A Perspective on Heat Training for the Badwater Ultramarathon

I would never be hotter during the actual event than I was throughout my over-dressed training run/walks in the month before the race. One in particular, two weeks before the race, and the last of my extreme heat training, was the pinnacle of my suffering.

In the heat of the early afternoon I went out wearing a T-shirt, sweatshirt, thick insulated Navy working jacket, topped with a thick non-breathable dark green raincoat, sweatpants, and a cold weather hat, and gloves. The temp was about 90 with close to 100% humidity. I had driven to a point along a climb just before my run and placed a cooler full of ice and water in the tall weeds just off the road. As I was stepping over the guardrail, a vehicle sped past going down the mountain with the driver taking note of the situation, peering back through the rear view mirror.

The majority of my training miles in the month before were done slightly over-dressed, with about 2 heavily over-dressed sessions a week thrown in. On runs when I opted for quality mileage and ran just slightly over-dressed, I ran in the heat of the day. All of my runs were to include at least slightly higher than normal heat to build an overall tolerance to it. Even in the evenings and late at night when I went on my routine fast paced enjoyment runs with Thor, I’d opt to enjoy the humidity wearing a little more than usual.

My approach was to learn to accept the heat, “embrace it” as my crew for the race, Fred Vance, had told me in the month before. And as a cool weather mountain runner, I accepted the heat and learned to like it and deal with it. Aside from that, the heavily over-dressed training would physically teach my body to adapt to the rigors of heat.

From the start of this afternoon run I felt strong despite the weight of the heavy clothes as I immediately began to climb one of the many long, steep, San Francisco like streets. I remembered what I learned throughout the month of heat adaptation, “pace is critical”. Strength and comfort will decrease shockingly fast in the heat. A lesson I had learned the hard way a few times in the last month.

And on the bright side, it would end, the time “would” come when I could throw off the heavy clothes and once again feel the comforts of cool air. Hours away, but it would come. Hours away didn’t seem tolerable at times, like telling a drowning person they’ll be able to breathe in a few hours. Monotonous. Part of the mental toughening aspect of it all. Enduring.

After the steep climb out of Bluefield, I began the steep 2-mile climb up the mountainside to the scenic overlook at 3,400 feet. The windy road up was what I thought would be almost a carbon copy of the windy steep ascents of the Badwater course that I had read about, only shorter. The climb up and over, down and back up the mountain is one of my many regular routes anyhow.

With hindsight now, I was correct, the roads were very much alike, only those at Badwater steeper in places. About a mile up, I started walking slowly. This was the hottest I had been in my training and I wasn’t feeling well. Not far from the top I made my way through the knee high grass and weeds to the cooler and looked around. Not there. This was the spot. I was somewhat ticked off to say the least, and even more had been really looking forward to the cold water and ice.

Stepping over the guardrail I thought, “Maybe, just maybe it’s this next spot of weeds where I put the cooler.” I was sure my cooler had been stolen though, “It was a nice cooler”. A few steps into the weeds, just 10 yards from the first spot, was my cooler. A welcome sight. Not just because of the water, but because I still had my cooler. I collapsed to my knees in the dried straw and briers where I filled my bottles with ice, water, grassy sticks and pollen. The point in real endurance where a person stops being a normal person and becomes more like an animal, not caring the slightest about the many pieces of grass and who knows what throughout the ice and water andgulps it all down in great haste. Then topped off my bottles. The climb continued slowly up to the top and then down the Virginia side of the mountain a ways.

I was walking very slowly, nauseated, exhausted, robbed of my strength. In the heat I was overcome by the vile smell of a dead animal carcass rotting in the unrelenting Eastern heat wave, carelessly thrown over the steep bank with lot’s of other human trash. A 1/2 mile down the other side I turned left off the main road and began a very steep climb straight up a rugged, rocky ATV road that climbs around 300 feet in a fifth-of-a-mile. So steep, so hot, with the heat pouring off the dark gravel, I made my way about 10 yards at a time, pausing a few seconds then onward.

