TOC humidity
Christine Cessar wipes her face dry after a particularly rough and humid run. Photo: Marleen van den Neste

Editor’s note: This was originally published in 2016, but this seems like a good time to revisit it.

Summertime in DC: stepping out the front door is like stepping into a sauna. You don’t generally notice air, but today its presence is palpable and oppressive, a thick cloud that weighs on you and seems to stall your forward progress. Within seconds you’re sweating buckets, water pouring off you in all directions. What is this torture?

It’s not the heat; it’s the humidity.

“I hate it,” said Chelsea Cox, who lives in D.C. and competed in the 800 meters at the 2016 USA Track and Field Indoor Championships. “It’s just miserable to me, especially when the heat gets high.”

Humidity’s misery comes from its disruption of the body’s cooling system. “The basic mechanism by which we cool ourselves in the heat is by sweating,” said Dustin Slivka, an exercise physiologist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. But, “Sweating alone doesn’t cool our body. What cools our body is the evaporation of the sweat off our skin.” When the air is already saturated with water–as on humid days–the water on our skin has nowhere to go. “When there’s high humidity that sweat is less likely to evaporate off our skin. It’s more likely to just roll of us and create a puddle, which does us no good from a thermoregulation cooling standpoint,” Slivka said.

And if your body isn’t cooling properly, running becomes a struggle. More blood is shunted to the skin in a fruitless attempt to release some of the heat through sweat, but this means less blood is sent to the muscles. The result? You slow down.

But perhaps it’s not all bad. “In order to get adaptations in the body, you have to stress it,” said Santiago Lorenzo, who competed in the decathlon at the 2004 Olympics and is now an exercise physiologist and professor at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine-Bradenton in Florida. One well-known method of stress is to spend a few weeks living or training at altitude. Runners flock to places like Flagstaff, Ariz. or Boulder, Colo. to breathe in the less oxygenated air and force their bodies to make do. They return to sea level with tougher, stronger systems — full of more red blood cells to carry oxygen to working muscles faster — and, they hope, improved race times.

Some say humidity is the poor man’s altitude. Might our struggles in the summer stuffiness pay off in a similar way come fall?

Although humidity hasn’t been well studied, we do know that exercising in the heat — the other half of the DMV’s brutal summer combo — can lead to big improvements in performance.

While in graduate school at the University of Oregon, Lorenzo studied if heat acclimation improves cyclists’ performance. Compared to doing all workouts in ideal conditions, he showed that doing some easy rides in the heat–while still doing the harder, intense workouts in cooler temperatures–improved time trial performance by 8 percent in hot conditions and 6 percent in cool conditions. (An 8 percent improvement would mean a 2-minute PR for a 25-minute 5k runner.) The hotter sessions forced the athletes’ bodies to adapt by increasing blood volume, cardiac function, and sweat rate and these improvements boosted performance no matter the temperature.

However, temperature was the only variable in the study; humidity was low in all the conditions. Adding the element of humidity is next on many researchers lists, but hasn’t yet been investigated.

Still, Lorenzo suspects humidity could have advantages, just as heat does, by stressing the body and forcing it to work a bit harder.

“In a way [humidity] could even be beneficial,” he said. “You’re not able to cool your body off as efficiently because of the high humidity, but in the end your body will keep trying to adapt. In that process your thermoregulatory system will keep being pushed to be improved.”

Christopher Minson, a physiologist at the University of Oregon and Lorenzo’s graduate school advisor, is currently studying overdressing, the non-D.C. man’s humidity. By wearing additional layers, you block the evaporative cooling effect. Many athletes use this technique to prep for hot weather races. (Maegan Krifchin, of Silver Spring, did this ahead of her seventh place finish in this year’s steamy Olympic Trials marathon.)

Minson suspects overdressing (and, by correlation, humidity) causes some adaptations by raising the body’s core temperature. When the body temperature rises, it activates proteins that help create the physiological changes and adaptations. “We think a large part of the adaptation to training in the heat is getting your core temperature above a certain threshold,” Minson said. Since sweating provides little cooling on humid days, those conditions may also raise the body temperature above the critical threshold. Although Minson isn’t sure humidity alone will work as well as heat, fortunately, in D.C., we have both.

But is our heat and humidity combo analogous to altitude?

Not quite. For one thing, Lorenzo says the mechanisms are completely different. Altitude boosts red blood cell production, which could help to deliver more oxygen to the muscles. Heat (and possibly humidity) increases blood volume and sweating.

