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updated: 7/21/2011 1:18 PM

Crazy or dedicated? Suburban runners workout in extreme heat

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  • Runners finish a five-mile group run Tuesday in Arlington Heights, despite the extreme heat.

       Runners finish a five-mile group run Tuesday in Arlington Heights, despite the extreme heat.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • The heat wave didn't curtail a weekly 5-mlle run Tuesday at Runners High-N-Tri in Arlington Heights, but doctors and trainers say athletes need to use extreme care.

       The heat wave didn't curtail a weekly 5-mlle run Tuesday at Runners High-N-Tri in Arlington Heights, but doctors and trainers say athletes need to use extreme care.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Plenty of water helps runners recover after their weekly 5-mile run Tuesday, which drew a dedicated group despite the heat wave.

       Plenty of water helps runners recover after their weekly 5-mile run Tuesday, which drew a dedicated group despite the heat wave.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Jesus Escareno of Mount Prospect pours water on his head to cool down Tuesday after a group run in Arlington Heights.

       Jesus Escareno of Mount Prospect pours water on his head to cool down Tuesday after a group run in Arlington Heights.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Daily Herald reporter Kerry Lester, left, and Grace Wasielewski of Prospect Heights end their five-mile run Tuesday.

       Daily Herald reporter Kerry Lester, left, and Grace Wasielewski of Prospect Heights end their five-mile run Tuesday.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

 
By Kerry Lester

As temperatures hovered around 95 degrees this week, Grace Wasielewski didn't waste a blink worrying about running in the extreme heat.

The 58-year-old Prospect Heights woman has been a constant on the Tuesday evening runs at Runners High-N-Tri in Arlington Heights, just as they have been a constant for her.

"Only once in the past six years have they canceled a run," Wasielewski said. "It was about 20 below zero, and it was just me and another runner that showed up. The two of us ran anyway."

She had company this week, too. Just before 6 p.m. Tuesday, more than two dozen of us were clustered inside the air-conditioned store, stretching and bouncing on the balls of our feet between the racks of sweat-wicking performance gear, water bottles and electrolyte replacement gels, anxious to head out into the steamy conditions.

For dedicated runners -- including me -- the decision to train in all conditions is where "want to" meets "have to."

Marathon dates loom, and runners who've spent months and years getting into shape fear a few days off can lead them down a slippery slope toward sloth.

Yet, doctors and trainers warn such single-minded pursuit of training time is dangerous during heat waves like the one we're in now.

Scott Morcott, a family medicine doctor at Advocate Condell Hospital in Libertyville, saw one of his best friends -- an elite athlete -- die several years ago when competing in a hot and humid triathlon in Charleston, S.C.

"People are unaware of the dangers," Morcott said. "They just don't know. They think, I'm in good shape, I can power through it. But this is truly dangerous weather."

It's a hard message for people who rack up double-digit mileage every week, though most runners take precautions like running early or late in the day, slowing their pace and drinking plenty of water.

Ashley Miller, an incoming Rolling Meadows High School senior, had already run once the same day she joined the group run at Runners High.

The five-mile winding loop through Arlington Heights' downtown neighborhoods "is relaxing to me," Miller said. Her high school cross-country team runs three to four days together during the summer, but Miller often trains on her own the other days.

Jesus Escareno, a 22-year-old Mount Prospect resident on a running scholarship at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, ran the three miles to the store from his house. After the group workout, he ran back home. He'd already spent most of the day on his feet -- working construction outside -- but considered this run "my fun."

The danger for those exercising outdoors this week is not only the heat but the accompanying humidity, Morcott said.

"Runners sweat and that water does not evaporate, so they don't dissipate heat," Morcott said. "Their core body temperature can rise in a short period of time."

Avid runners likely remember -- many of them firsthand -- the Chicago Marathon of 2007, where unusually hot October temperatures left one dead and 250 hospitalized.

"The idea that your body can train for this, that's not true," Morcott said.

Morcott's colleague, emergency physician John Piotrowski of Glenview, says it's easy for an outdoor workout to result in heat cramps or heat exhaustion -- with symptoms like dizziness, muscle weakness and nausea -- or even heat stroke, a more serious condition that actually alters a patient's level of consciousness.

"People who have heat stroke, many of them do OK, but there are some people who get sick and die," he said.

Brendan York, a Wheaton resident and physical therapist specializing in endurance at Athletico physical therapy in Bloomingdale, and a runner himself, says such an argument can be made to active runners, but they have "just a different mindset" than others.

"They're not going to let that extra challenge really stop them," he said.

"Runners kind of have a way of enjoying obstacles. A lot of them wear it as a badge of honor."

With that in mind, Piotrowski suggests altering workout times during a heat wave -- running early or late when the sun isn't as strong.

"Keep heat in mind, prepare for it, don't train as hard, keep yourself more hydrated before, during and after your workout," he said.

Dumping water on your head is one of the most effective and efficient ways to cool down.

Many in Tuesday's running group took those strategies to heart, slowing their paces, running in lighter clothing, and dodging through neighborhood sprinklers with "oohs" and "ahhs."

Nearing the end of the route, the group of runners I'm in is averaging 7:44 per mile, a little behind my usual pace.

"Not bad," Wasielewski tells me. "Hey, you should really come out tomorrow. We're doing a track workout at Harper College."

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