When Hypothermia Sets In…

It is about 12kms into the 50km Canadian River Valley Revenge and I see Eric climb out of the ravine looking strong.  Surprisingly, he is the first runner through on the snowy single track and is followed about a minute later by a pack of three runners, all with frosty toques and icy beards.  The temperature is a brisk minus twenty three degrees and there is a strong windchill that is making it feel like minus thirty three. As he runs by me I ask Eric how he is feeling. He says that he feels good, isn’t in need of a change of mitts or buff and that he is glad he knows the course well as it is helping having been through the route before.  As he runs away from me, I am thinking to myself “what a great day, this is going to be so much fun supporting my son on his first ultra.” This is the last time I will see Eric until two hours later when he is brought back to race headquarters in a hypothermic state by Search and Rescue Volunteers. 

Eric just prior to race start

Hypothermia can occur when someone’s body temperature decreases to a point that is unsafe. Basically, the body ends up losing more heat than it is able to produce and this can be fatal in some cases. I am fortunate enough to have never personally had a situation in which I have experienced hypothermia. The thing about hypothermia is that it can be triggered in a matter of minutes and as well prepared as someone may be for the cold, if one unforeseen thing occurs, there can be a significant risk. Eric would be out in extreme cold for up to ten hours if he were to finish this race. Hypothermia wasn’t even a consideration when preparing for this event… preparing for it, or how to avoid it was just never considered because I did not think it would be an adversary of Eric’s.

Eric after being stripped down and wrapped back up. He would be in this state for nearly four hours.

I had last seen Eric at about the 12km mark of the race but when I went to see him at 18km’s, he never showed up. He was way behind schedule and we got to wondering what had happened. Had he had an injury, or fallen through the ice and into the creek? Perhaps he had taken a wrong turn and was already en route to race headquarters for the end of his first lap? There were a few of us out supporting him that day so we split up and I went to race headquarters where I laid out his change of clothes for lap two and waited patiently. Then I got a text that said “Eric is at the last aid station. He is not well. He is done.” My heart sank. My original reaction was a selfish one… I wanted him to finish this race, not for me, but for him because he had put in so much time and effort. I was even thinking that when I see him, maybe we can get him changed and back out on course. Then I saw him…

Eric at one of the aid stations on course

There are moments in your life that you remember because they leave a scar or permanent impression on you. This was one of them for me. Eric came into race headquarters very slowly with Search and Rescue Volunteers holding onto him and keeping him upright. He looked like someone had sucked the life right out of him. His face showed discomfort but also had a blank look as though he wasn’t quite himself at this moment. The volunteers sat him down in a chair and slowly started to peel the layers off one by one. He was dressed with four layers so it was a slow process but once the last one came off he was shaking uncontrollably. Socks and shoes also had to come off and his feet were like blocks of ice. A dry fleece sweater was put on his top half and he was laid down, wrapped into a space blanket with heating pads inside, then wrapped into a sleeping bag, followed by another sleeping bag and finally wrapped in a tarp. The volunteers took his vitals and told me that he was currently in a mild to moderate state of hypothermia. To give you all an idea of what this meant… it meant that his core body temperature was between two and five degrees (32-35 degrees celsius) cooler than it should normally be. His breathing was slow, his coordination was poor, and he was showing impaired judgment and cognition when he interacted with the volunteers. The most important thing at this time was to get his body temperature back up and warm his feet and hands that were like ice. As his body warmed up, the hope was the other symptoms would disappear. It would take over three hours of warming before he was able to get up under his own power.

Eric being treated to by Edmonton Regional Search and Rescue Association Volunteers
Photo courtesy of Sheryl Savard