Slivka agrees they’re not synonymous. “Some of the same outcomes may be seen from slightly different mechanisms.” Both might lead to performance benefits, but for different reasons.

But Cox, who has trained at altitude, thinks the two can wear on your in similar ways. When in Flagstaff, “No matter how much I slept, or how much caffeine I drank, I never felt like I was fully caught up on my energy,” she said. “I can definitely relate that to the humidity in DC. You’re always feeling bogged down even hours after you train; it still feels like you need a lot more to get your energy back up.”

How can we cope with the sluggishness?

Krifchin, who has also trained in Flagstaff, emphasizes recovery. “Recovery is key in any type of training, whether you’re in the most ideal climate or not.” Make sure to rehydrate well to replace that sweat puddle you left behind.

And accept slower times during summer’s hot and humid days. Don’t expect to run the same pace at a steamy Independence Day race as you would at a crisp Turkey Trot. Runners training at altitude know they won’t hit the same paces as they can at sea level, but aren’t worried about it. But, just like the effects of altitude living pay off at sea level, Lorenzo’s study showed heat training improves performance even when the weather cools, so that Turkey Trot could go even better than expected.

Kathy Pugh, a running coach and director of training for the D.C. Road Runners Club, agrees that it will pay off come fall. But, in the meantime, she recommends caution. Heat and humidity are “nature’s way of telling you to dial it back a bit,” she said. “I would advise people to go easier.” She encourages all runners to be extra careful about hydration, go with friends, stick to shaded routes, and run at dusk or dawn, especially for speed work sessions. Note that the athletes in Lorenzo’s study did their intense workouts in cool conditions, so an indoor treadmill would be another great option.

And, of course, be patient. “For the very first few sessions maybe you’ll have to run a little slower, maybe for a shorter amount of time, but eventually the body will adapt and it will get easier,” said Lorenzo. “You just have to stick with it and listen to your body so you do not get too hot.”

“Know that it’s going to feel uncomfortable and miserable at times, but embrace that rather than be scared of it,” said Cox. “It makes you a much tougher athlete.”

Krifchin agrees. “I think grinding it out in heavy heat and humidity where you’re drenched in sweat and you’re getting slightly dehydrated, that brings out that mental toughness and the hardcore component. It gives you a little bit of an edge on your race competitors.”


Running Shorts


With all due respect to Rock Creek Park, I’m getting a little tired of Rock Creek Park, or at least the parklands in DC. Don’t get me wrong, I deeply appreciate the city closing parts of Beach Drive to allow socially distant recreation during the COVID-19 crisis, but when you’re an injured runner it’s kind of hard to go where seemingly all the healthy runners are going.

So I’ve been trying to branch out, using a few criteria to stave off cabin fever: easy parking; quiet trails; plenty of shade; friendly dogs, preferably leashed.


One weekend, a running friend mentioned that he used to run at Lake Needwood, and I immediately remembered seeing it on a map near Rockville when checking how far north Rock Creek goes (answer: about eight miles north of Needwood to Laytonsville).

The 40-minute drive from downtown D.C. was a small investment to check all the boxes. That Thursday afternoon was made for lake exploring; I almost forgot about the midday humid heat — and if you can believe it, the pandemic — as I followed the tree-lined trails. As tempting as it looks, keep your feet and pets out of the water.  County tests for water quality in recent years have detected toxic blue-green algae.

The fact that parking at Lake Needwood is free is a big deal for me, though the small parking lots seem likely to fill up on busy summer weekends.  The park is open from sunrise to sunset.

Montgomery Parks’ website on the Needwood Trails says that there is no way to walk around the lake, but Needwood Drive has a safe path on the side of the road for pedestrians and bikers to cross the water on the north end of the lake, which is what I used to connect the Westside and Mudcat trails.

It’s difficult to talk about 75-acre Lake Needwood without mentioning nearby 55-acre Lake Frank and the natural surface trails surrounding both. I would not recommend centering a long run at Needwood itself, which is only about 2-3 miles around, but the asphalt Rock Creek Hiker/Biker Trail connects both waterways to the District of Columbia border less than 15 miles away. Given the narrow, winding route, you’re unlikely to encounter aggressive cyclists.

Boat rentals and fishing could distract non-running members of your household on certain days of the week if they’re into that. Check online for their revised schedule during COVID-19 times.