Finally reaching the top of the mountain with it’s high towers and antennas along the snakelike ridge. From there I began an even steeper descent back down another rockier trail to the road below again. The two roads form a triangle, both starting less than a fourth-of-a-mile apart down on the main paved road, and then converging at the same point on the ridge at the top of the mountain. On my regular routes here, I run up one, down the other, turn around and climb the one I had just descended to the top again and descend back down the first climb again. A monotonous triangle pattern I ran over and over, up and down while training for Barkley. This day I would only run the triangle pattern once, then return over the mountain back home. When I descended to the main road I did an about face in the middle of the road and started to climb again. I was so exhausted and run down, I climbed a few yards at a time bent over, hands on hips, head hanging down looking at my feet, to tired to look upright, stretching out with long, slow walking strides. Shortly up the very steep second climb I was overcome by the exhaustion and collapsed under some sticks and bushes along the side in the shade. I was breathing very deeply. Gasping for air as if it would cool me off. I laid on my stomach stretched out, but there was no relief, no air. I sat right back up and stretched my legs out in front of me. First one, then the other. No matter what I did I couldn’t sit still. Like a person under water struggling with no air, thrashing about, I felt is if I was suffocating. I could only sit still a matter of seconds and the panic would set in and I’d have to move. Lean back, sit up, put my legs out, pull them back up to my chest, nothing I could do would relieve the monotony of the heat. My mind felt heavy with thoughts racing through it. My breathing was labored. For the first time in all my training I realized I could die.

I wasn’t going to, surely, but people die from heat exhaustion all the time. And just because I was enduring extreme heat with a purpose didn’t make me immune to the laws of the mortal human body. All along there was one act I could have done to instantly relieve the monotony, to have undone my jackets and thrown off my clothes. I craved to do it. It would have been like reaching the surface and taking a big breath of air. I needed to do it. But I wouldn’t accept it. There would be no escaping the heat in Death Valley, and to tolerate it and overcome it would be very hard. To make it back home without giving in and enduring this heat would be what I call tough. In the collapsed condition I was in, that very relief would be even hours more away than I had planned, but I had to endure. My face clinched in discomfort I sat there and accepted my pain as something I could not change. Like a fish out of water, my breath became less frequent, more shallow, and my movement gradually ceased. The dry ground saturated with drops of sweat all around, all covered in dust had stuck to my wet clothes. I just wanted to go back home to my cats and dogs who were much much smarter than I. I concentrated on the joys of just sitting still in the shade, the joy of each deep breath. A minute passed, then another, and I did cool off some, at least internally. Always present was the heavy, wet, hot insulation of the four layers of clothes, my forehead was hot to the touch, my outer external surface burning, but inwardly, I was cooling. My breathing returned to normal, and I reached a point of comfort and stillness sitting in the dust.

Eventually I moved on, yards at a time again, up to the top once more finally. Then back down the first climb of the triangle to the paved road, and back up the overlook slowly, concentrating on minimal effort. Going down the other side I drank the rest of the water and ice at my cooler, endured many looks from people and slowly made my way down the mountain and down the hills back home to where it came, the time when I could throw off those heavy, soaked clothes. Instant relief. It felt so good.

If I wasn’t ready to at least mentally endure the heat of Badwater, then I never would be. These small adventures weren’t merely training runs, but small feats of endurance themselves to be reckoned with. I thank JESUS for the strength and safety granted me.

The 4th of July I ran a blistering, for me, pace in a late afternoon Wilderness 8k in 95 degree heat and humidity down a steep mountain road and then up the mountain 1000 + feet on a rutted ATV trail without hardly the slightest bit of effects from the heat. I drank lots and finished 2nd overall, 6 seconds behind 1st, in 25 minutes and some seconds. I felt very strong, and had truly physically adapted to heat.

My last training runs were after midnight runs with Thor in the cool of the night where I had seemingly endless strength up and down the steep streets.

I had done all I could to prepare for Badwater.