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Heat Training: Assume The Worst

Heat Training: Assume The Worst

The greatest mistake you can make when running (or otherwise exercising) in extreme heat is to be optimistic, confident or nonchalant.

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The moment you believe that this is no big deal, is the moment you’re in danger – even if you are sitting in your living room and thinking about tomorrow’s run.

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Extreme temperature athletic activity can kill you. Running in 120 degree heat is, in all truth, an exercise in pain, suffering, determination and control. It’s not usually fun, although you may well experience euphoria as the sheer beauty of your environment overwhelms you, or you embrace the endorphin rush associated with pain and danger. It’s about enduring the trauma, and achieving goals few other people on the planet can achieve.

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A few years back, an experienced hiker left his red truck at Badwater in Death Valley and set out for Telescope Peak. Why he did this is uncertain; he took little water, and grossly underestimated the distance. Eventually he turned back, dehydrated and likely already suffering from heatstroke. Not far from the truck, he took a rest… and never got up. Overconfidence is what killed him, even if it was officially extreme dehydration.

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My philosophy when running in Death Valley in late July is always to assume the worst. I assume I’ll get overheated and confused in the canyons, so I mark waypoints on my GPS (or, running an out-and-back, drop colored M&Ms at junctions – I can pick them up as I return). I assume that I need 8oz of water per mile, so I take 16oz per mile. I assume that nobody will find me if I drop, so I tell someone where I’m going and when I should be back.

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99.9% of the time you’ll be just fine, so long as you are prepared, fit, acclimated and willing to slow down a little. But just in case, I strongly recommend some extra precautions – you never know when you’re going to turn an ankle and half-drag yourself out of the back country in unbearable heat, so it’s best to assume the worst and prepare for it. Let’s say I plan a 10k run through the back country and it’s 127 degrees – what would I take? Well, here’s a list. Altogether this is about 15lbs of equipment – hardly conducive to speed, but definitely conducive to survival:

  • Hat - I use a baseball hat and my wife jury-rigged a small solar-powered fan attached to the brim. It’s also where I tape my thermometer, for easy access.
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  • CamelBaks x2 – One 64oz and one 32oz, filled with electrolyte drinks, not just water.
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  • CoolMesh running shirt - I use white because of the high albedo factor.
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  • Shoes with grip - I find that shoes with over 150 miles on them are a liability, as the grip is poor and the rubber is worn down, exposing more of the shoe to the 200 degree pavement (I’m 205 lbs so it might not happen until 200 miles or more for a lighter runner). This can result in more blisters, and even slippage when scrabbling up a dry riverbed or rockslide.
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  • FuelBelt Terminator – this is a six-bottle, 48oz water belt that doesn’t slip and has solid fastenings for the bottles.
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  • BluBlocker Viper sunglasses – these bring the desert into sharp focus without compromising your enjoyment of your environment. They have side lenses to prevent glare, and are effective at helping you to pick a good path over the rocks.
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  • Small LED flashlight – if you get lost, it can be used as a signal as well as a means of spotting those M&Ms in the fading light.
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  • Wright Socks – blister protection in extreme heat is of paramount importance, and these help enormously.
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  • iPod Nano – load it with at least five or ten songs that really stir your emotions – I find high-powered techno music to be ideal, but I know people (well, a person) who still listens to Journey. Whatever it is, the purpose of these particular songs is to get you back on your feet if you find yourself heading down. Songs with personal meaning have been shown to cause increased arousal in the limbic system of the brain, which releases endorphins in a phenomenon not dissimilar to the ‘Runner’s High’ that we all enjoy so much; it can also produce a serotonin rush, a chemical in the brain that has a strong role to play in – guess what – temperature regulation, cardiovascular function and pain management.
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  • Car keys – most people won’t steal your car even if they spot the keys on your back tire. Most people. When you get back from your 10k run, you want to see your car, and since you’ve exerted almost all of your energy, you could be in real trouble if it isn’t exactly where you left it.
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  • Emergency blanket – small ultra-reflective blankets will fit very easily into a CamelBak pocket, and should you be in real trouble they can provide some protection from the heat. For the 4oz weight penalty it’s well worth it.
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  • Cellphone – chances are you won’t have reception, but even so, you may not be utterly without communication: when left on, your cellphone ‘pings’ nearby cell towers from time to time (apparently this isn’t a civil liberties issue…) and phone companies have been known to triangulate an approximate location by analyzing these pings. So long as someone knows that they need to call emergency services, a cellphone may help them to find you quicker. (Note: I researched this for quite a while and found huge discrepancies in the anecdotal data. It seems that the E911 policy may track your current location using GPS, if your phone is switched to that setting. This should not be relied on as a way to find you, but it may help.)
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  • Granola Bars – in fact, almost any dry snack that has a good energy-boost. Peanuts are also great, for replacing lost salt.
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  • Sun Cream – an airport-sized sun lotion tube is crucial. Sunburn hugely exacerbates the problems of dehydration.
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  • Dog-Tags – I’m not kidding! Some kind of personal identification is vital, both to help emergency services (allergies, blood type, etc) and to notify family if you’re in trouble. There’s nothing an EMS hates more than a Jane Doe!
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It seems like a lot, but I carry this every time I run in extreme temperatures and I enjoy my adventure far more, knowing that it’s a lot less likely to be my last.

Keep up!

Jon Rice

Jon is a highly-experienced runner who adopted the sport of heat running in 1996. He visits Death Valley every year to participate in his bizarre creation, The Darth Valley Challenge - a one-mile charge through the desert in the height of summer, dressed as Darth Vader.

To prepare for such silliness he takes extraordinary precautions. He trains year-round in the sauna, runs countless miles in extreme temperatures, and has crewed the Badwater Ultramarathon twice.

Jon's only request as you read this site is that you prepare carefully, tell someone where you're going and when you'll be back, and take more water than you think you'll need.

Visit The Darth Valley Challenge (www.darthvalley.com) for more information!
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One comment

  1. Some nice tips there mate – i just started out my running a couple of months ago after giving up the smokes and over here in the UK is pretty damn hot for me just coming into the summer and find my running very hard.

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