Ryan Stasiowski finishes the 2013 Patuxent 10k. Photo by: Charlie Ban
Ryan Stasiowski finishes the 2013 Patuxent 10k. Photo by: Charlie Ban

Patuxent River Park in Upper Marlboro, Md. boasts more than 6,000 acres of nature trails and wildlife just ten miles off the Beltway.

If you prefer a running soundtrack of croaking frogs to mp3 playlists, you’ll be right at home, along with the wandering beavers and occasional snake.

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First, let’s get one thing straight although there are numerous hills that make this run strenuous at times, Difficult Run is actually named after the tributary stream, or run, that runs for nearly 16 miles through Fairfax County, eventually ending at the Potomac River approximately two miles south of Great Falls.

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There is a hidden gem for Washington-area runners in the heart of Loudoun County — Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve. Over 20 miles of well-groomed grass trails traverse the 725 acres of grassy fields, hardwood forests, wetlands, and creeks. It’s a wonderful cross-section of the beautiful landscape that can be found in Northern Virginia. The picturesque scenery is an ideal backdrop for logging miles on soft trails. If you’re the type of runner that likes to connect with nature, this place is worth the trip no matter where in the metro area you live.

The first thing that may stand out to you is the odd name, the origin of which goes back to the early 19th century. Once you experience this place, the second word of the name makes sense, given “reeks” is a Gaelic word referring to hills and dales, which are abundant. The term “banshee,” Gaelic for female spirit, begs for further explanation. A local farmer, likely resulting from an intoxicating visit to a local saloon, came back home one windy night and claimed he heard a banshee on the reeks. The farm animals and wind were the likely culprits for the sounds, but over the years the story was repeated, and the area became known as Banshee Reeks.

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Note: This profile was written by Wake Forest University student Cooper Sullivan, I just can’t get his name to show up on the byline.

It’s only a few minutes after 11 o’clock. For what seems like an hour, they wiggle their fingers over their wristwatch’s START/STOP buttons. They twist their toes digging their metal spikes deeper into the dry Oklahoma dirt. It’s completely silent if you ignore the 255-heart drumline beating heavily in anticipation. Everyone is waiting for the trigger.

From a bird’s-eye-view, the cluster of collegiate cross-country runners could easily be confused for a bunch of scarecrows. They are standing quite still in a field in the middle of flyover country. But unlike the ragdolls that are just placed wherever the farmer so chooses, these lanky but fierce athletes have fought extremely hard to place themselves in this field. This is the race that will crown a national champion.

Luke Tewalt is somewhere in that cluster below. He’ll be there for the next half hour, give or take a minute, and hopefully towards the front. An individual title is out of reach today, but frankly, that’s okay. A team trip to the top of the podium would be more rewarding to Luke than a solo summit. It would be naive, however, to see his humility and think he runs the same way. For the junior from Wake Forest University, just making it to the national championship meet isn’t enough, otherwise, he would have been content with last season’s 140th-place finish. He’s worked tirelessly, all season, ending his days exhausted, all for this very race. He’s a hungry competitor and he’s going to prove it. But first, Luke is going to run a 10k.




Starting blocks

In 2013, Jamille Callum graduated from Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C. and moved north to Washington D.C. He traded in his spikes for a whistle and began coaching track at Washington Latin, a public charter school for fifth through twelfth graders. Callum would coach the high schoolers — until one spring day in 2015.

Tewalt was a seventh grader at this point. Running on the middle school track team was just something to do when he wasn’t on the pitch chasing a soccer ball or deking defenders with a lacrosse stick. Nothing more than a way to pass the time. Although Callum was running a varsity practice, he couldn’t help but pay attention to what was happening on the middle school side of the track. 

“I was just mesmerized for some reason. It was nothing extravagant that he was doing, nothing out there that much, but just the way he was running, the way he handled himself and the way he separated himself from the entire [group], other classmates, or other teammates that he had been practicing with.” As his future coach, Callum was determined to reach Tewalt and help him along the path to becoming a high-class runner. There were only two hurdles in the way. 

The first was his age. At only 12 years old, Tewalt was still a full year and a half removed from competing with the high school team. Even when he would be eligible for the varsity team, he would still be at least a year younger than his competition because Tewalt had skipped the fourth grade. Whereas most people would see this discrepancy as a disadvantage, Callum and Tewalt saw this as an opportunity. Callum brought Tewalt, now an eighth grader, to an exhibition meet at one of the area schools. Everyone else was a high schooler, but because the races were hand timed and unofficial, the middle schooler was “thrown into the fire” and allowed to compete. 

