Thursday, April 9, 2015

Heat is not my friend.

At least when it comes to ultra-racing.  This is not an unknown phenomenon.  Every runner knows they slow down when it's hot.  Some research has shown, for instance, that a well trained runner will slow down 3% per 10 degrees F above 40 F(the temperature that would be optimal) for a marathon.  So I could say that heat is not a friend to marathon runners, but the reason I am writing this post is to present my analysis of why I believe that heat is much MORE not a friend to me compared with other runners.

The Evidence

To present my case I will use a combination of ultra-racing history and anecdotal experiences.  I could talk about races prior to 2011, but I think 2011 to the present represent the most homogeneous performance comparisons since my "fun run" 5k times have been roughly comparable through the last four years.  I have been racing the monthly 5k at my work since 2006, so I have a pretty neat history of my running fitness over the life of my running career.

My ultra race performances in 2011 are pretty indicative of my capabilities since I consider that about every race on the books for that year was a pretty good race for me.  No disappointments.  Did heat not affect me that year?  Of course it did.  It's just that the conditions at the race and my acclimatization at the time set me up to perform satisfactorily with respect to my racing peers.  This is an important point to make because how else do you know that you are not performing up to standard without first having a standard.  In this case the standard is how I am comparing to my competitors.  I will use my 50k and my first 50 miler as a baseline.  I ran the Skyline to the Sea 50k in 4:05 and Dick Collins Firetrails 50 mile in 7:33.  I know it is difficult to compare one of these races to another because of difference in elevation gain, technicality of trails, etc, but I will qualitatively assess those differences based on my experience and knowledge of my own skills.

A list of (selected) race performances and cursory analysis in chronological order for 2012, 13, and 14:

  • Steep Ravine 2012 50k: 4:59 (expected 4:30 or better).  January race - was winter acclimated - happened to be a nice sunny day by the ocean - got warm and I faded at the end.
  • American River 2012 50 mile: 7:28 (expected close to 7).  April race - still sorta winter acclimated/not much running in the heat leading up to this race - another beautiful(warm) day - got warm and I struggled bad for the last 3rd of race - was just barely keeping muscle cramps at bay - my brother witnessed the carnage at the finish line.
  • Ruth Anderson 2012 100k: 8:55 (expected 8:40 ish).  A couple of weeks after AR 50 in San Fran with nice temps thanks to Ocean and fog, giving away to sun in the afternoon - this race went ok for me.
  • Dick Collins Firetrails 2012 50 miler: 7:18 (expected close to 7:30 again).  This race was a freak of nature for me.  It was warm later in the day.  I did have a whole summer of heat acclimatization under my belt though and I attribute most of the success in this race because of some super-compensation due to altitude stress from fastpacking in the sierra the weekend before.
  • Quad Dipsea 2012 28.4 miler: 5:16 (expected 4:45).  Sometimes this race can be a cold, muddy, slogfest.  I would have thrived on that.  Instead, it was a hot November day.  Go figure.
  • Lake Sonoma 2013 50 miler: 8:49 (expected just over 8 hours).  Got to mile 30 having the time of my life.  Then it was sunny and exposed and I death marched it in for 20 miles.  Still one of the toughest finishes I have ever had.  Puked on the finish line, likely due to heat exhaustion.  Another spring 50 miler where I was not ready for heat.
  • Ohlone 2013 50k: 5:51 (expected 5:30 or better).  Pretty warm day as can be expected in May in the Sunol, but a nice breeze up on the hilltops kept me cool enough.  Descending the mountains into the canyon the breeze disappeared and it got hotter.  Another death march.
  • Dick Collins Firetrails 2013 50 miler: 8:48 (expected 7:30 or better).  How could I be over an hour slower than usual?  Well, it was a warm day, but no warmer than usual.  I did fall apart shortly before half way.  Perhaps a whole year of my brain learning to protect me from myself in the heat shut me down early in this race?  I don't know.
  • 4 MPH challenge 2014 78 miles for the win.  It was as wet, cold, and sloppy as you can imagine.  And it worked for me.
  • Skyline 2014 50k: 4:18 (expected between 4:10 and 4:20).  It was a summer race, but there was a nice, cool, fog (marine layer as they call it around here).  Also, it was done in about 4 hrs, before it gets hot.
  • Jed Smith 2015 50k: 3:45 (expected 3:45). Nice, overcast day in winter.  My favorite running weather.
  • 4 MPH challenge 2015 108 miles for second.  It was nice weather.  High of maybe 72.  But I was taking it easy in the heat of the day with ice in my hat and ice in the bandana around my neck for every minute of warm weather.  I was still in the sleeveless shirt through the 50 degree night and it felt good.
Several Conclusions from above analysis:

  1. Shorter races are usually done before noon - the vast majority of the race taking place in cooler temps.  I did good in most of these.
  2. Did fine at all races that took place in cooler weather (not many on the list).
  3. Spring 50 milers are death to me.  The combination of lack of heat acclimatization and length of time out on the course(therefore subjecting oneself to warmer afternoon temps) seemed to really take it out of me. 

