It’s not the severe cold that gets you

You’re a runner, you’ve been through this. It’s colder than usual, maybe really cold — like the deer are at your fire pit building a pyre out of squirrels — and you’re headed out for a run. (I know, I know, didn’t I just blog about not running out in the snow? Yes, I did. But that was about surface dangers, not the cold itself. I’ll gladly run on a freezing day outside if I can be reasonably sure the surface won’t help me break an ankle and relive the tragic, haunting end of some Jack London character.)

I like to tell people that really cold days aren’t a problem. If you know it’s cold, you feel the cold, you prepare for it and, generally, you wear a little bit too much clothing. I’m not afraid of the -10 to 35 range at all. I can think of no races I’ve run in the 20s where I wasn’t actually too hot due to being a little overdressed.

It’s the 35-50 range that scares me.

That’s because 35-50 is a temperature range where most of us feel very comfortable running in just a t-shirt and shorts, but a long effort, a bit of rain, high humidity, or unexpected winds can suddenly give you hypothermia. Especially if you’re built like I am, and you’ve got a lot of surface area and very little mass.

Scary hypothermia story one

My first acquaintance with this danger zone came in the 1984 Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota. Pictured below, you see my dad keeping me upright somewhere in the last 1.5 – 2 miles of the race. He looked over at me at that point and saw that I was still running, but I was doubled over at the waist, running like carpenter’s square. He asked me, “Are you OK.”

“Yes.” I responded.

And that’s the problem with hypothermia. It not only endangers your life, it makes you into a complete idiot, incapable of making the kind of good judgment calls that might just be necessary to stay alive. In a big marathon like this, someone’s going to step up and get you help, but imagine you’re out in a more sparsely populated trail race. Imagine you don’t just wipe out on the trail but first take a wrong term off course, where no one’s going to come across you. You can see how things could get ugly.

My dad likes to say he wasn’t really too worried until I looked at him and said, “You know what? I really love you, Dad.” That his teenage kid was demented enough to say that, he claims, scared the Hell out of him.

I did several things wrong in that 1984 Grandma’s. We dressed for the forecast, which as I remember was for temperatures to rise into the 60s. That didn’t happen, and we didn’t have a plan B. Also a factor, no such thing as technical fabric. We wore cotton and nylon, like those sweet short shorts I’ve got cranked way up in that photo. I’m not sure what that USA singlet I’ve got tucked in (tucked in!) to those shorts was made of, but I guarantee it had a nipple-sanding factor of at least 8. Everything back then did.

Another big mistake: no nutrition. It was the good old days, meaning we all considered it a pussy move to drink too much water, let alone use energy products, of which there was only one that I remember at the time. I recall it’s being called “Erg,” which is convenient, because it’s the sound of the retching noise you thought you would make if you drank this vomit-worthy stuff. So back then, you survived on what reserves you had. As for gels or powerbars or jello-shots, ha! They didn’t exist. Unlike today, people weren’t out on their lawns giving you bananas, oranges, grapes, and bacon.

Therefore, “The Wall” was really a wall for some of us. El-freaky-Capitan, senor. As you can see from that above picture, I had zero fat reserves, so once my glycogen was gone, that was it. That day, I not only burned out my energy stores running all those miles (for which I would say I was moderately undertrained), but we all had to contend with a persistent tailwind (which masks its cooling effect) and high humidity. It required more fuel than I had, and when my body kept diverting that fuel to run, well, the whole temperature regulation thing took a back seat, with predictable results.

After the finish, they tossed me in the medical tent. Everyone looked kind of worried is all I can remember. That and the doctor telling me that I had probably set the course record at that point for lowest body temperature. I want to say I was 90 degrees or so, but I doubt I remember it well. I do remember that it only took an hour or so of being under blankets with hot soup and warm water bottles (or did I imagine those?) until I was up, limping along on my hard-earned case of marathon quads.

Let that sink in again: The temperatures were in the 40-50 range, and I got a raging case of hypothermia.

Scary hypothermia story two

I mention bananas, oranges, grapes and bacon because last year (2013) I ran Grandma’s with my twin brother, and those things saved his bacon. He believed (He knows better now.) that too much in the way of energy products gave him calf cramps. So, he brought along only a pack or two of energy blocks. He also decided against wearing his calf sleeves even though he’d been having calf issues. Along about mile 16, when it was in the 50s, misting, and slightly breezy, one calf began giving him trouble, stiffening up, threatening to cramp. That meant some walking breaks. That meant he got colder faster. Too cold.

I knew it when he looked at me and said, “I’m cold.”

The words don’t convey the sentiment. He had said it with a slight twinge of surprised humor, but I could sense the worry behind it.

But thank Jeebus he told me. If I hadn’t known he was in a downward temperature spiral, I couldn’t have helped, perhaps until it was too late.

He was bonking on the energy reserves, but the weather wasn’t helping either. It wasn’t as crazy a cooldown as in 2012, where we had 75 degrees at the start and 55 at the finish, but Lake Superior was definitely doing its thing, keeping temperatures low, much lower than forecasts for, say, the airport, a few miles inland, would have indicated.