“I put him in the 800, nothing super long, but just to see what he could do. He went out there, man, and he just demolished the heat he was in. He had a great race,” Callum said. “The time [overall] wasn’t super, but the time for his age was good. It wasn’t so much in the top tier but maybe in the middle section of what a high schooler should be running an 800 meter race. I remember talking to his mom, who came to the meet, and I said ‘He’s gonna be a really good runner next year.’”

After this, the Washington Latin duo was convinced that age would not be an issue. Starting then Tewalt trained with older runners, raced against older runners, and won over older runners. It’s still the case today as Luke is in 28th place after the first two kilometers. It is early and by no means a guaranteed result, but things are looking good for the kid. Eight kilometers of rolling dirt roads and dusty hills in Stillwater are still ahead, but if Luke keeps at his current pace, he will cross that finish line soon. 

The path that Coach Callum had helped form to take the young runner to the next level was clearly mapped out, but there was still one last hurdle in the distance. A tall one at that. Did Luke Tewalt even want to keep running?


Getting in stride

At first, the question emerged from a busy schedule. During the school year, running is an every-season sport — cross country in the fall, indoor track in the winter, and outdoor track in the spring — and all the seasons are crucial for young athletes to keep improving their times and techniques at all distances. This level of dedication would be a necessity if Tewalt ever dreamed of running in college. 

But that wasn’t the dream. The dream was to play lacrosse for Johns Hopkins University in nearby Baltimore. It was the first sport Tewalt took seriously and had to put it to the side because of his size. “Everyone was so much bigger than me and I was just getting slapped. They would dish it out here with their sticks and I’m like ‘Maybe this isn’t for me.’” 

During his freshman winter in what was supposed to be the first season Callum would officially coach Tewalt, the 120-pounder went out for the wrestling team. As the lightest person on the Washington Latin wrestling team and the only one in the 120-pound weight class, Tewalt was often paired up to spar with the only other kid on the team who didn’t have a partner — a 285-pound heavyweight. “He would just pick me up. I would try to do stuff, but… It was stupid, but I’m glad I did it. It was fun.” This was the only winter that Tewalt wore a singlet, returning to a more passive sport in the spring. Tewalt spent the rest of his high school days solely focusing on running. 

Tewalt was committed to becoming the runner Callum knew he could become. With more dedication each season, Tewalt’s times got faster while his accolades grew. By the time he graduated high school, he had won 11 state championships, broken countless meet, state, and even national records (he held the AAU’s 3k record for a 14-year-old), and earned two Gatorade Player of the Year Distinctions for the District of Columbia. Pretty soon, colleges began popping up on Tewalt’s recruiting radar. 

Georgetown, the school only a few blocks from where he had grown up, and Wake Forest, a school Tewalt had only heard of because of their soccer prowess, were the final two. Whichever running program Tewalt ended up choosing would be receiving a true student-athlete, as he was determined to earn a degree in politics and international affairs above any other accomplishment. Tewalt decided to move south to Winston-Salem, wanting to experience something new. Although he was leaving the District, the success he found on the tracks didn’t stay in Washington.

Tewalt’s sophomore track season at Wake Forest was one he will never forget. In late January, the 19-year-old claimed the American U20 3000m record. Two weeks later, he ran the first four-minute mile in Wake Forest history. He also qualified to represent the United States in the U20 World Championships in Cali, Colombia over the summer. His own expectations for running rose tremendously. The amount of effort he was prepared to put in this upcoming year would increase substantially.


Staying on track

Luke’s days are scheduled to the minute around being the best possible runner he can be. At 11:24 a.m., 14 and a half minutes after the starting gun went off, Luke runs past the halfway point of the race. He’s slipped a few spots to 33rd but overall he is still in good shape. Wake Forest, which went into the race ranked 12th in the nation, is currently in 5th place. Luke is still in All-American territory, the top 40 runners, and the Demon Deacons are looking at their best team finish in over three decades.

But now is not the time to celebrate. The mental race is just beginning.

At Wake Forest, there isn’t a lot of time for Luke to do anything else besides focus on running. For cross-country, he wakes up at 5:30 a.m., hops in the team van for the short drive over to Salem Lake, runs anywhere from eight to 10 to 12 to however many miles Coach John Hayes has planned that morning, comes back to campus for a full slate of politics classes, squeezes in a quick study hall before afternoon lifts and meetings, and then goes straight back to the books. Even before Luke goes back to his room in Poteat Residence Hall, he is absolutely exhausted. Some nights it’s hard to tell if the 9:30 p.m. bedtime is because of recovery and being rested for the next day’s early workout or if it’s just because of exhaustion. 

