Battling the elements isn't always easy, but with the right weapons you'll survive, and even prevail
There's heat, like the kind you endure on a midmorning run in July along the Old Dominion Trail near Washington, D.C. (average temperature 84 degrees). Then there's heat, like the 124-degree blast furnace you have to stumble through to complete the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon in Death
Valley. There's also cold, like when you're biking across the Golden Gate Bridge, and a nippy wind raises gooseflesh on your bare legs. But that's not cold—not the kind you'll suffer while snowshoeing in Alaska's Iditasport, where minus-20-degree temperatures turn your toes into ice sculpture.
Feel the burn: The view from Stage 4 in the 1998 Marathon des Sables
Whichever medium of personal misery you prefer—burning heat, immobilizing cold, crushing underwater depths, or dizzying altitude—you can achieve top performance in even the most brutal conditions. Whether there's prize money at stake, or just pride, you just need some scientific wisdom and a soupçon of common sense. "Most people who go
into extreme environments do so with solid knowledge, but they may get caught up in the excitement of the activity or get pressured to go beyond the point that they should stop," says Lawrence Armstrong, a professor of exercise physiology at the University of Connecticut's Human Performance Laboratory and author of Performing in
Extreme Environments. "But there's research that can help competitors and enthusiasts stay healthier and compete better."
Much of that research has been around for a while, but not all of it filters down to those who need it most—like, say, hot-weather marathoners who douse themselves with cold water during a race, but who may not realize that it does almost nothing to lower their overall body temperature. Extreme environments almost inevitably cause physiological
stress, especially to those who are hard-core—or nuts—enough to subject themselves to really serious punishment. The key is understanding how factors like hot and cold disrupt internal homeostasis (your body's cellular equilibrium as reflected in temperature, oxygen flow, etc.) and then compensating for those fluctuations while running, riding,
diving, or hauling yourself up Pikes Peak.
Being smart starts with the basics. "Maintaining core temperature, staying hydrated, and a having a healthy immune system are all important," says Armstrong, an avid hiker and runner with 14 marathons to his credit. But other strategies may surprise you. "Even air ionization that happens just before a storm moves in can affect performance," he says. "Few
people know that, but those conditions may mean you should adjust your pace or hydrate more."
To help give you an edge when prepping for, and performing in, severe environments, we've isolated the four cardinal extremes—heat, cold, depth, and altitude—and focused on key points for each. Once you've digested the data, consult the list of events on page 138 so you can test what you've learned. The next time your friends are bragging
about how fast they ran Boston, you need only show up wearing your official finisher's T-shirt from the Everest Marathon. —DAVID PESCOVITZ