Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Questioning the Hot Race -- Will Cooler Heads Prevail?

The race reports I’ve read from fellow runners in the early part of the 2012 race season show quite a few marathon and half marathon runners battling hot and often humid race conditions. It seems like many of the reports are from the same race and the same runner. Each has worked hard over the past several months preparing for the big event. Each striving for a new PR. Each coming face to face with heat, sun, humidity, and then race strategy changes quickly from PR to survival mode. It’s almost heart-wrenching to read and hear what people go through, because I’ve been there, and I know it just plain sucks. It’s not fun. Distance running in hot weather is anything but fun. When the heat cramps, side stitches, nausea, light-headedness, mega thirst, fatigue, or leg cramps set in on a hot day, there’s little you can do to maintain a “decent pace” much less recover and get back on track. It just doesn’t happen. Splits get slower and slower. You walk more and more. You try to drink as much as you can, but it’s not enough. Salt pills help, maybe, but they’re no antidote.  You’re at the mercy of the elements, and all that’s left is to roll with the punches. Your goal is to not pass out on the road.

So what’s the point? On a nice day, or in colder weather, PR’s are much more possible. On a hot day, if you’re goal becomes surviving an ordeal and a guaranteed no new PR, what is the reason to run the race, or finish the race? Maybe we should save our legs for another race?

This past Monday I ran in a cool 57 degrees under the shade of trees and a cloudy sky. It was wonderful. I felt strong, relaxed, fast, and I could have for run miles and miles.  But just the day before a dozen people I knew were racing their hearts out for races they trained for all year, and it was in the 90s with a blazing sun. It was a tortuous day for racing. In a single day the weather can go from allowing you a PR to taking away that PR and putting it under 9 feet of hot concrete.  Eating pasta the day before and getting 10 hours of sleep the night before won’t get you that PR in 90 degree weather; but cooler temps might let you do that on 6 hours of sleep and cheeseburgers. 

Survival mode.

Is that why we run? Is it simply the challenge we seek, so we finish the race grudgingly, even if we get nothing out of it besides a cheap finisher’s medal and a bottle of water to go? I don’t know. I don’t really need any more medals. I like my PR medals the best but those are getting to be too numerous to know what to do with them all. Do I need a medal from a race where all I did was “survive” and “finish”?  After a dozen or so marathons, I’m definitely getting pickier about when and where I run my races. I’m never going to run my “first” marathon again, so my goal is not to simply finish; honestly I don’t want to go through what I went through on my first marathon again (it was in Arizona, and even in March it was hot).  I don’t want to sound like a cranky old man, and yes, I’ll still run races in less than ideal conditions. Hey, I love running in the rain!  Chicago Marathon is regularly a warm race, but I continue to register. But with the availability of fairly accurate weather forecasts (i.e., when they predict the following day is going be 90+ degrees, usually you know it’s going to be a hot day), I think we should keep in mind there are marathons and half marathons all over the country throughout the year. There are options for races as new ones crop up yearly. If we choose to race on the hot day, the strategy should shift from a PR mindset to ‘what can I get out of this race so that I either enjoy it, or learn from it.’  Have fun. I think that’s what it’s supposed to be about. Of course that is easier said than done when the sun’s beating down on your head.

I don’t know. The start of another warm summer is upon us, and I’ve got several races of my own scheduled.  I’ve certainly never been afraid to not run a race, but I do have goals for my runs ahead. If it’s a hot day, I will certainly need to change strategies and save those goals for another day. I will probably also disregard much of the above and still try to run them even if it is 90 degrees. Isn’t that what we do?  Are we just stuck in our ways?  Gluttons for punishment? Stubborn?  Fighters?  Survivors?   Is it the human spirit? I don’t know. Will cooler heads prevail? 

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