In the Heat of the Day

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It was an unseasonably hot day for April, but then every day has been unseasonable this year with cold weather returning in spring and violent storms blowing in for an hour to tear things apart and then leaving as fast as they came. There was a track meet that afternoon and somehow it seemed far too warm for the long distance runners, but their heat was scheduled for late in the day when the temperatures ease down a bit, so all seemed well. Then we received the last minute news that the schedule had been turned topsy turvy like the Mad Hatter’s tea party. First was last and last was first. Everything was in reverse which meant that there would be young women and men running the 3200 meter race in the hottest part of the day with the sun bearing down on them at near ninety degrees.

We rushed to the track to view the contest and had barely found our seats when the young women took their positions for the 3200 meter race and were off at the sound of the gun. At first they did not appear to  be affected by the heat that was burning the back of my neck and causing my blouse to stick to my skin. I presumed that they were in such good shape that they would hardly notice that it was not a time conducive to attempting to run at top speed for around two miles. After about four laps around the track the toll that the temperature was taking on their bodies became more and more obvious. Their faces were turning beet red and the strain registered on their faces. By the time they had finished the course many were vomiting and others were crumbling in exhaustion or even fainting. They had made it apparent that have such a long race in far too hot and humid conditions had been overly stressful to their bodies.

When running the body responds to the outside temperature in multiple ways. The longer the time spent pushing for speed, the more negative forces are placed on the mechanisms of the body. If it is sixty degrees the runner feels as though it is eighty degrees, so running for a prolonged period at eighty nine degrees means that the runner is experiencing a feeling inside his/her body as though it is actually one hundred nine degrees. If the humidity is also high it becomes difficult to sweat, which is a necessary way of keeping the internal body temperature within safe limits. The body begins to react to what it sees as an assault which is why some of those girls eventually puked and fainted. They had unwittingly sent their internal systems into a state of emergency.

The 3200 meter race for that day had originally been scheduled for around seven in the evening. Had that tradition been followed the sun would have been lower on the horizon and the temperature would have been more amenable to a prolonged physical effort. The short sprints should have been first just as they usually are. Those runners would not have been as affected by the heat because their attempts last under a minute. Putting the most grueling race first was a questionable decision for adult coaches who should have known better. They were lucky that nobody was hurt even more seriously.

My grandson was one of the runners in the boy’s 3200. He is usually a beast on the track with a final kick that sends him in front of his competitors on a regular basis. He is highly respected for his prowess and his ability to garner some inner force to get the job done. On this day with the heat raising the temperature to what felt like over one hundred degrees his body told him to be cautious. He was a contender for a mile, but then he felt everything inside him shutting down. He became seriously dehydrated and his muscles felt uncharacteristically weak. He sensed that pushing himself unnecessarily would be hazardous to his well being, and so he slowed his pace to a trot that allowed him to breathe and brought him a measure of control. Sadly this was the district meet that determined whether or not he would represent his school at the state contest, and he was considered to have a better than good shot at being one of the top four runners. On that day it was not to be. He finished in the middle of the pack with his face red from the exertion and his skin feeling as hot as if he were in the throes of a serious illness. It was a disappointing moment, and one wrought with a sense of anger that the adults who should have understood why having the longest race of the meet in such conditions was a bad, unfair and dangerous call.

As an educator I was taught to consider all of the possible unintended consequences of my decisions before enacting them. I understood that I was ultimately responsible for the well being of my students as long as they were in my care, and so I had to be conscious of everything from the structure of my classroom to the words that I uttered. My job was almost akin to policing or being on a battlefield in that I had to observe, and think, and be ready to change course in an instant in response to each of my kids. There were no excuses for letting down my guard. I was the bulwark against any harm that threatened to come to my kids, and if I was careful and on my toes things generally went well. It was only when I didn’t think things through that problems occurred. Luckily few of my faulty decisions involved the physical well being of my charges.

I would warn those who deal with sports or band practices or any sort of activity that is affected by extremes of temperature that they consider the possible problems with their schedules and the order in which they do things. The runners on that hot day that I witnessed had only exited their buses thirty minutes before the events began. That was hardly enough time to warm up for a very quick sprit halfway around the track much less an eight lap endurance test. That should have been obvious to the adults in charge by the end of the girls’ race. Sadly, to add insult to injury some of the coaches chided the long distance runners for being unable to prove their mettle regardless of what the heat was doing to their bodies. Of all people they should have been the most aware of the error of their decision, but they staunchly denied any problems when confronted by parents who were concerned by what had happened.

There will be other races for most of the kids, and they will learn and move on from the disappointment, but if the coaches don’t also learn a tragedy is waiting to happen. There is a reason that the 3200 race is usually the second to last event and it has a great deal to do with providing the athletes with time to warm up their bodies, and a consideration of the humid heat that reaches it peak in the shank of the afternoon. This travesty in timing should never happen again, and the coaches should be willing to admit the error of their ways.

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