At the time, as the fog obscured the road ahead, I had a flashback to that picture above. I didn’t want to have to haul my brother in like my Dad did me, especially since we were still 7 miles out. By that point, I was a veteran of 30+ marathons, and I knew a few tricks to dealing with unwanted cooling. I also knew from all that experience that despite the temperatures, I was OK. So, step one, I tried to get him to take my shirt (wet as it was) to use as a base layer under his t-shirt. Even a little bit less direct cooling with the wind would have helped him out. But, he refused. I can’t blame him – the smell must have been lovely. But I think he was worried that his skinny brother would get too cold. I gave up trying to convince him to take it.

Next, I tried to get him to eat. I usually eat a ton on the run, even (especially) during PR attempts. This day, I was trying to train my body to go without, so I had brought only a couple of emergency gels, and I hadn’t used them. I tried to get him to eat one. No go. He thought they’d make him puke.

I finally convinced him to take a quarter of a banana from an aid station, not only for the energy, but because, in my experience, it settles the running stomach. (Seriously, folks, have one before the race and reduce your seated usage of the porta-Johns. You know what I mean.)

After he ate the banana, his stomach did settle, and soon, I got a gel into him. So far so good. He was no longer getting slower and didn’t seem to be getting worse. I convinced him to take a couple of orange slices from another stop. That helped more. At this point, stumping along at a 9 minute pace with intermittent walking breaks to rest the cramping calf, we were at least into Duluth proper, where the awesome locals were on their lawns, meaning you didn’t have to go 2 miles without a recharge. At this point, I began ping-ponging across the course, sampling whatever the fans were handing out. Peanut butter toast at one point. He didn’t bite on that.

I went for bacon next. He looked at me like I was crazy, but I pulled of the gristly fat bits and demonstrated that the crispy, salty meaty parts were not only easy to get down, but delicious, and would probably help with his mineral depletion. He was all over that, and it helped. I had suspected his appetite would return if he got a little food in him and his body stopped feeling so wretched, and it was working. Soon, he was a remorseless eating machine. I skipped off to the sides for grapes, donut chunks, nuts, whatever. He didn’t eat it all. That’s fine. He ate enough to get going again and restart his internal heater. And that’s what mattered.

I can’t remember if I found an illicit beer stop or not. (After 45 marathons, some details get hazy, even if you don’t stop for beer.) I wouldn’t have shared anyway since I like beer, and since alcohol accelerates hypothermia. (It’s great for clearing the sports gel taste out of your mouth late in the race, however. I’ve run some of my fastest times despite – or maybe because – I’ve hit the local hashers’ beer table.)

We eventually finished up just fine. The last mile into Canal Park seemed to take forever as the wind picked up and the rain started. We didn’t get the time he’d been shooting for, but to come back from The Walking Dead like that and finish in 4:30-ish is a checkmark in the win column by my standards.

Scary hypothermia story three

So, let the record show that if someone’s there to help you out, you can recover from your impending hypothermia (2013), or at least, maybe, get stumbled along until you cross the finish line and they slap you in the medial tent, stick a thermometer up your ass and stand there looking worried (1984).

My return to marathoning after 1984 took 24 years. It was nothing to do with the hypothermia thing or any kind of tragedy-induced marathon phobia. It was just that running wasn’t a priority for me during that time, and even when I got back to it later, I didn’t think I could devote the kind of time it takes to properly train for a marathon. However, in 2007, my wife wanted to check the marathon box on the bucket list. She’s too healthy to actually have a kick-the-bucket list, mind you. I, on the other hand, had had a couple of scary brushes with doom, and I thought it would be nice to try the marathon again and work on the accomplishment together. (Though we wouldn’t run together, as I’m still a bit faster, though she’s the better athlete.)

We decided to run the Twin Cities Marathon, as I knew it was beautiful, and the weather’s usually good.

In 2008, we got a 45 degree start, followed by an hour and a half of torrential downpour. This was a real, live, mid-summer type thunderstorm, with thunder that crept up from the ground through your bones and loosened your bowels, lightning to highlight the boiling clouds above, and so much water coursing through the streets that you could feel the current pulling at your ankles.

Yes, in places, it was ankle deep.

And that, I think, is how my shoe came untied, even though I had double double-knotted them. That’s not a typo. I had double knotted them 2x. I think the water made them pull loose, so that at about exactly the halfway point, I had to pull off to the sidewalk and tie my shoe.

But I couldn’t remember how to tie a shoe.

And then, I heard this little conversation.

“Hey, how come we’re not running anymore?”

“I don’t know. Oh wait, we need to tie our shoe.”

“Fingers feel too cold to get the job done.”

“What does the knot look like again?”

That’s when I, as a bystander in this conversation, all of which was taking part inside my own head, broke in and said, “Oh shit. You’ve got hypothermia.”

