By Walter Rhein
About halfway through the 2016 edition of Grandma’s Marathon, they hoisted up a flag that said, “Very high danger.” The humidity was high, the temperature was blazing, the sun scorched and we all suffered.
“That’s it,” I thought, “that’s as bad as it gets.”
But at the next aid station, the sign said “Extremely high danger,” then, “Apocalypse,” then “Supernova!” After that, I stopped being able to read the signs because my eyelids were melting into my cheek bones.
Running a marathon in extreme heat causes you to readjust your ambitions. These days, my expectations for running marathons aren’t all that lofty. The days of four-hour races are long gone. All I hope for is to see a “four” somewhere in my final time, preferably at the front, but, if not, anywhere in the line of numbers will do. Above all, the only real goal is to stay out of the hospital. On hot days, that’s a grand achievement.
Like an old dog too stubborn to learn new tricks, my marathon strategy has ever been the same. I go out as hard as I can for the first two hours, blow up into a quivering mass incapable of forward momentum, then struggle to the finish walking and making hundred-yard sprints whenever a mile marker comes into view. It’s a bad tactic. But this year at Grandma’s, I remembered why I adopted that strategy so long ago: It will never be cooler than it is in the morning.
A marathon is destined to be a long day. Get as much race behind you as you can in the critical first two hours and you’ll make it in. I’m sure the guys who run the race in 2:09 have a similar thought process. They are probably just coasting for those last 9 minutes.
In order to defeat the mental part of the race, you have to break it up into a series of small victories and allow yourself small celebrations.
“I made it to the 10K marker, that’s a win.”
“I’m halfway, that’s a win.”
“Mile 20, another win! It’s been a day of victories!”
The second you allow a negative thought to creep into your mind, you’re going to pull over, find a rock, hug it and cry until somebody notifies the aid station workers to come and get you.
The act of running is hard enough, but when the heat starts slowly imposing its power upon you, it’s time to dig deep. For me, the most difficult thing about heat is that you have to take it seriously. Mostly, I get through marathons by allowing myself to go slightly crazy, but in heat you have to keep your wits about you and stick to the plan or you might get into trouble.
At Mile 13 at Grandma’s, I caught up with one of my friends who was walking. He’d passed me earlier, so I jogged up to say hello.
“What’s going on? How come you slowed down?”
He looked at me and shook his head, “I stopped in one of those port-a-pots a while back, it must have been another fifty degrees hotter in there. I haven’t recovered from that yet.”
Tip #1: Stay out of the port-a-pots on hot days
I’d never considered it before, but yes, those things become seriously dangerous on supernova hot days. Occasionally at marathons you run into the pee-police. Marathoners are notorious for being hydrated, and at races like Grandma’s when you have to get bused to the start, the delay in transport sends runners scurrying to the bushes the moment the bus door opens. I remember arriving at the start area at Grandma’s to be greeted by a squadron of police riding four wheelers who’d chase people down and insist they go use the port-a-pots.
Okay, I get it, sanitation is vital and ten thousand runners need to behave appropriately. But on a hot day, those port-a-pots could seriously kill you. At the end of Grandma’s, I couldn’t wait anymore and I got into a port-a-pot line. The line was moving so slowly we considered alerting the aid crew for fear a runner had succumbed to heat exhaustion inside. It’s a real fear. Obviously the call of nature is a powerful force in itself, but do what you can to avoid port-a-pots on hot days.
The dizziness and nausea of excessive labor in heat is about as unpleasant as anything you’ll ever experience. The aid stations are vital under those circumstances, but it’s not enough to just have a drink or two, which brings me to my second tip.
Tip #2: Dominate the aid stations
The aid stations at an event like Grandma’s marathon are impressive. There are the same number of volunteers at each individual aid station as you find on the entire course of some of the smaller marathons within our state. If it gets hot at a smaller marathon, you might have to moderate yourself for fear of using up all the water your fellow competitors need, but at Grandma’s, the water and ice are limitless.
The goal of every aid station on a hot day is to exit the aid station completely drenched. You’re going to have to drink so much water on a hot day that the taste and texture will make you gag by the end due to sheer monotony. If you can apply water to your body, it helps eliminates the need to sweat, which eliminates the need to drink as much, which greatly increases your chances of finishing the event.
Dump the first cup of water you receive on your head, dump the second on your right shoulder, third on your left. Dump a cup on your chest, your back, your head (again), then drink at least two glasses as well as a Gatorade or Powerade or whatever they have. Take a cup of water with you as well as a cup of ice as you exit the station.
The ice is critical as you leave the aid station. Put your first cube against your forehead and hold it there until it melts. You’ll be surprised how your brow goes right through that ice cube. Then take a cube and rub it on your shoulder, then your other shoulder, then the back of your neck. When you’re done with this entire aid station ritual, you’ll have probably walked about a mile, which means you’re that much closer to the end.
You can’t just go through an aid station on a hot day, take two little sips from a cup and expect to sprint away at your training pace. In fact, your training pace is completely out the window because…
Tip #3: Moderate your pace
When the black flags come out, the race is over. You aren’t getting your PR, so just take care of yourself and do what you need to do to finish safely. The aid crew hates a hot day above all things. They’re going to have to deal with rushing a few people to the hospital, so make their job easier and don’t be one of those people.
At Mile 23, I turned to my friend from earlier and said, “You know, if we keep running, we’ll finish 15 minutes faster, but we could just walk it in and still be around 5 hours.”
His response was classic, “This won’t be my fastest marathon, and it won’t be my slowest marathon, it will just be one of the mass in the middle. I’m fine with walking.”
So we walked in, save for a burst before the finish line for the photos, then jumped directly into Lake Superior and sat there until the core body temperature had returned to something close to normal.
The number one objective in any marathon is to finish safe and sound. A good time is just a bonus which brings me to my final tip:
Tip #4: Be conscientious of your fellow racers
At about Mile 18, I saw a runner sit down by the side of the road and stare reflectively into space. I didn’t think much of it at the time except to think, “I’d like to sit down too.” But the woman hadn’t even picked a spot of shade, which should have indicated to me she was in some distress. I was too zonked out at that point to connect the dots, but fortunately a runner near me alerted an aid station worker a little farther on.
“There’s a lady back there who is in trouble,” he said.
Instantly, the aid station workers were off to help the woman.
Your number one goal is to take care of yourself and get into the finish. But do everything you can to encourage the other runners and help them too. If you see somebody isn’t drinking enough, have them drink. If you see somebody laboring, walk with them for a while, and accompany them to an aid station if you can. Yeah, it’s a race, but there are more important things than where you finish. Do what you can to make sure everyone gets in happy and safe, and make sure you get yourself in, too. You won’t get a PR, but you’ll make memories fit to cherish.
About the Author: Walter Rhein is the author of “Beyond Birkie Fever” and “Reckless Traveler,” both available on Amazon.com.