Smelly Armchair Musings: On Heat Training

I was sitting here in my stained and possibly smelly armchair trying to think of how to begin my blog about my recent adventuring in Show Low, Arizona. What kept popping into my mind, however, was the temperature difference between Show Low (cool temperatures) and the desert heat I’m used to. This made me think of another post I’ve had rolling around in my head for about a week, so I am going to write that post here first.

What do these words bring to your mind: Sonoran Desert, 115 degrees, full sun? What response do they elicit? Do they make you want to find a popsicle? An air-conditioned room? Antarctica? These words bring a peace in my heart. They are home.

I’m not sure how I became a desert girl. I grew up in MUCH cooler climes and remember when 50 degrees was a reason for shorts, much to the distress of my mom. Perhaps you also grew up hearing, “I’m cold, go put your coat on”? But now if it’s 50 degrees I don’t need to be told to put more clothes on; I will be bundled up looking like the proverbial Eskimo, and likely still shivering. What changed?

There was not a set moment when I became accustomed to the desert. When I first moved to the Sonoran Desert, I thought it was hot. I hated the barren landscape- it was so brown and blah! All I wanted to do was move somewhere else that had real trees. Ever so slowly, however, I changed. When my son was small I went hiking with him- first carried on my front, then on my back. When my daughter was born, I was unable to hike alone with two small children, so I didn’t get outdoors to explore at all. When I started running, at first it was on roads because I didn’t know of any trails near my home. I finally discovered the local regional parks system and have eschewed roads ever since.

Then last year, I met a runner as crazy (possibly crazier) as me. At least twice a week since that fateful meeting, we get in our beloved “heat training”; Sonoran Desert, 115 degrees, full sun, and middle of the afternoon, we can be found outside running. I’m not sure our motions can actually be called running, but we call them that anyway. It’s hot. As we pass through the wavering heat waves crawling their way up off the dusty desert trail, the thin line of gray shadow cast by a saguaro is inviting. If I turn sideways just right, I can fit all of me into its shade and become one with this desert sentinel. The highly filtered shade of an ironwood, which is more sun than shade, is an acceptable place to take a moment to cool down. Any breeze at all is a lover’s kiss upon my sweat-beaded skin. Upon arrival back at the parking lot, we down a cold beverage, generally a coke. We head into the visitor’s center, if it’s open, and deposit rivers of sweat on their floors, while keeping Sarah, the park manager, company. She says she doesn’t mind our sweaty offerings.

Now, I love this desert. I love its heat and I don’t want to leave. This change in my perspective only came about by venturing out into the desperate, rugged wilderness of this place. When I go out, I see each living thing scrabbling at life, and it is amazing. And all of that running in the heat? It has conditioned my body. While most people are indoors relying on air conditioning to cool down, my body cools itself. I am no longer miserable at 100+ temperatures. The wave of warmth that hits me when I walk out of any building here in the summertime is a welcome reprieve from the frigid indoors.

While I am now much better able to regulate my body temperature in these extremes, the heat training has also taught me how to pay attention to what my body is telling me. I would never head out into the desert without plenty of water- the desert, perhaps more than any other place I’ve run, demands absolute respect in that regard. Not respecting my body’s need for water will result in death, and that’s no fun. Knowing how much water constitutes “plenty” is also important. I have found that I personally drink an exceptional amount of water- more than most any other runner I’ve ever come across. I’m not sure why this is, or why it doesn’t make my stomach upset, but it works for me. Because of this, I also know that during my summer training, I will need to stay on trails where I will have access to water so I can refill my pack frequently.

I have also learned to quickly gauge when I’m beginning to get too warm, and so I slow down, or stop if necessary. Running in the heat is a delicate dance, one in which I must intimately know and understand even the smallest signal communicated. Dry mouth and throat? Take a small sip of water. Getting completely out of breath on little to no incline? May need to slow down. Sweating rivers but otherwise feeling good? Keep going. Slight twinge in the gut? Too hot, slow down or stop. Running in the heat is hard. It’s dangerous. It must, at all costs, be respected. And I love it. I love the challenge. And guess what? There’s a bonus to venturing out when no one else will: I have the trails to myself. The desert is deserted.

I still think my desert home is hot, but now I don’t mind the heat. Sure, I can’t run as fast at high temperatures, but I can still challenge myself. And when the temperatures come back down, I am a better runner for it.

In case it wasn’t clear, I am not an expert. Although I do it, I don’t recommend running in the heat. I don’t know you, your training level, or the way your body works like you do. That said here are a couple of links with good basic heat information and precautions:

http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/fitness/in-depth/exercise/art-20048167?pg=1

http://phoenix.gov/parks/trails/visitor/safety/

Respect the heat. Stay safe. Have fun!

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