Embracing the elements

A summer of triple-digit temps will change your perspective on what makes for fine weather. Ever try doing a long run when it’s 113 outside? Unless you’re some ultra-runner who regularly races in Death Valley, probably not. The summer of 2011 was the warmest I’ve been through and made Oklahoma one of the hottest places in the country for about three months.

Fast forward weeks later, and a cool front brought something different. Gray skies. Misty rain. Temps in the mid-50s. This was Seattle weather. Yep, the place with weather so bad it’s become synonymous with the Emerald City’s dreary-cool reputation seemed to have exported itself to my Sunbelt town.

In my eyes, it was the perfect gift from Mother Nature. Time to get outside.

I stepped out into the streets, greeted by cool wetness and people scurrying about with umbrellas. I think everyone was pleased at the change of pace, but they were unwilling to be in it.

Not me.

***

We modern creatures of science and technology have grown quite comfy in our climate-controlled world. Air conditioning, central heating and automatic temperature controls give us the ability to create stable, safe and cozy environments in which we work and live. Just as long as we’re inside.

But all of us have to go outside at some point. Even those who work indoors have to face the weather, even if briefly, for just a little while each day. For those who work outdoors, it’s a different story. The elements are a part of your day for hours on end.

But does anyone really want to work in blistering heat? Or frigid cold?

It’s another thing to embrace the elements, to force yourself into the midst of whatever it is that’s happening outside right now.

There can be some foolishness in this. People who chase tornadoes for fun, or hold hurricane parties in the face of an oncoming storm, are taking risks with abnormal weather events that leave you pretty helpless if you’re in the way.

But there are some pretty great experiences to be had in less-than-ideal weather conditions. A good day outside does not have to restricted to blue bird skies and outside temperatures hovering between 65 and 75 degrees.

***

The best thing about running in the rain is that you do not have to depend on sweat to keep you cool. There comes a point when it gets so hot and dry the conditions that produce sweat also overpower it. A strong start on the trail can quickly tail off into a lumbering struggle ultimately cut short. Try as it might, your body can only do so much to stave off heat stroke or dehydration.

But when you’re running in the rain, you can actually push yourself a little harder. Sure, you’ll sweat. But you’re also being washed by even cooler rainwater that doesn’t depend on how well you’re internally hydrated.

(Now I realize there comes a time when it gets too cool, and cold rain plus exposure can lead to hypothermia in certain circumstances. As resilient as our bodies are, they can also be pretty fragile if subjected to too much elemental abuse. But I digress.)

My “Seattle” run is going well. I’m on a loop through my city’s north side, a short and hilly route that should give me a pretty decent workout. The rain is just light enough that I’m not splashing around at every step. But it’s cooling me off even as my exertion increases during steep hill climbs or running up steps.

As I swing south, then west, my path takes me through the scene of some sort of barbecue-themed street party. There are not a lot of people outside – it’s too wet for all of that. But there are a few out sampling the goods.

As I run through their midst (eschewing the temptation to stop and gnaw on some smoked pork), I catch the eye of an older gentleman. He’s got a black rainslicker on, with a bandana wrapped around his balding pate. His build suggests that he, too, is a runner. That gray beard hints that he’s probably been at it awhile. He’s here for the ribs, but as our eyes meet, he grins and nods.

He gets it.

No one at the festival is having more fun than me.

***

I’ve tried in vain to explain this to people before. We are creatures of habit, and many of our habits revolve around the comforts of our carefully engineered environs.

I can remember a time when I was on a business trip, trying to strike up conversation in a roomful of people I didn’t know.

I’m a storyteller by nature. So I begin telling a couple of folks at my table about a recent mountain trip that a friend and I had.

Back in 2009, the two of us headed to central Colorado to try our hand at an ascent of Mount Shavano, but we wanted to do it via a shallow snow-filled couloir known as the Angel of Shavano. We planned on going up the Angel, then hitting the steeper snow slopes on the final summit pitch of the peak.

But one of the things we weren’t counting on were the winds. The weather was decent, with clear skies and cool temperatures higher on the mountain’s slopes. But during the approach hike, I could hear the winds howling over the treetops.

Mount Shavano has a wide saddle between it and a minor peak to the south. That saddle functions like a wind tunnel when the breezes start picking up from the west. As soon as we passed treeline, we were confronted with a steady 40 mph wind, with gusts topping 50. Right in our faces.

We fought that the gale while digging into the snow for hours. This might have qualified as a sufferfest for some people, but in a weird way I enjoyed it. It was as if the mountain was telling us that it wasn’t going to give up its summit without presenting a challenge, and tackling the peak on its terms proved to be a valuable and worthwhile experience.

Trouble is, I couldn’t convey that to the people I was talking to. They seemed to think I was boasting. I really wasn’t (Mount Shavano is no Rainier, after all), I was just trying to say something interesting to maybe draw out similar stories from others. But I failed. I failed to communicate the idea that part of the outdoor experience is taking in the elements as they are at that time.

They didn’t get it.

***

That rib festival has created a bit of a problem for me. The streets I’m accustomed to running are closed to make room for the trailers and booths peddling those glorious pounds of barbecue beef, pork and chicken.

That means my route just doubled in length.

I’d been running faster than I normally do, just because I knew it would be a shorter workout than usual. But the conditions on the ground (the BBQ block party) have changed all that.

