Many of us are already running in temperatures above 75 degrees Fahrenheit. But two days before this race, on my early morning run, I was wearing long sleeves in 40 degrees. Then I saw the race-day forecast: 90+ degrees and sunny on race day. What? Where are my running shorts? Tank tops? Okay, I knew where they were, but they were dusty.
I have now run this race three times. I knew what to expect. Shuttle buses take runners from the finish in Old Town Alexandria, VA to the start 10 miles south at Mount Vernon. It is super easy to find parking, though this year a generous parking lot was offered up for the runners’ use. At 6:20 am, I parked on the street (behind the coffee shop – so I could get a cup after I was done – easy!) and walked the four short blocks to the lines of runners and buses.
The bus ride seems long, and covers most of the course, which follows (duh) the George Washington Parkway. I was at the start by 7am. Start time was 8am. I wandered down to the port-o-potties and went through the lines at least three times. (What else did I have to do? I did do a brief warm up between waits.) The organizers seem to have added some johns this year because the lines were short(ish) and moved quickly. Excellent.
More than 4,000 runners participated this year. And, a side note, the majority (around 2,100) were women. Hell, yeah!
By 8am, it was almost 80 degrees, and the sun was way up. I admit, it psyched me out a bit. I do not like running in the heat, which is why I try to run at 6am or earlier in the summer months. The Washington DC area is nasty hot. But this race day had, as they say, a “dry heat,” not really a summer-like day for DC, which would be, oh, 80 or 90 percent humidity.
The course is hilly. Non-runners say, “Oh, you’re starting on a hill, so it is all downhill, right?” Nope, nope, nope. Don’t believe them. Sure, the first mile is almost all downhill. But then the rolling starts. No hill is steep, and fast times are possible, but it is not an easy, flat course.
I was drenched in sweat after mile 1. I sweat a lot as it is (thanks, Dad), but my body was also not ready for running in 80 degrees.
Last year, runners were spread across the four lanes of the parkway. This year, we snaked through the shade, when there was shade. Now and then, when the road was closer to the Potomac River, a cool breeze came up. That was nice.
And I was fine, until mile 6, when I had to talk myself out of stopping. Early on in my running “career,” during every race, I’d have a conversation with myself (not out loud, don’t worry, I’m not that wacky, at least not in company):
“I could stop right now,” I shrug.
“Nah, don’t stop. You can do this,” without much enthusiasm.
“But why? I don’t have to,” I reply.
And I always kept going. (With one exception in the late 1990s, when the Central Park course of a 10-miler was covered in ice, I bailed after the first 5-mile loop.)
This conversation came up for the first time in years. But I kept going.
And I still felt fine, if a bit tired (and soaked). All of the runners around me looked hot and tired. No one looked perky. I kept looking for exceptions and found none. Those faring the worst were men taller than average and more than 160 pounds. They looked close to miserable. And we were “the front of the middle of the pack” (around 7:30-8:00 miles). Maybe the front runners looked perky. But we all seemed to be keeping an even and decent pace.
At mile 8.5, a police officer said, “A runner is down in the road ahead. Watch out.”
I thought, “Oh, someone fell. Sprained ankle?”
We passed a man, who looked to be in his mid 40s, with two EMS providers attending to him. He was talking loudly. Rather, he was trying to talk. His speech was slurred, and he was floppy, slumped to one side. I assume his collapse was caused by the heat. Scary.
I said to the runner next to me, “That does not sound good.” And he agreed. (I hope the downed runner is okay. I’ve looked for race news and found no mention of a seriously injured or ill runner.)
I did not want that to happen to me. At the 9-mile mark, I saw I’d run my slowest mile of the race. (But then my last mile was my fastest, 7:28, go figure.)
So, running in the heat? How does a body adjust? The advice I’ve found includes cutting down the distance and/or pace as temperatures climb to let the body adjust. Then you can build back up. For me, the shift seems to happen naturally through May and June. Sunday’s dry 80 degrees will not seem so bad in July.
But what do you do when a race is suddenly much, much hotter than what your body is prepared for? Well, you slow down and hydrate. I didn’t necessarily heed that advice. My finish time was within my usual range. And I had little control over the hydration; as in any race, organizers set up only the water stations they set up. They don’t seem to add them when the day is unexpectedly hot (probably a volunteer issue).
So be it. I survived just fine. And I’ll run it again next year. But I will hope for the drizzle and mist of 2008’s race.