The Sublime Agony of Hot-Weather Running
A late-summer ode to sweating it out
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
A few weeks ago, I received a PR email offering to put me in touch with an Accuweather meteorologist who, remarkably, was also a runner. “With more readers now trying to pinpoint the best time in their day for an outdoor run,” the email read, this savvy weatherperson would be able to “provide expert insight on this summer’s running forecast and tips on how to plan an outdoor run like a meteorologist.” I didn’t end up taking advantage of this unique opportunity—as the Dostoevsky of running writers, I prefer to focus on the big questions like when it’s appropriate for a man to run shirtless—but I’m going to guess that the expert insight would have amounted to something along the lines of: “Try to avoid running when it’s really fucking hot.”
Then again, I’m the last person who has any right to be a smartass about this. I live in New York City and during the excruciating summer months, I have a talent for picking what is objectively the stupidest time to exercise. More often than not, I’ll head out in the middle of the day when it’s 94 degrees and the city’s famous olfactory charms are at their most ripe. NYC summer running can be oppressive in normal times, but in 2020, our year of the plague, there’s the additional running-with-a-mask factor. On those monstrous afternoons where the dew point is in the mid-70s, covering your airways while running really doesn’t enhance the experience—or it does, depending on what kind of experience you’re looking for.
I realize there’s an obvious way to mitigate the unpleasantness of summer running, but I am what might pretentiously be called a morning runner manqué. Many times, I’ve tried and failed to turn myself into one of those righteous dawn patrollers, who have conquered all of their demons and will inherit the Earth. On those rare occasions where I do manage to go out at 6 A.M., I’m always certain that I’m finally going to turn my life around by making a habit of it. This conviction usually lasts about 24 hours until, after another night of horrible sleep, the idea of running eight miles before breakfast is about as appealing as lighting myself on fire.
Instead, I’ve decided to embrace the midday slogfest.
On the one hand, I suppose I could justify running at the hottest time of day by retroactively claiming the supposed fitness benefits. I’m not doing this in the middle of the afternoon because I was too lazy to do it in the morning, but because I am committed to increasing my blood plasma so I can dominate the competition at this year’s Turkey Trot. Unfortunately, my overall lifestyle serves as a poor alibi for this level of athletic devotion. And what’s the point of deceiving yourself when you can’t even believe your own lie?
It’s a cliché among endurance athletes that heat and humidity are the poor man’s altitude training. The verdict is still out on that one, but heat and humidity are certainly the poor man’s steam bath, minus any relaxation or wafting Eucalyptus. “It’s a steam bath outside” is of course also a cliché, but it works. I used to find New York City summer running beyond torturous. Now, with a little imagination, there are days where I can embrace it as a New Age-y sweat-based regimen among the skittering rodents.
I should also note that the ostensibly miserable pursuit of hot weather running can be used to set up moments of thirst-quenching bliss. (Although planning ahead has never been one of my strengths, I can be quite resourceful when it comes to arranging my personal hedonism.) There’s a guy on my street who sells watermelons from the back of a pickup truck during the summer. Sometimes I’ll buy one right before going for a run, cut it into chunks, and toss it in the freezer. When I stagger back into my apartment an hour later, those pink, fleshy cubes will have a light rime. Add a little mint and lime juice, and it’s straight-up ecstasy in a bowl. Life may be short and meaningless, but it’s possible to momentarily forget the inevitable eventual annihilation of everything you hold dear when you’re devouring iced melon chunks on a Tuesday afternoon in early August.
Or maybe coming up with justifications for running in hot weather is beside the point. People already run for all sorts of smart, rational, and ultimately boring reasons—stress management, weight loss, camaraderie. Maybe I’m just trying to romanticize a sport that feels ever more co-opted by Type As with their oppressive performance metrics, hideous shoes, and “fueling strategies,” but part of me wants to believe that there can also be something sexy and self-destructive about the voluntary embrace of discomfort that finds its fullest expression by going running when it’s a thousand degrees. What if, rather than just being a total moron, the hot-weather runner is the anti-hero of the endurance sports world—someone who consciously embraces the irrational in pursuit of a more vivid sensory experience?
At least that’s what I’ll tell myself the next time my alarm goes off before 6 A.M. and I can’t be bothered to get out of bed.