So what had happened out there? It was definitely cold, but we had done training runs in similar conditions in the past two months. We started to piece the story together as Eric became more coherent and it turns out that he had a problem with the water hose on his hydration pack. When he had stopped at the aid station around 13kms into the race, the top was frozen and wouldn’t open. What ended up happening was that after much effort trying to get the top to open so water could flow, the top broke off and water sprayed all over his gloves. Then he took his gloves off and for ten minutes (or more) he tried fixing his hose with his bare, wet hands, in the exposed windchill of minus thirty three. Once he got it back on, he put his wet, cold gloves back on and started moving again but noticed his body getting colder and colder. Having to trample through fresh knee and hip deep snow in one spot didn’t help his condition. The cold was spreading from top to bottom, from hands to feet. He was finally reduced to a slow walk as his feet felt like blocks of ice. His hands were colder than he had ever felt them. And still he moved forward. Upon arrival at the final aid station of the first lap, he was immediately checked on by Search and Rescue Volunteers. At first they tried to get him warmed up enough that he could finish the final stretch of lap one to race headquarters. But after a few minutes it because quite clear that he shouldn’t go on. If he would have went on, one of the volunteers said, he likely would have been found passed out on the trail somewhere in the final three kilometres. It would have taken the volunteers longer to get to him and the outcome would likely have been much worse.

Eric leading the pack 5kms into the race

This was not the race report that I had planned on writing this week. I had plans to detail the full 50kms and highlight the ups and downs of “trailing” on the Canadian River Valley Revenge course. When Eric had been stripped down and bundled back up the first thing he said to me was “I’m sorry Dad.” I told him he had nothing to be sorry for and that we were all just glad he was safe. There will be other races and adventures to come. Myself, I felt like I had let him down. I had helped him prepare and plan for this event and this was something I just hadn’t considered. I mean, who considers a hose on your hydration pack leaking all over you in the arctic-like cold conditions we were experiencing? I should have. When Eric was in his warming state, I was speaking with Sheryl and Todd Savard, who are the Race Directors for Canadian River Valley Revenge. Sheryl asked me if I was going to write about hypothermia in my next blog. At the time I recall saying no, this was too hard to go through, I don’t think I will want to write about it. But… as the days went on after the event, I felt that I should highlight this day. Despite the scare that Eric gave all of us, there were so many positives that could be seen on what I originally felt was a horrific day. First and foremost, friends and family came out to see Eric start the race and to cheer him on course. He is a lucky guy to have such a great support network. Second, he toed the line of his first ultra. It may not have gone how he wanted it to, but he had the will and determination to try it. Third, Edmonton Regional Search and Rescue Association volunteers were amazing. Seriously, these volunteers do not get the credit they deserve sometimes. My family is forever indebted to your care for my son. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Fourth, Canadian River Valley Revenge has a great group of race participants and incredible Race Directors. Sheryl and Todd, thank you for checking in with us the next day. And last, we learned how quickly hypothermia can set in and if not treated in a timely fashion, can end horribly. It was a positive ending for Eric as he recovered quickly and does not have any lasting effects or symptoms.

Eric and Flying Moose teammate Carl prior to the race

Eric was fortunate in this situation that he came out in one piece and despite requiring nearly four hours of attention from Search and Rescue on race day to warm up, he was up and about in the days following. I told him the day after the race… “if that ever happens again in this type of cold weather, drop the pack and leave it. Gloves stay on. You stay moving. And perhaps wear some warmer socks just to make us all feel better from the start!” Eric is currently planning to still complete the full 50km course in the coming weeks, preferably in milder conditions… I’m looking forward to supporting him once again.

2 thoughts on “When Hypothermia Sets In…

  1. Thank you for writing the post article! It will help others. Good on your son for having great support and continuing his winter running despite this episode. I wrote about my RVR run here: https://www.facebook.com/shane.sadoway/posts/1182978728579564 . You might both find it interesting. I ran last year as well. The trick to keeping the hydration pack unfrozen is hot water from the tap, wrap in a towel, block back the tube every drink, and wear the pack under one windbreaking layer. Your body heat will keep the tube free.
    Kudos to your son’s effort! I’ve been running outside in the winters for almost 3 years now.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What an incredible and emotional post! I (Sheryl) paced Todd on the second half of a polar 50K when he was doing his first ultra, and he also got hypothermia. Had I not been with him, he did not have the ability to get himself help and just wound down like a wind-up toy at the end of its string. It really is scary stuff. Lessons were learned for us as well, the best lesson being the value of support in an ultra. What a great team you had surrounding your son. He’s going to do great things in the ultra scene.

    Liked by 1 person

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