling angel over my shoulder whispered in my ear that sometimes when you stop, you really can’t get going again. And then you suffer all the more.
So I sucked it up and rode on, staying just below the threshold where my body felt strain. It was kind of like riding around the edge of the fiery abyss, but not quite falling in. 14mph, I have discovered, is an appropriate speed to ride through hell. It worked for me
anyway. All the while the tires were smacking over the tarsnakes, which raised their oozing black heads slightly as I passed, hissing in the heat like Serpents of Satan. “Come down to us,” they whispered like the hissing of summer lawns, “Join us on the road.”
“Damn you to hell!” I hollered, pressing my front tire down on one of their heads. They pulled back into the crack of the road, their black souls disappointed at not winning my own.
Kept on moving. I could barely feel a breeze while moving that slow. It was hot. As hell. And humid.
Salvation at the water pump
My goal was a cold water pump at the Great Western Trailhead, 15 miles southeast. All I had to do to keep going was to focus on that cold water even though I knew it tasted like crap because of the sulphur content in local groundwater. I made it with a little energy to spare by avoiding hills where I could on the route home, just to save the legs. The last 5 miles home even felt easy. I wondered what I’d been worried about. Then I thought back to those first 10 miles through absolute cycling hell on the hot road, and remembered: Hell is really not a lot of fun. The lesson learned was that you should never ride in intense heat without a backup plan.
LESSON TWO: NOT ON TRACK FOR SUCCESS IN THE HEAT
There’s nothing quite like the heat on a running track on a mid-summer day. It swelters up around the runners and can turn the air you breathe into a seemingly soupy concoction without much oxygen. But competing in the Prairie State Games, the first Olympic-style event ever in the history of Illinois, was unique enough to want to watch some of the other athletes compete.
And that was stupid, because heat saps distance runners more than any other type of athlete. Sprinters usually love the heat. It keeps their big muscles loose and flowing. But distance runners are built like thermometers, and our bodies react to the heat in much the same way. The red mercury core goes up and up until our heads are at risk to explode.
Hot enough for everyone
So by the time the 5000 meters came around at 8:00 at night, I’d probably already lost the race. Yet I felt pretty good going through 2 miles in 9:28. I had a shot for Bronze. The leader, a top distance runner from University of Illinois was half a lap ahead and looking easy. In second place was a really nice guy I’d met from the University of Chicago Track Club. 4th place was way behind me. I figured to run a 5:10 mile and call it a day.
And then the side stitch hit. It wasn’t your average side stitch, but one that extended from my left nipple down to my waist. It almost bent me over at one point, but I kept running.
Within the next lap my body was thinking about shutting down. Everyone could see that. The medics swooped on the track and dragged me over to a wheelbarrow full of ice and sat my very skinny little ass down in a pile of ice. And there I sat, sphincter growing colder by the second, until the spots before my eyes went away.
Heat prostration they call it. The humidity and heat from the day had caught up with me. There would be no medal, and that was regrettable, but the lesson learned was that you have to concentrate on only one thing when you’re competing in hot weather: Save all your energy for your own race. The rest simply cannot matter.
LESSON THREE: SOMETIMES YOUR SELF-PERCEPTIONS ARE WRONG
In May following my junior year at Luther College, I competed in the nationals for steeplechase but did not make the finals. It was 83 degrees outside, even hotter than that on the track. After finishing the race my stomach felt a bit queasy, but by the time dinner rolled around I was recovered enough to eat an entire 14” Pizza Hut pizza.
That night I awoke to a raging stomach ache and proceeded to throw up more than 27 times between 11 pm and 7 am. I was already a skinny guy at 140 lbs, but when the hospital weighed me that morning while checking me into emergency, my weight was down to 133 on a 6 ft. frame. Dangerous territory. They pumped me full of fluids and electrolytes and made me eat bananas and warned me to be careful running in the heat from now on.
An overheated belief system
And for 3-4 years after that, I believed that I was destined not to be a heat runner.
Then came a July 10-miler in which the temps were in the high to mid 80s. I ran so strong and easily in the first nine miles of the race and outkicked 4-5 guys in the last mile and a half–finishing fourth overall. This was a race in which I figured to finish no better than the top 15, the competition was so good.
The experience of running so well in the heat made me re-think the hot-day steeplechase and the advice the physicians had given me the next day. I realized I’d been fine for more than 4 hours following the race and that heat had nothing to do with why I’d gotten sick that night.
Then it struck me what had happened. “Food poisoning,” I said out loud. It had been the pizza, not the heat that made me sick.
Liberation in the heat
After that there were many more summer races that went well in the heat, including one 4th of July affair on a hilly course in Glen Ellyn, Illinois in which I battled a hometown boy for the win but came up just 10 yards short in 20:01. But the heat wasn’t why I lost. He’d bested me fair and square with a better kick.
Heat and humility
You have to be careful though not to get cocky about your heat tolerance. During last summer’s heat and drought in Illinois there was day after day where the temperature topped 80 and even 90 degrees, and I’d still get out on the bike at various times of the day. Slowly however my body wore down and then came a series of rides where I got into serious trouble from the heat. Twice I needed to stop at a store and get ice because the pace was too fast with other riders and dizziness took over during the ride.
Longer you go. Hotter you’ll get.
These lessons are more pronounced the longer you plan to go in the heat. When marathoners showed up in Chicago a few years ago and temps climbed into the 80s by race time, there was little anyone could do to prepare for that kind of heat. Hundreds of runners suffered ill effects and the race was actually stopped, a first-ever occurrence at such a major race. But it was the wise thing to do.
Dying to run
We all know people have died from racing in the heat, and many of those circumstances are tragic.
But some people just go out asking for trouble. And then some. As a course marshall at one 10K I witnessed one idiot collapse with a failed liver thanks to drinking 6 beers before the start of the race on a very hot day. He turned around and sued the race organizers for making beer available before the start.
Sum heat for all of us
The lessons learned in sum are that sometimes both our long and short term perceptions about our heat tolerance can be wrong . Our bodies can take some pretty hot conditions, but we can also get cocky and deceive ourselves into thinking we are immune to the effects of heat. Then we begin to suffer like the frog placed in a pot with the flame on low, not knowing we’re quietly cooking, especially over a period of weeks or months.
It is important to remember that the effects of heat can be cumulative over time as well as sudden. Keeping track of your body’s signals during summer heat waves and over the entire heat season can be important to safe, effective training during the summer months.