‘In 2017, I hope to be the first person to run across Antarctica’

Overheating is a bigger risk than hypothermia, says Irish ultrarunner Richard Donovan

The American journalist Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914) defined out-of-doors as "chiefly useful to inspire poets".

There would be little agreement with this definition among those who contribute to the world market in adventure tourism, which according to the September 2016 Adventure Tourism Development Index Report is valued at $263 billion and which grew by an estimated 65 per cent between 2009 and 2012.

This market includes a growing industry dedicated to meeting the demands of those whose tastes in running are at the extreme end of the activity spectrum.

And that's where you'll find Ireland's ultrarunner Richard Donovan, who's not only founder and organiser of the Antarctic Ice Marathon & 100k the southernmost marathon and ultramarathon in the world, respectively – but also of the World Marathon Challenge (WMC) – where competitors aim to complete seven marathons on seven continents in seven days and the North Pole Marathon (NPM) www.npmarathon.com also billed as the World's Coolest Marathon.

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With entry to the 2018 World’s Coolest Marathon (the 2017 event is sold out) costing €16,000, and €36,000 euro for the 2017 WMC, extreme running is a popular, and serious, business.

But the former economist doesn’t just organise challenging events.

His list of achievements includes winning the first, and only, South Pole Marathon; he was the first marathoner at both Poles; won the Antarctic 100k three times; ran 100 miles in one day on the Antarctic Continent, marking the centenary of Amundsen reaching the South Pole in 1911; and twice broke the record for running seven marathons on seven continents, clocking 4 days 22 hours 3 minutes.

And Richard Donovan has a new challenge. He told The Irish Times: "I'm hoping to become the first person in history to run across Antarctica later this year (see https://vimeo.com/103023441). I've already run across North America and Europe, and will run across South America this year before the attempt across Antarctica in November."

And as Donovan himself points out, when the history of polar running is written, Ireland will be well represented: "Author and extreme runner Michael Collins won the 2006 NPM; Thomas Maguire won the 2007 NPM in a record time; Emer Dooley won the women's NPM in 2010; and Gary Thornton won the 2013 NPM. At the other end of the earth, Keith Whyte won the Antartcic 100k in 2015 in record time, and Gary Thornton also won the 2016 Antarctic Ice Marathon."

An obvious hazard of running in temperatures of around -30°C is, one would imagine, the risk of hypothermia, but as Donovan will explain later, the possibility of overheating can’t be discounted.

A review in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine defined hypothermia as a drop in core temperature below 35°C. Surprisingly, perhaps, it noted that "The incidence of hypothermia and frostbite in athletes during winter months is low," with hypothermia and frostbite accounting for only 3 per cent to 5 per cent of all injuries in mountaineers and 20 per cent of all injuries in Nordic skiers.

Polar regions

And it would be mistaken to assume that the dangers of hypothermia to runners are limited to the polar regions. For example, on November 13th, 1982 the Lancet published the first documented case of hypothermia in a modern marathon runner.

It occurred in October 1982 when a 47-year-old man collapsed within 30 metres of the finishing line during the Glasgow Marathon. The race was run in mainly dry conditions at 12°C, with wind speeds of 16 to 40 km per hour. The competitor had a rectal temperature of 34.3°C (it’s normally 37°C). Unfortunately, he died 12 days later of a heart condition to which his hypothermia may have been a contributory factor.

A subsequent study of 59 runners in the 1982 Aberdeen Marathon held in dry conditions, at 12°C and a wind speed of 26 km per hour, found that four runners completed the race with rectal temperatures below normal, “showing that body temperature can fall even when running in relatively mild conditions”.

And in July 2008 the German newspaper Der Spiegel reported how two mountain runners, aged 41 and 45 years "died from a combination of hypothermia and fatigue", just ten minutes short of the finishing line while competing in a race up the Zugspitze, Germany's highest mountain. They had been unprepared for a sudden summer snowstorm, as were a further six runners who contracted hypothermia but survived. With more runners competing in both marathons and mountain-based running events, it is perhaps timely to highlight a study undertaken by Dr Martin Burtscher, of the University of Innsbruck, Austria, and colleagues, who investigated "Effects of Lightweight Outdoor Clothing on the Prevention of Hypothermia During Low-Intensity Exercise in the Cold".

Their results emphasise the fact that even lightweight wind-proof clothing can protect against hypothermia in adverse weather conditions.

They undertook their study of nine healthy, well-trained volunteers (average age 26 years) on treadmills installed in a climate chamber. After initial testing to establish each subject’s maximum rate at which their heart, lungs and muscles could effectively use oxygen – the VO2 max – the subjects, wearing T-shirts, shorts and gloves walked for up to three hours on a treadmill with a 20 per cent gradient at a temperature of zero°C and a wind speed of 10 km per hour. The initial walking speed was set at 70 per cent of the individual VO2 max for one hour, and thereafter three groups were selected and “… subjects continued exercising at 30 per cent VO2 max for an additional 60 minutes or until core temperature dropped below 35.5°C.”

Wind-breaker jackets

The first group walked without a change of clothing; a second group continued walking, having donned polyester caps and lightweight wind-breaker jackets; and a third group wore the same as the second group plus waterproof and breathable long trousers. Exercise continued until subjects either became uncomfortable or when their core temperatures dropped below 35°C.

There were two main findings of the study. First, “exercising at 70 per cent VO2 max in the cold was sufficient to maintain core temperature ...”

Second, wearing only a wind-breaker jacket in addition to cap and gloves was insufficient to increase core temperature during low-intensity exercise. However, “The additional use of light wind-breaker [trousers] effectively supported heat storage and increase in core temperature. The importance of wearing wind-breaker trousers appears to be related to the fact that heat loss remains relatively high “at the sites of contracting muscles.”

When skin temperature drops below 25°C, “a strong drive arises to walk or run faster to increase core temperature”. However, once fatigue sets in, increased exercise intensity cannot be maintained. Based on their findings the authors strongly recommend taking a cap and wind-breaker jacket and trousers “ for the prevention of hypothermia during exhaustive walking or running in cold weather conditions”.

Commenting on these studies, Donovan suggests that the reason people in more moderate climates get hypothermia is due to clothing: “Whereas people going to polar climates are aware of the dangers, hypothermia is probably unexpected in a city marathon or a marathon in a populated location.

“But cold is cold, regardless of the location, and the same principles of protection apply. I always tell clients they must have wind shells to hand. Appropriate clothing is the key, and this involves wearing layers, not heavy garments. For example, a base layer for legs and torso to wick sweat away from the body; an added insulation layer for the torso; and wind shells for both torso and legs.”

Donovan also underlines the importance of wind shells having zips for ventilation: “A runner’s enemy in cold weather can be overheating, in that hypothermia could ensue if the sweat freezes, hence the importance of ventilation. It’s always best to start an event slightly cold, and one also needs to be very careful with the peripherals: fingers, toes, nose, so facemasks and gloves are important.”

Mittens (gloves with no fingers) enable the circulation of warm air compared to regular gloves, if your fingers are prone to cold. And of course,” he adds, “goggles are important in places like the Antarctic, with bright sunshine or snow blindness distinct possibilities. If a body part feels very cold, e.g. a nose becomes white in appearance, it is important to warm with bare skin, so take your hand out of a glove to touch and warm the cold spot. Otherwise, it won’t warm. It’s important to manage resources, mental and physical, in cold weather.”

And Richard Donovan offers a final piece of advice: “Try to remain in control!”