Analysis of my DNFs (as I believe all of my DNFs were primarily precipitated because of sunny, hot weather:

  • Miwok 2014 100k.  I'm not even going to talk about my DNF at the Miwok 2013 60k - I think I was still on the mend from Lake Sonoma.  So whats worse for me than a spring 50 miler?  How about a spring 100k...Its always nice in the morning, and hot in the afternoon - at least these two years.  It doesn't help that the second half is largely exposed - no tree protection.  When my muscles get overcooked they just cramp up into useless pieces of flesh and I actually loose the ability to mechanically move forward.  I would like to think of myself as mentally tough enough to finish a long race, but it seems my body is able to overcome this desire by taking matters into it's own hands.
  • Tahoe Rim Trail 2013 100 mile.  One of the hottest years for this race on record.  My blog post about it pretty much sums up the epic early meltdown.
  • IMTUF 2014 100 mile.  Almost made it through the heat of the day without totally cooking myself.  Almost.  Realized I had failed on my climb up snowslide.  The muscle cramps in my legs told the story from there.
Conclusions from above analysis:

  1. I have to approach the longer races that last through the heat of the day differently than I do any of the shorter races(50k or 50 milers).  I am no longer competitive with the people I can usually run with in those shorter races.
  2. If I push things in the heat - bad things will happen.
  3. I need to pick a colder 100 mile race.
Something else about the last four years:  There has been a pretty epic drought here in California.  Maybe I just need it to rain again...

The Why:

Why would I be more susceptible to heat than other runners?  I can think of several angles to approach this question.

  1. The big runner issue:  I am 6'3 and just shy of 200 lbs.  That is a big runner.  There is plenty of research that shows a portion of the heat shedding ability of a runner is tied to their size.  While one might think that the larger cross-sectional area of a large runner would aid in the heat dissipation abilities, it seems that any gains in this area are more than nullified by the gain in heat generation internally from the larger runner(more energy required to move more mass).  Think of an elite marathon runner.  Haile Gebreselassie is 5'5, 123 lbs.  I have never seen someone over 6 ft tall anywhere near the tiny guys at the front of the big races.
  2. The sweat issue: I sweat a lot.  While this is actually a good thing to do in the heat(that is how the body gets rid of heat), there is only so much it can help and so much capacity to sweat.  Sweating can give off 200 watts of heat.  In most cases, people have to train their bodies to be able to produce enough sweat to accomplish this type of heat dissipation.  I developed my sweating capabilities from an early age being a regular at our weekly "ultra" sauna sessions when I was a child between the ages of 8 and 12 (I'm guessing when I was first allowed to participate).  We took our sauna sessions seriously - staying in the hot until we couldn't anymore, and then cooling off in a "cold" pool.  Repeat for two hours.  I love saunas.  I don't know if this is why I am so efficient at sweating today, but it is good for my afternoon workouts or warm (shorter) races - not so good for ultra-races.  On a regular weekend long run I loose between 5 to 10 lbs of water.  I drink to thirst and feel fine afterwards - not dehydrated.  But imagine: beginning a run weighing 195 lbs and ending it at 185 - seems pretty harsh.  If I loose that much water in a regular long run, how much water can I loose in an ultra-race?  Probably not much more - because at some point the body will not have the reserves to help.  And when you stop sweating - it's bad news.  So why not drink more?  Well, that has consequences too.  If you drink too much you will dilute the salt concentration in your body and that is a bad thing.  The solution here is to slow down enough that your body is not required to sweat so much.  I have read that Tim Twietmeyer, the legendary Western States runner, would run "just slow enough" to keep from sweat accumulation.  It worked for him in hot races, and he is a pretty big guy.  But I sweat in basically any conditions while physically exerting myself.
  3. I grew up near Vienna, Austria.  I wonder if there were any epigenetic adaptations from growing up in a wetter, cloudier place that might hinder my heat shedding abilities in sunny, drought ridden California?  This one is more speculative.
So What?
    I'm not fat.  Just big boned.  Scene from the 2015 4 MPH challenge.
  1. Maybe I could loose some weight.  Less mass, less energy required, less heat to dissipate.  No thank you - I am not a calorie counter and never will be.
  2. Train more in the middle of the day to get more used to heat.  Well, for weekend long runs this does actually make a lot of sense - but I run because I love to run.  Running in heat sucks.
  3. Only sign up for races that will hopefully be cooler.  I like this approach - but the selection becomes a problem here.  Most of the good races are in the hot part of the year.
I think I just need to approach the racing calendar with a greater appreciation for my challenges in the heat.  As long as I recognize when I am putting myself in a compromised position when a hot race day comes along and make the required adjustments, I think I can save myself from a lot of discomfort.  Results won't be pretty when I decide to scale back the race effort - but this is a hit I'm willing to take.

This post is just like, my opinion, man.  I welcome any other critical analysis that one might have insight on...