Runners who enjoyed the mild start to May were reminded Wednesday morning that conditions can get uncomfortable and downright dangerous quickly. And more likely than not, tough temperature and humidity will be a factor for the next few months.
Nowhere was that more apparent than at the ACLI Capital Challenge in Anacostia Park, an annual three-mile race that gathers a collection of runners and non-runner colleagues, game for the competition, from the three branches of government and the media.
Race director Jeff Darman always brings an abundance of caution to the event, including extra medical personnel and three defibrillators spread across the course to attend to the VIPs taking part. This year, finishers included Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark), John Cornyn(R-Texas), and Tammy Duckworth(D-Ill.); Reps. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Susan Davis (D-Calif.), Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.), Tim Walz (D-Minn.), and Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.); a number of judges; and hundreds more staffers.
But it was two competitors who didn’t finish who brought mainstream media attention to the race and reminded runners that they should recognize the perils of running in high heat and humidity.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) collapsed in the third mile, gathering the bulk of the attention. In a video posted to Twitter from the hospital, the Tillis declared: “I’m fine!… Got overheated. No CPR, no special measures.”
Another man, Tommy Mourad, had a medical emergency on the course and was taken to Washington Hospital Center via helicopter. He was resting in the hospital Wednesday evening and “a positive outcome is expected,” according to a media release by his employers. Mourad is the Director of Guide Dog Training Operations at the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, the race’s beneficiary organization.
Prior to the race, Darman says he met with the medical team to discuss the temperatures. Runners are never more than a half-mile from medical staff, but they focused on the finish line, which he finds to be the most common site of struggle in any race conditions.
“We talked about being really keen that the finish line people knew where the medical people were,” he says. “Just being really vigilant because if it got hot, to be ready.”
At the start, he says, he reminded runners, “It’s hot here, please keep that in mind.”
Despite these precautions, the heat still proved a major challenge.
Later in the day, Tillis tweeted again from his office thanking the first responders and good Samaritans who came to his aid. One of those good Samaritans, TJ Cooney, was relieved and impressed by the Senator’s resilience.
“He went to work today,” Cooney marveled. “So like, holy shit.”
Cooney, a video producer at AARP and casual runner, approached the race by hydrating, stretching, and having a potassium-rich banana for breakfast. He was enjoying the race despite the conditions, until he noticed another runner faint on the side of the course. The former lifeguard and veteran of “high-pressure roles” reacted instinctively to a person collapsing.
“You gotta be the guy that stays calm,” he says. He called 911 while another runner, whom Cooney believes was an off-duty police officer, attended to the man on the ground. (Despite Tillis’ reassurances, Cooney says the other runner did perform CPR.) Tillis regained consciousness when medical personnel arrived, and Cooney was surprised to hear his Southern accent.
As EMTs prepared to transport the Tillis to the hospital, Cooney shook his hand and reassured him, “You’re ok. You’re in good hands,” then continued the race.
Heat will stick around
With temperatures forecast in the 90s Friday, runners should remember to take extra precautions to prevent dehydration, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. It takes time to acclimate to big temperature changes, so this heat wave may even be more demanding on runners’ bodies than similar conditions in August.
Tammy Whyte, a coach for Potomac River Running’s 101 and 201, planned to adjust her group’s Thursday evening track workout to account for the temperatures. She recommends the same for others.
“Typically when it’s warm like this, a few things we caution runners. One is to slow down, listen to your body. Definitely hydrate as you’re running…. I think those are the biggest things,” she says.
For the metric-minded who might have a goal pace for their workout, “Don’t try to hit that pace,” she urges. She recommends online tools like this temperature-based pace calculator to help runners match their effort with the heat or humidity.
At their workout, Whyte will monitor her athletes closely to catch them before they experience the nausea, lightheadedness, and cramps of dehydration or, worse, the clammy skin and “loopiness” of heat stroke. She emphasizes communication whether on the track or a long run. She’ll check in with runners frequently and stop anyone who exhibits symptoms.
“I probably will, tomorrow, just bring Gatorade myself,” she says. “Electrolytes also can help [fight dehydration].”
Ultimately, “if something’s not feeling right, then [runners] need to sit down, they need to sit one out until they feel better,” she emphasizes.
Preparing to race
Temperatures should be more comfortable by this weekend’s races, but runners can sabotage a successful race if they’re not careful during this heat wave. Whyte will be at running the Capitol Hill Classic on Sunday and preparing for it in the heat. She’ll be hydrating with water and electrolyte drinks between now and then, and trying to mentally prepare for the challenge of the shifting temperatures.
“The hardest thing about when it gets really hot like this, especially the first couple times, it just takes your body a couple weeks to get used to the heat,” she reminds us. “It’s really [about] just slowing down, drinking lots of water, [and] mentally preparing yourself for the fact that you may not have your best race because it’s going to be hot and your body’s not ready for it.” She admits this will be a challenge even for her, as she was hoping to PR at the 10k.
Darman encourages race directors to stay attentive and revisit their procedures year by year and just before each race to keep participants as safe as possible. Equally important is communication between volunteers, staff, and EMTs. But running always carries some risk, so he hopes race participants bring a bit of caution and common sense on hot days.
“It’s not a day to go out and do your personal best,” he says, echoing Whyte.
If you do encounter another runner who seems to be in distress, Cooney urges his fellow runners to ask if the person is ok. It’s not nosy, he emphasizes, to help another person.
“Even if you can’t administer the help, you can get somebody else who can,” he says. “Often times, [people in crisis] are people who can’t ask for help themselves.”