I got the shoe tied and started running, but I was running scared. The rain had completely upset my clothing plan. I’d been smarter than at Grandma’s in 1984. I’d run the first couple miles with a long-sleeve shirt, then tossed it when I was warmed up. But I no longer had that extra layer, and if I had, it would have been a soaking-wet mass of cotton, probably not so helpful.

I was still better prepared. I gobbled a couple of my gels in the next two miles. I drafted groups of runners to stay out of the remaining wind. And, luckily, it stopped raining and the clouds even began to break up. The temperature warmed slightly and I reminded myself to drink a couple of calorie-rich sports drinks at every stop from there on out. By the time we got to 27th Avenue and crossed the Mississippi, I was no longer feeling cold, and I didn’t feel delirious. The voices in my head had not returned. And I felt great because I was running a stretch of River Road that had been my home turf for a couple of years – in fact I’d lived right on the corner of the 27th Avenue bridge.

I was fatigued, I hit the wall, I fought through it, screamed that last downhill toward the Cathedral, and I felt great. And then I stopped. I was stiff, but my kneecaps jumped around like pinballs caught between bumpers as my leg muscles ramped up into a set of shivering spasms. I grabbed my gear bag and limped straight for the nearest tent to get out of the cold, out of wet clothes, and into something warm and dry. It happened to be the massage tent.

I walked to the front of the line to tell the staff that I needed to get out of the cold as quickly as I could, and to this day, it’s the only time I’ve had a nasty experience with a fellow marathoner. As I was standing there, trying to get the staffer’s attention, some dick, excuse me D-I-C-K in the line got his panties in a bundle. I told him that I wasn’t trying to Bogart his massage. I just needed to get out of the wind so I could change and not become a case for the medical tent. When the attendant overheard me, she hauled me in, and instead of having to change in a corner, she helped me get to a massage table and she helped me out of my gear and into dry clothes, then went and got me something warm to drink. She told me I could rest there under blankets if I wanted, but I didn’t want to delay the Dick’s massage, so I thanked her and walked out, chilly, but no longer in a downward spiral.

Cool story bro. Does it ever end?

This seems like a good spot for that.

In my 40-some marathons since Twin Cities, 2008, I haven’t gotten hypothermic, at least never enough to notice. And I run in a lot of chilly races. There are a few reasons for that.

  • I eat a ton on the run. I will bring 6-7 gels with me for a marathon, and grab more along the way. You never know if you’ll need it, and you may need to help out a fellow runner who didn’t pack enough calories.
  • I pay more attention to the forecast and plan for the worst. Hope for the best, but prepare for the opposite. I usually run hot and I don’t like being too warm when I run. But I always err on the side of too hot for cold-weather marathons. If it’s going to be in the 40s, I’m fine with a t-shirt. But if there’s wind, I layer a sleeveless wicking layer underneath. It’s just enough to keep the wind off without getting too hot, and you can always peel off a layer if you need to.
  • I fear the minor cold more than the heat. I run trail marathons and 50ks in Virginia when it’s 80 degrees without batting an eyelash. I’ll do long runs on 90-degree days with no worries. I’ll do 4 to 6 on the 100 degree days when it’s humid: I’m careful, but I’m not terrified. I find cold to be much more dangerous. Here’s why: When it’s hot, you know it the whole time, and you slow down and drink more. When it’s cold, you feel fine until you’re not, and then it gets nasty. With very few exceptions, overheating or dehydration are self-limiting conditions. Collapse, stop running, and crawl into the shade, and you’ll cool down. (I run along a creek in the summer so if I get hot I can sit in the shallows and cool down very quickly.) On the other hand, on a cold day, if you collapse, crawl into the ditch with not enough clothes on, well, they are going to find your chilly blue corpse the next day (or your raccoon-nibbled, brown corpse a couple of weeks later).
  • I take the trash bag along. On cold marathon mornings, I always use a throwaway shirt and at least one trash bag poncho over the head. Don’t poke armholes, they let out your warm air. On really cold days, make a skirt out of a second one. They keep you a lot warmer than you would otherwise be.
  • I keep the trash bag along. If I’m at all worried about wind or rain, or if I’m running with a little injury that might flare up, I keep the poncho trash bag on me as an emergency shelter. Wad it up and stuff it down your shorts, in your calf sleeves, whatever. Better to look like you’re sporting a strange growth than to freeze if you get hypothermia on the run or need to stop and walk a couple miles to the nearest aid station.

TL/DR: You’re more likely to get hypothermia on a not-so-cold day because you won’t be prepared. For long runs, take layers, and eat more.

As I was typing this, my brother called me about registration for Marine Corps Marathon (See how tough marathoners are? His last one was nearly a DNF and he’s back at it.) I told him about this blog post and he told me that when he had to endure a day of rain while kayaking in Palau years ago, he got mild hypothermia though the temperature was in the 70s.

I repeat: long day of exercise – adequate clothes + surprisingly cool weather = hypothermia.


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