Running in the Heat – The Experiment

When talking about Love4Gambia, people often ask me what kind of weather I can expect during my run in June.  When I tell them that it will be extremely hot (40+ degrees Celsius) and humid they ask me; have you ever run in those conditions?  And my answer is yes, but only for a very brief time.  And then I tell them this true story that I call “The Experiment”.

A few years ago I volunteered at Ottawa University’s Human and Environmental Physiology Research Unit (HEPRU) for an experiment whose goal is to study the treatment of exercise-induced hyperthermia.  I was hesitant to take part in the study at first, especially after reading the short explanation of what would take place but I sent in my name anyway.

I did not do it for the money as it only paid $70.  What drew me in was the VO2max test I had to perform at the start.  The VO2max test measures the maximum rate of oxygen consumption that is calculated during incremental exercise a motorized treadmill.  There is a specific point at which oxygen consumption plateaus even if the exercise intensity increases.  This plateau marks the V02 max.  Anyone can pay to do the test but it not cheap and can cost over $200.

I perform the preliminary session of the Vo2max and percentage of body fat analysis at the University.   It goes well and I fit the criterion as an ideal candidate.

A week later, I return for session number two.

There are two students administering the tests.  Brian is the student in charge of this experiment.  Before heading in to the change room, I am given some explanation as to what will happen.  I step on a scale to measure my weight.  I am also given a 50 cm (18”) long wire mostly covered in a pliable plastic; a probe.  I prefer to call it a thermometer. There’s a piece of tape at about the 30 cm (12”) mark.  I’m asked to insert this tube, to the tape line, in an area that does not see the light of day very often.   I give the student a look. He’s used to it and informs me that it’s not that bad.  This was the part of the test I was dreading.

I return, minutes later.  The student was right.  It wasn’t that bad. As instructed, I make sure that the other end of the wire is taped to my back and ready for connection.

Wearing nothing but my running shorts and my running shoes, I step in to the area just outside the lab.  I sit on a chair and wait.  I’m relaxed; I’m not someone who stresses out easily.  At the dentist I often struggle to stay awake as they work on my teeth.

The lab is completely enclosed and temperature controlled.  It is a room within the room.  It is sealed on all sides and is clad in stainless steel.  Inside, there’s a treadmill, electronic equipment and computers.

The students return with some wires and a razor.  They start shaving areas on my right leg and chest.  They attach the wires to my skin with a warning that it will sting a little bit when they remove them later.  “No problem” I say.

Then Brian arrives with another one of those long wire thermometers just like the one I have currently inserted.  He explains that this one will go in my esophagus through one of my nostrils.  Knowing that I’m not the only candidate in these tests, I immediately ask him if they re-use these thermometers.  He assures me that they are all new and sterile.  I’m very pleased to hear that.

He hands me a large red Solo cup with water and a straw.  On the count of three, I start drinking.  Brian quickly pushes down the long wire down my right nostril.  Not a pleasant experience to say the least.  He finishes and asks me to overcome the overwhelming feeling of wanting to rip this thing out.   Amazing, he can read my mind!  It’s more than uncomfortable but I oblige.  After a few minutes, the discomfort lessens.  He tapes the protruding wire to the side of my face.

Eventually, Brian opens the metal door and I am let into the lab.  It is 40 degrees Celsius.  I sit on a chair by the treadmill and they connect all the wires to the equipment; over 35 wires in total.  To my left is a large black plastic tub with water and ice – but more on that later.

Readings must be taken of me in a relaxed state.   They put on a movie on the monitor ahead of me – it’s “The Lord of the Rings” the first movie. After about twenty minutes (if not more) of monitoring, they pause the movie and I can now carefully walk to the treadmill. Before I start running there’s one more step; I must wear a thick plastic poncho.  One of the “World Famous” type ponchos you can buy at Canadian Tire.  It’s dark green.

I start the treadmill and begin running.  The guys are behind me and checking their equipment ensuring everything is working properly.  They put on some music: 106.9 FM The Bear.

Brian and the other student (I forget his name) give me status updates and encouragement.  I could do without them; it is more of an annoyance for me.  I wish they would keep quiet but I am too polite to say anything and I know they mean well.

“You’re doing great Terry!”  “Keep going!” “You can do it!”

“Your body temperature has gone up .5 degrees….” “You’re at 38 degrees!”  “You’re doing great!”

The goal here is to get my body’s internal temperature to 40 degrees Celsius; an exercise-induced hyperthermia.  (The human body’s normal temperature is 37 degrees.)

I stare at a section of the metal wall in front of me.  It’s getting more and more uncomfortable as my body temperature keeps rising.

“Way to go Terry!” I hear again.

Above 39 degrees I can feel a slight reduction in my reaction time – as if I’m slightly inebriated.  I press on still fixated on the small portion of the wall.  I’m studying the patterns on the wall; anything to keep my mind off the discomfort.

“39.5 degrees!  Almost there!”   

I look over to the tub filled with ice and water.  I never thought I would say this, but I could not wait to get in there.  I was willing to do anything to cool off.

“We’re almost at 40 degrees.  Keep going.  Not long now!”  I’ve been running about 40 minutes now.

“OK.  You can stop!”

“Yes!” I think to myself.  I slowly step off the treadmill when Brian says “Wait!  Your body is cooling down too quickly.  I need you to get back on the treadmill”.

“Really?!”  I walk back on and start to run again.  I’m not a big fan of Brian at this point.

I get off the treadmill after about ten or twelve minutes.  They lead me to a chair and I sit down.  Puzzled, I ask “When do I go in the ice bath?”.  “Not yet” Brian says “Not yet.”

I sit there thinking “When do I get in the tub?”

Finally after about ten minutes, I take off my shoes and they put on some neoprene socks to keep my toes from freezing in the water.

I walk up the steps and slowly get in the water.  What a relief!   After a few minutes, Brian dumps a few buckets of ice in the water.  I smile and say “This isn’t so bad”.

My head, arms and shoulders are above water.  I can’t believe I’m enjoying this!

I can not get out of the bath until my internal temperature reaches 37.5 degrees.  It takes about eight minutes.  I get out and am given a towel to dry off.  I sit again and continue to watch the movie.

Finally it’s time to remove the wires.  The students are not gentle and it stings in certain areas but I’m just glad to get them off.

Brian also removes the wire from my nose.  I’m happy to have it removed but I’m left with a sore throat feeling.  I step back on the scale before being set free to shower and change.

What an experience.  Something I’m not too keen on repeating except that… I have to do it all over again.  The water temperature will be 26 degrees instead of the 2 degrees for today’s experiment.

What I won’t do for science!  The experiment at 26 degrees goes well.  The main difference is that I stay much longer in the tub to cool off.

The data collected will help determine the best possible course of action to treat athletes, firemen and others who perform in high heat environments and experience heat exhaustion.  Having gone through what I did, I’d suggest the 2 degree water.

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