Kyle Merber, one of Hayes’ former runners turned pro, was providing color commentary for the television broadcast. “I know their training. These guys are strong. They were built for a 10k.” Merber may have been referring to Hayes’ attention to physical strength and stamina, which is no joke. The Sunday after winning the ACC Championship, Hayes had the team running 16 miles on dusty roads an hour south of Wake Forest’s campus. But what Merber was alluding to was Hayes’ devotion to stengthening the team’s mental fortitude. 

“[Cross country] is really a mental sport,” Tewalt said. “The physical aspect is kind of easy because in practice we show that we are consistent and strong and capable every day. But it’s on these days when there’s pressure that we have to be our biggest supporters mentally.” 

Each runner must find the balance between a cutthroat competitor’s edge and a subdued state of sanity. Too much of one can lead to complacency, while too much of the other can spiral toward a destructive hyper fixation. This all needs to be taken into account within one’s physical feelings (a nagging knee, heavy breathing, etc.) as well. They also need to know where their teammates are in comparison to them and how their individual performance impacts the team. It also means forgetting the outcome of the previous race, but trying to sustain any confidence or momentum. Volunteer assistant coach Brandon Lawrence describes it more simply as “a mindfuck.” 

Hayes and his staff do their best to keep stressors at bay, especially before a meet. The last on-campus practice before the team travels to a meet always ends the same way. Hayes gathers the guys who are racing and talks strategy with them. They’ll speak about the course, they speak about the weather, they speak about who to watch out for, they speak about specific tactics, they speak about running a race. They speak about how to stay focused during moments of blinding pain, how to maintain composure during moments of frustration, how to feed off the energy of others, how to somehow just keep running. 


Running through the finish line

ESPN’s cameras are set up at the 9k checkpoint. The runners turn the corner, aching from the previous 26 minutes, and are met with more agony, a hill sprint. It’s like the camera at the top of a rollercoaster, except everyone’s face is far less flattering. The pain is very visible in Luke’s face, but he’s not stopping his stride. It’s picking up speed. There is a look of determination in his eyes. He is going to push through and keep running. 

The overall pace is increasing. Charles Hicks of Stanford is starting to pull away with a lead. The tiny town on the Greiner Family Cross Country Course is the loudest it has been all day. The overall pace is increasing. Northern Arizona and Oklahoma State are dualing for the team title. Luke can see the finish line at this point. Everyone is sprinting now. It’s going to come down to one final kick. Every last place will count. Hicks wins. For Luke, the race will be over. One hundred meters away. 

The previous week at Southeast Regionals, Luke Tewalt ran a sub-30 minute 10k for the first time. Today, Luke Tewalt smashed that personal best by 30 seconds. Ten kilometers in 29:22.5, good enough for 22nd place and All-American honors. The entire team finished 5th overall, the highest mark ever. 

As the racing directors calculate the final standings, Luke Tewalt, Hayes, and the rest of the team huddle together. They hug, they laugh, they smile, they shed a tear, they gasp for air, and they head off for a cool-down jog. Just like that, the season is over. 

Next week, Luke Tewalt will take a break, go home for Thanksgiving and rest. He’s earned it. He’ll run again in another week, but not any longer. He can’t keep still for too long.


Running Shorts

  • The National Park Service will keep Beach Drive closed to through traffic year-round in D.C.’s Rock Creek Park, following the traffic patterns that have been in place most of the last two and a half years.
  • Northwood High School alumus Obsaa Feta, running for Miami University, won the Mid-American Conference Cross Country Championship.
  • John Champe High School alumna Bethany Graham, running for Furman University, won the Southern Conference Cross Country Championship for the second year in a row.
  • Loudon Valley High School alumna Ava Gordon was named Atlantic Sun Freshman of the Year.
  • Heritage High School alumuna Weiti Kelati won the USATF 5k road championship for the second year in a row, held at the Abbot Dash to the Finish Line 5k in New York City.


Just don’t swap bibs


The call went out on a Saturday — “does anyone have an Army Ten-Miler bib?” The race was the next day.

Responses on a message board wished the runner luck and others tried to start an impromptu waiting list. After a while, the sober voice of reason spoke up.

“Not allowed since it’s past the transfer period.”

It can be an unpopular opinion, but it’s backed up by the forms runners sign when they register for races.

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