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A Follow Up on My Hypothermia

It’s been a week, and I’ve had enough time to process through some thoughts on the event – the one that convinced me to quit ultramarathons.  This will probably be the longest post I’ll ever write.  Unfortunately, since the event was at night, I don’t have any photos.

The Event:

Coleen's Frozen Fat Ass Course

Coleen’s Frozen Fat Ass Course

I flew up to Kansas City to run Coleen’s Frozen Fat Ass.  So many childish jokes, even after you learn that a “fat ass” is a type of running event.  Not a race, but more organized than a social run.  I did Coleen’s Sweaty Fat Ass 18 months ago, and really enjoyed it (again, so many jokes).  The course is a 3-mile loop, all very runnable.  You can show up whenever (the event started at 7pm) and run as far as you want.  There was an aid station at the start/finish area, as well as some sheets of paper that you checked off on each time you came through.  It was their way of knowing who was still out on the trails, as well as keeping track of mileage.

The Running:
The course was going to be open for 12 hours, and I had secretly hoped to get in at least 50 miles.  Night time running with a headlamp is always a little slower paced, but I knew that if I wanted to have a shot at going sub-24 at Rocky Raccoon, I needed to be able to do 50 night miles in 12 hours.  I had hoped to catch some sleep on the flight to Kansas City, but it was completely full and I had to sit on one of the jumpseats (no sleeping allowed there!)  Oh well, I figured it was better training to be running while exhausted anyway.

I started out running with a couple of friends from KC.  After two and a half loops though, I realized that they were running slower than I liked and doing more walking than I had planned on.  I felt mildly bad, but I slowly pulled ahead and started running on my own.

I didn’t spend much time at the aid station, just checking my box on the sheet and grabbing some food for the next loop.  Despite the amazing food that they had there (lots of vegan options too!), I stuck to the stuff I had brought with me – namely dried fruit, supplemented with chugging some chocolate soy milk (I kept my water bottle full of gatorade, and didn’t run with the soy milk).  I wanted to make sure that I had fuel that would work with me at Rocky, since fuel was the biggest hurdle for me at my first 100.

Screwing the shoes

Screwing the shoes

The course had some packed snow/ice on it, and some bare spots.  I had screwed one pair of my shoes before the event, since that seems to work better than Yaktrax on mixed terrain.  If anyone’s interested in how to screw shoes, I can post about that sometime, just let me know.

After 27 miles, I spent a couple of minutes inside the heated house at the aid area.  My legs were getting really tight, and I figured it must have been from the cold.  I stretched them out a little, something I never do (I don’t stretch before or after runs).  Five minutes later, I was on my way again.  The effect of the cold was starting to wear on me.  By this time in the night (after midnight), it was 24F/-5C and the windchill put it around 14F/-10C.

After 30 miles, I was aware that I probably wouldn’t make it to 50 miles in the cold.  The course had thinned out a lot, and there were only about 5 or so runners left, down from the 135 that started.  From early on in the run, I was cogniscently aware that hypothermia could become an issue.   I decided that I would stop after 36 miles, but not before having a lengthy internal dialogue on whether I was quitting because it was smart to do so, or whether I was quitting because I was tired/sore.

As I was pulling up to the finish after 36 miles, ready to call it a day, I saw a headlamp leaving for another loop.  I knew that my friend Indi was still running, and so I decided to sprint and catch up to her, and run one more loop with her.  I started running as fast as I could to catch up to her, and was surprised at how well I was still able to move.  I thought I would be able to catch up to her relatively quickly, but I would catch a glimpse of a headlamp in the distance and then not see it again for awhile.  After about a mile, I finally caught up, only to discover that it wasn’t my friend Indi but rather some guy named Stuart (or Stewart, I didn’t ask him how he spelled his name).  He was moving along faster than I wanted to be moving, but I was able to keep up (or he slowed down enough to not make me feel bad!)  He’s a veteran 100-miler, having completed some of the toughest races in the country, like Hard Rock.  We chatted about races, and the loop went by pretty quickly.  When we got back to the aid house, Indi had just finished up her last loop and was done for the night.

All said, I ran 39 miles in a little under 8 hours (7:55 and some change, including all of the aid stops).  All of my loops, with the exception of the two where I stopped to warm up in the house, had splits within 3 or 4 minutes of each other.  Running wise, I still felt good after 39 miles.  But I was definitely cold.

The Hypothermia:
A couple loops in, after the temperature started to drop and the wind picked up considerably, I knew that hypothermia could become an issue.  I tried to remain cogniscently aware of that, and check myself routinely for symptoms.  One of the earliest symptoms is mental confusion, and I tried to remain tapped into my current mental state.  The entire run, I felt surprisingly good mentally, especially given that I had been up for 20+ hours, and running for a total of 8.

I felt cold while running, but I didn’t feel that cold.  When I stopped after 39 miles, and went inside the heated house, my legs started to shake.  I was somewhat able to control the shaking though, and since I was now inside a warm area I figured I was fine.

When I changed out of my running clothes, I noticed that the inside of my jacket was soaking wet.  What I had failed to realize is that my regular running jacket isn’t made for long distance running.  It’s just a simple nylon Nike running jacket, and while it has quite a few air vents, it doesn’t breathe incredibly well.  Over the course of 8 hours, I had managed to pretty well soak the two shirts I was wearing even though I wasn’t actively sweating.  Everyone knows that cold + wet is a bad combination.