So I worked my way west, then went around the festival before heading back east to my finish.  This would have been a lot rougher had the temperatures been higher. But it’s a cool 55 degrees outside, and despite the increased speed I’m not in any danger of overheating.  The extra work is keeping my core temperature from falling, but the rain is keeping it from going too high. The only thing that will slow me down is fatigue.

But I’m feeling good. The city has a different feel when it’s rainy and cool. It’s quieter. The colors are more muted. But it’s still very much alive. Just different. And interesting. What I’ve discovered is when you’re exercising in an environment that’s interesting, things like fatigue tend to take a back seat to the added mental stimulation.

So I’m in stasis, of sorts. I feel like I could go on like this for quite some time. The added length of the route doesn’t bother me in the least.

***

Things just look and act differently when the weather changes. I know this is obvious, but when you’re out in wilder environments, it becomes much more apparent. Most of us don’t see the changes – we run for the car, the tent or the cabin and wait it out. If you think cats have an aversion to getting wet, take a look at a bunch of humans, clad in rain gear, moving as fast as they can to get out of the rain.

I was lucky enough one summer day to get caught in the rain with no shelter in sight. Hiking in a wilderness area of Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains, the downpour was one that was causing a slew of flash floods across the state. The rain was definitely heavy where I was, but I wasn’t in any danger of being flooded out.

The Wichitas aren’t huge mountains by anyone’s standard, but they rise fairly abruptly from the sweeping flatness of the southwestern Oklahoma plains, wind- and rain-worn over several hundred million years. They’re slabby monoliths of granite often topped by huge boulders. Hikers, climbers and nature lovers come out here regularly to enjoy one of the few truly wild places left in the state.

But during a hard rain, the look of the place is altered. Dense rainfall made the profile of all the mountains meld into one jagged skyline, the ridges and mountaintops a deeper shade of gray – almost pewter – that contrasted with the lighter grays and whites of the clouds. Even though it was relatively warm, the grayness of the day and the optical illusion caused by the rainfall gave the terrain the cold appearance of something out of Norse mythology. The elements at that time and place had created something that looked more Valhalla than Oklahoma. I’ll never forget it. The effort of slogging out that hike and being soaked to my bones had paid off in a memory that no one else shared. I was alone, taking it all in, listening to the raindrops, tricking streams and distant thunder. It wasn’t comfortable, but it was pleasant.

It was a gift provided by the elements.

***

It’s not always the case that the elements help you. Hypothermia (too cold), hyperthermia (too hot), dehydration (too dry) and the various maladies related to altitude sickness (too high) uniformly work against you. And let’s not forget about the risks faced when traversing snow and ice, navigating big waves or fighting fierce winds. It seems it’s a lot more common that adverse weather will confront you instead of one of those near-perfect SoCal days.

But this day, with its less-than-ideal conditions, has a different feel. As I make my turn east and toward the end of my route, nature and physiology are acting in harmony. The rain and cold sent people rushing indoors, where things were more comfortable and stable. But on this jaunt, comfort and stability was found at a moderate running pace, an elevated heart rate and body that was regulated by nature’s own air-cooled and water-cooled system.

Getting wet, or dirty, or otherwise mixed up in what’s outside the clean, dry and climate controlled environs of the inside world has its own rewards.  I hope I’ll be more willing to get out there and collect.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

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5 thoughts on “Embracing the elements

  1. Great post Bob. I find it interesting that your enjoyment of the elements gave you the mental fortitude to finish that city run. As I was reading about the lengthening of your route, my first thought was; “I would never have made it.” I would have become angry at the fact that my course would take me longer rather than seeing it as an opportunity to push myself.

    It just goes to prove, yet again, that attitude is a critical factor when it comes to any activity, but especially those that require us to push ourselves physically.

  2. Thanks, Joe! Truth is, the run wasn’t hugely long, and if it was I wonder if my attitude would have been as sunny. However, there is something to living in the now, learning from what you experience and seeing less-than-favorable conditions as part of the challenge.

  3. I want to start running again – so I’m hoping that reading your blog will provide some insights into ‘weathering it’ when running in the elements. Living in Seattle has its drawbacks, but I’m hoping that I can enjoy the run and the drawbacks – much like you are describing.

    • Obviously, there are some “elements” that will be just too harsh. No one wants to run in a deluge or a blizzard, or when it’s dangerously hot (though how hot that is can be debatable).

      But I’ll pass along a couple of things.

      One, if it’s raining you need to realize that no matter how much rain gear you’ve got, you will get wet. Once you get past that, then it becomes a case of doing things to make sure that doesn’t turn into a real negative, like blisters. Synthetic fiber socks help, as will properly fitted shoes.

      In the heat, hydration is something you plan. It takes work and time over the day to make sure you’re not dry when you hit the trail. Drink water often, and more if you regularly drink caffeinated drinks.

      Also, just because it’s cloudy doesn’t mean the sun can’t get you. Good sunglasses and sunscreen are advisable, especially if you are sun-sensitive (for interests of disclosure, I don’t do sunscreen much at all. But I probably should).

      In the cold, it’s really easy to overdress. I prefer to be “air-cooled” so I don’t get too hot in the middle of a cool-weather run. If you feel good and warm when you start, you will be downright hot when you’re done and quite sweaty. That can be a negative when it’s really cold, as sweaty clothes plus cold weather can make you go from being too warm to too cold really quick.

      That’s just a couple for starters. A lot of it is mental when it comes to overcoming adverse elements. Hit the trail, dude! And good hearing from you.

  4. Pingback: Embracing the elements when they don’t love you back « proactiveoutside

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