Tuesday, May 22

Vacation brain

The Green Bay marathon issue stirred up a pet peeve of mine (see yesterday's post). This pet peeve is an affliction I refer to as "vacation brain."

Vacation brain is the common ailment that strikes vacationers and recreation-ers alike, causing them to throw caution to the wind due to an overwhelming sense that "nothing bad happens on vacation."
  • I've seen tourists walk into oncoming traffic. (What makes you think a Manhattan cab is going to stop just because you want to cross the street?)
  • I've watched families in Yellowstone get out of the car and approach a grizzly bear for a photo op. (Really people? Those things bite!)
  • I once saw a hiker crouch down with his 3-year-old toddler to point out a mountain lion 20 yards away. (Again with the biting! A toddler looks like lunch to that cat.)
  • I passed a lady 2 miles down into the Grand Canyon. She was wearing high heels. (Hello honey, don't you realize you have to walk back UP? And didn't you see the signs at the top about proper gear and precautions?)
  • I personally took a water taxi to a remote beach in Cabo to snorkel. Alone. (Yes, folks. That might be the dumbest thing I've ever done.)
  • We've all heard the Aron Ralson story...and...
  • I've seen otherwise sensible runners push themselves to the point of injury just because an event is called a "race."
In short, "vacation brain" makes us poor judges of risk.
Image source

If a bear sauntered into a family's back yard, they'd lock the doors and call animal control. But on vacation, risk assessment gets all screwed up somehow. Not only does the family not lock the doors, they reach out to pet the grizzly!

Then, if something does go wrong, emergency personnel and good samaritans will drop everything to help out, which might put even more people in danger.

Getting back to the marathon issue, everything I've heard from runners at Green Bay suggests that the course was well supported. Water stations were ample. (The event organizer added extra water stops when they learned of the warm weather forecast.) In addition, there were cooling/spraying stations along the route. This was not a situation in which the event coordinators were unprepared. In fact, by all accounts, volunteers stayed on the course to support runners even after the event was closed down.

Green Bay organizers did the race equivalent of shooing the bears away, and when that didn't work, they shut the race down.

Sometimes race organizers do deserve blame for poor planning, but this doesn't seem to be one of those cases.

So why, then, did dozens of runners seek medical attention?

I suspect it's a combination of factors.

Running in the heat is hard. Duh.
(Those of us who live in the south speak from experience.)
Some people have more trouble in the heat than others. Some people will get injured during a large half marathon no matter how good the planning is - it's a law of large numbers issue.

Running in the heat requires acclimation.
(Wisconsin in May is not Florida in May... That does make a difference, even if I would prefer to think we're just tougher down here.)

But no matter what the location or time of year: running in the heat doesn't need to turn into a total circus. That brings me back to... Vacation Brain.

Some of the responsibility for race safety should be pointed back at us - the participants.

Call it vacation-brain, call it race-day ego, call it poor risk assessment. No matter what the name is, it is our instinct to react differently during a "race" than we would in our own backyard. We're supposed to "tough it out" because it's a race. Or we expect that things will be fine because we're in the "safe" environment of an organized event.

Unfortunately, not stopping when we feel overheated is the running equivalent of that photo op with the grizzly (or my solo snorkeling expedition in Cabo).

Each and every day we need to assess risks as they are before us, not as they wish they would be.

Treating heat illness
Image source
Even thought I know most readers already know the basics, I'm going to repeat something I posted a couple of weeks ago (from Medlineplus.gov):
  • Heatstroke - a life-threatening illness in which body temperature may rise above 106° F in minutes; symptoms include dry skin, rapid, strong pulse and dizziness
  • Heat exhaustion - an illness that can precede heatstroke; symptoms include heavy sweating, rapid breathing and a fast, weak pulse
  • Heat cramps - muscle pains or spasms that happen during heavy exercise
  • Heat rash - skin irritation from excessive sweating

So, running friends, as we roll into the summer months, please stay cool out there!
Be safe!
(And avoid the bears.)

What's the silliest thing you've ever done or seen someone do on vacation?


  1. I have seen many stupid things done in Yosemite. I planned my Half Dome hike about 1 year in advance and began hiking regularly so it wouldn't be such a shock. It's 14 miles takes 10-14 hours and is a 4800 foot elevation gained. I'm always amazed how many people think they can just do it without training. The last part of the hike on the actual "dome" uses cables to hold on. As much as I had read about it, I was scared from the switchbacks. I was also nervous when I got to the cables and saw that it was taking people 45 minutes to get up. I didn't want to be the person who freaked out and held up the line, so I waited for my friends to go & come back. I'm glad to see that they now require permits to hike Half Dome so it won't be so crowded. More details here: http://www.yosemitehikes.com/yosemite-valley/half-dome/half-dome.htm

  2. Cheesecake gives me "vacation brain"

  3. While I wasn't fool enough to approach a buffalo or bear at Yellowstone, I did approach a moose lying in the front yard of a park building. As I rounded the corner of said building, he stood up along with the herd of moose who were in the field to the side of the building where I couldn't see when I first decided to approach said moose. That's when I realized just how puny we humans are. Wow, that's a big animal! Stupid, I was, but it's still one of my favorite memories from the trip. I don't know what that says about me. Good points, here, though. Cheers!


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