It was now 3 something in the morning, and the earliest flight back home wasn’t until 10am.  I had time to spare, and no where really to go, so I decided to stick around and help the organizers clean up.  Coleen offered me a sleeping bag and said that I was more than welcome to crash in the house for awhile, but I declined (hindsight – bad choice!).   I stayed for probably an hour, helping clean up inside and the aid station outside. I was fine while I was moving, but when I stopped even for a few seconds, my legs started to shake again.

I got to the point where I was starting to feel a little out of it, marking it up to being tired.  I decided I should probably head up to the airport (45 minutes away), and just sleep there for a bit before my flight.  I cranked the heat in the car, and was feeling decent until I got pulled over by a cop for having a burnt out headlight.  When I rolled down the window, my arms began to shake a lot.  Not wanting to give the impression that I was on drugs, I just gripped the steering wheel hard enough to suppress the shaking while talking to the cop.  He ran my info, and let me go with a simple warning that there are lots of deer on this road, and I need to get the headlight fixed soon.

I didn’t feel very well at all on Sunday.  Massive headache, and upset stomach.  I took a nap in the afternoon once I got home, and we went out for dinner with some friends that evening.  I was pretty out of it still, and think I even might have fallen asleep once or twice at the restaurant!  Sometime during dinner, I mentioned to one of the guys that I had been shaking after the race – the first my wife had heard of it.  On the drive home, I felt incredibly sick – thinking I was going to start puking my brains out (luckily I didn’t).  When we got home, my wife shoved a thermometer in my mouth.  95.2F, some 19 hours after I had been out of the cold.

I have no idea what my temperature dropped to during the race.  But, I can be 100% certain that I had warmed up some during those 19 hours (and two long, hot showers).  According to the CDC and other websites, any temperature below 95F is a medical emergency.  Hindsight, I probably should have been driving myself straight to the hospital instead of to the airport.  I also should have quit running long before I did!

On Quitting Ultras:
Getting hypothermia while running isn’t scary to me.  What really bothers me is that I genuinely thought I was ok while I was running.  Had I tripped and fallen in one of those final loops (obviously a real possibility while running trails at night), I could have been in a world of hurt real quick.  With the runners thinned out, it easily could have been 30+ minutes before anyone would have even seen me or noticed that I wasn’t back at the aid station, and longer yet to get me out of there.  Given the state that I was in when I finished, I would hate to have seen what I would have looked like if I sat outside for even 20 minutes in my wet clothes.

In ultras, you have to be able to push your body to the extreme.  But, there’s also a line between pushing far enough to finish the race and pushing too far.  I obviously don’t know my body well enough to not push too far.  And that’s what is making me step back from ultras, at least for awhile.  There’s too much room for critical errors.  It’s just not worth it to me.  So, I’ll take a step back and focus on some shorter distances for awhile (whatever those end up being, since even a marathon is shorter than 100).  I may come back to ultras in a few years, I may not.  If I don’t learn how to be in tune with my body, then I won’t.  It’s that simple.

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6 Comments

  1. sushismith says:

    Wow, I admire your ability to realize that you may not be ready for a 100 miler yet. That must be a really hard decision to make, but I am glad you wrote about it because sometime in the near future I want to sign up for a 50 miler and hopefully after that, a 100 miler. But your post reminded me that this is something I need to take VERY seriously, and also to take my time. I have my whole life to achieve my goals, and there’s no need to rush if I’m not ready.

    • Despite everything I said, I’m probably still going to run the Rocky Raccoon in 3 weeks. I’ve already completed one 100 miler, and it was on a lot more rugged terrain than Rocky is. But, after that, I’ll be done with ultras for awhile!

      Most people are more in tune with their bodies than I am with mine. If you know your limits, then sign up for that 50 miler!

  2. I’ve never attempted an ultra, but I would definitely be worried about pushing my body too far if I did. Thanks for sharing.

  3. happytrigirl says:

    Well written! This sounds like the best decision you’ve made and great reflection on it too. I admire the race you ran!! Bam!!

  4. Jill says:

    I admire you strength to realize that this situation is scary enough to warrant a little time out until you can figure out more of the details of your body! It’s a tough pill to swallow, the 100s are in your blood I think :), but your life is WAY more important. I saw above that you’ll still do Rocky. And I think you will be perfectly fine there. The weather should be (hopefully) warmer and there’ll be plenty of people at Rocky to help you in the off chance something should happen – it’s a really large race (for an ultra!).

    Fun (not) fact: my coach did Leadville 100 two years ago. He was in like 5th place (? forget the place, but it was pretty high up there) and when the sun drops in Colorado at 11,000′, it gets damn cold. He refused an extra layer at the last aid station because he didn’t want to spend the extra minute to put it on. During the last few miles, he got severe hypothermia. At the start of the last mile, he was ahead of the guy behind him by 8 minutes. The guy finished ahead of him by 21 minutes. That’s how severe it was. So scary.

    He (the coach) does a podcast on ‘Endurance Planet’ called “Ask the Coaches” (it’s on FB, where you ask questions)…you should ask his take and experience on hypothermia.

    Great job on the run in KS though, that’s a pretty impressive time for night time running in the cold!!

  5. Indi says:

    And I found your blog again 🙂 I will see you in a week! No hypothermia in Huntsville and please let my crew know if you need anything!

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