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Extreme heat exhaution or heat stroke setting mountain biking distance record.

Sunday, June 19, 2011 by  
Filed under Daily Blog


On Saturday morning I woke up thinking of nothing but mountain biking. I felt especially positive and energetic that morning, and I could not wait to get out on the trails. Even though it was projected to be a very hot day, I decided that I was going to attempt to set a new distance personal record. My previous all-dirt mountain biking distance record was set on June 3, 2011 with a grueling run of 34.8 miles. My goal on Saturday was not only to go at least 36 miles, but also to push myself even harder than I had back on June 3rd (with occasional rest breaks, of course).

Because I knew it was going to be very hot that day I drank 36 ounces of water before leaving the house and took my usual multi-vitamin along with extra potassium, B6 and B12. For the ride I brought almost a gallon of water (100 ounces in my CamelBak HAWG, and another 24 ounces in a water bottle). I also packed several protein bars along with all of the usual survival and bike repair gear that I always take when I’m mountain biking in remote areas. Foolishly, I neglected to bring a source of electrolytes (I like Sport Beans), and this fateful mistake compounded the problems I would experience later in the day.

The Web Sled sure earned her name on Saturday.

The Web Sled sure earned her name on Saturday.

The heat was pretty serious: the Heat Index was 99 degrees, and the humidity was absolutely stifling. Adding to the already humid air, there was some rain the day prior and the dense forest trapped a lot of that hot moisture.

I could really feel the humidity in my lungs. Every time my heart rate went over 190 BPM I felt like I wasn’t able to draw enough oxygen–not a pleasant sensation. I was sweating profusely from the start of the ride, and my clothes were completely saturated in sweat after only a couple miles. Eventually I acclimated to the heat and humidity and didn’t think about them too much, at least not until the later stages of the ride.

Miles 19-26 took me through the most remote region of Wekiwa Forest (which I now call “Spider Forest”), and I could tell that no one had been back there recently because I have never run into so many spider webs across the trail. Most of them I shrugged off without much reaction, but several times the spiders wound up crawling on me and on my bike. The most unsettling moments of this section were the large Orb Weavers that landed directly on my face as I plowed through their webs. While I don’t really mind spiders too much, I don’t particularly enjoy the sensation of them crawling across my face. Enlarge the photograph just above to see how my bike looked (and a few of the passengers it picked up) when I emerged from this section of the forest.

This spider is big, but the one that crawled out of my helmet was bigger.

This spider is big, but the one that crawled out of my helmet was bigger.

I knew I’d been bitten by a few spiders, but all I saw were Orb Weavers so I was not worried (the bite of an Orb Weaver feels something like a bee sting, but they are not poisonous). I mention this because having all those spiders on me became a source of paranoia later in the day when I was trying to figure out what was going wrong with my body.

Despite the heat and humidity the first 30 miles went exceptionally well: I was really getting out fast, I felt strong and powerful and was having a blast!

Around mile 30 I approached a very challenging uphill with deep sugar sand and roots, and I went for it all-out. As I crested the hill I looked down at my heart rate monitor and sweat literally poured out of my helmet. My heart rate was, as expected, maxed at 196 BPM. I continued on…

About a 1/4 mile later I suddenly felt extreme nausea. I thought I was going to be sick, so I stopped for a break. I felt better after a couple of minutes, so I hopped back on the bike and continued. Not long after I was back in the saddle I felt like I could barely pedal. It wasn’t that weak feeling one gets when lacking energy; it was something else that I can’t really describe. I cut my pace to a slow crawl and drank water–a lot of water. I looked down at my heart rate monitor and what I saw scared me: 187 BPM. I was barely exerting myself, and my pulse was racing. I immediately stopped and sat right in the middle of the trail. The sun was directly on me, and I felt like I was going to pass out.

Before things got bad: Bike on a Trail shot, featuring a baby tortoise.

Before things got bad: Bike on a Trail shot, featuring a baby tortoise.

As I rested my heart rate dropped to 135 BPM, but it would not go any lower. I decided to get up and walk my bike until I reached a shady area. Almost as soon as I started walking my heart rate rocketed back into the mid 180s and I felt very dizzy. I realized that I’d stopped sweating and I had goosebumps on my arms. I had a dull, persistent headache.

When I got to shade I sat for about 10 minutes. My heart rate never dropped below 130 BPM. I thought I should eat, but I could not. I sipped water and tried to cool down. I wondered if I was suffering from extreme heat exhaustion, lack of electrolytes, a spider bite, or all three.

I got back on my bike and within 30 seconds my heart rate was back up into the upper 180s. Then the cramps started: first my quads, then my calves. My stomach was also in knots and I thought I was going to be sick. As I slowly rode along occasionally I’d catch sight of something out of the corner of my eye, but when I turned nothing was there. I was lucid enough to realize that things were getting serious. It was at this point that I started to question my ability to make it back on my own; for a stubborn bastard like me to admit something like that to himself… well, that’s pretty unfamiliar territory.

I saw the baby tortoise right before I entered Spider Forest.

I saw the baby tortoise right before I entered Spider Forest.

I was still around four miles from my car, and I’d only seen one other person on the trails the entire day. I knew if I passed out it would probably be several hours (at best) before anyone found me. I also knew that rescuers could only reach me by foot, and that would take a long, long time. I decided that somehow I had to make it out of there on my own.

I didn’t want to do this, but about a half-mile later I called Lisa and explained my situation. I told her that I thought I could make it back to the car in 30 minutes, and that if she did not hear from me within that time to call for help. She was so scared and upset. She later told me that she’d never heard me sound the way I did on that call. I barely remember talking to her.

I also don’t remember much about the final three miles, but I distinctly remember the moment I saw my car glimmering in the sun a mere 100 yards away. It was an incredible feeling, but I those last 100 yards felt like 10 miles to me.

I collapsed in the front seat of my car, called Lisa and blasted cold air on me for at least 15 minutes straight. I downed my spare 24 ounce bottle of water in less than a minute. I glanced down at my GPS. 36.9 miles. I smiled. Stubborn bastard.

When I got home I took a long, cool shower and stepped on the scale: despite drinking more than a gallon of water I was down 4.8 pounds from my morning scale weight.

Before I went to bed that night I’d consumed more than 2 additional gallons of various fluids. I was able to eat shortly after my shower, and by dinner time I was ravenous.

Yesterday morning my pulse was still almost twice its normal resting rate, and I felt hot and just sort of “off” all day long. At one point in the morning I went out back for a few minutes with Loki and I started sweating almost instantly.

I don’t know if I suffered a full-on heat stroke, but if I didn’t it was close. I am very lucky because the situation I put myself in could have ended in tragedy. I can tell you this: I learned from this scary experience. I will never go mountain biking again without electrolytes, and I will never push myself so hard over long distances in extreme heat.

Being slapped in the face by my own mortality–especially while doing something that normally makes me feel almost invincible–was a very strange and unpleasant feeling. It’s not a feeling I’ll soon forget.

John Stone Fitness Comments

2 Responses to “Extreme heat exhaution or heat stroke setting mountain biking distance record.”
  1. oh man, that’s like an episode of “I shouldn’t be alive”. Glad you made it safe. what will you bring next time? gatorade or something like that ?

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