BY CYNTHIA BILLHARTZ GREGORIAN
Posted: Friday, July 22, 2011 12:11 am
ST. LOUIS • Joseph Hayes told a fib. His mother asked the other day if he has been running during the ongoing heat wave.
"I said, ‘No, ma'am,' because I did not want to hear a lecture," said Hayes, 69, of St. Louis.
But there he was Thursday morning, getting ready to start a sweaty, six-mile slog with a group of retired men, ages 61 to 73, who call themselves "The Legends of Forest Park."
The group has been running together several times a week for more than 30 years. They run when it's 8 below zero with a windchill. They run when there's snow and ice on the ground and rain falling from the sky.
And they run when St. Louis is under an excessive heat warning. The current heat warning has been in effect since Saturday and will be until 7 p.m. Sunday.
The "Legends of Forest Park" know that some people think they're crazy.
After all, two people in the Metro East died of heatstroke Wednesday as the temperature hit 100 degrees.
Experts strongly recommend that most people move their workouts indoors. But elite and endurance athletes can survive exercising in saunalike conditions.
"After 30 years, you adapt," Hayes said. "Your body just gets used to it, whether it's cold or hot."
Jason Bennett, an instructor in the department of physical therapy and athletic training at St. Louis University, agrees.
Elite and endurance athletes are more efficient at dissipating heat, he said. "They sweat earlier than nonathletes because their systems respond more quickly to heat, and that can be both core and environmental temperatures."
Bennett points out that they also tend to be lean, so they don't have as much adipose tissue, or body fat, insulating their core. And they usually pay attention to hydration needs.
Bennett worked as an athletic trainer at a soccer tournament with hundreds of children running around in the heat last weekend.
"They were tolerating it because they're lean and they play in it all the time," he said. "But there were parents on the sidelines who aren't in it all the time and who have more body fat, and I had to call 911 because one of them was experiencing heat illness.
"If you haven't been acclimating as the temperature has been ticking up in the past several weeks," he added, "you shouldn't be out in it."
For athletes committed to playing or training in the heat, hydrating before, during and after is crucial, and Bennett recommends they keep tabs on the color of their urine. "If it's straw- or dark-colored, that's not good. It needs to be clear or light yellow," he said, adding that sports drinks are a must to replace electrolytes when exercising more than an hour.
The "Legends of Forest Park" have the same goal - to keep their blood pressure and cholesterol low, their hearts strong and their moods high.
Or as Elson Williams, 66, of St. Louis, put it: "We want to stay alive."
The men meet four times a week inside the Forest Park Visitors Center at about 8 a.m., then run six to 10 miles.
No one can pinpoint the exact year they began running together, but Hayes said he was running about 1.2 miles at Jones Park in East St. Louis in the late 1970s and decided he wanted to go farther.
He and a friend drove to Forest Park, where they found longer running paths and like-minded runners in the Visitor Center locker room.
"We all just kind of jelled," he said. "Runners seem to have a lot of the same values."
They philosophize and talk about current events and politics while they run. Thursday's topic was China's booming economy.
"We talked about dictatorships and what a dictatorship really is," said Gary Forde, 61, of St. Louis, as he cooled down by a water fountain. "Now, they aren't Princeton-Harvard discussions. They're laced with expletives to emphasize a point that's being made."
The group keeps socializing outside of running to a minimum. Too much time together, they figure, might cause squabbles.
Frank Allen, 73, of St. Louis and the eldest of the bunch, recalls several of them going to a funeral together a few years back. And every year or so, they picnic together with family members. They run road races together. But that's it.
"Sometimes I've been running and not known someone's name for the first several months," he said.
After their run Thursday, which took about an hour and 10 minutes, Allen ran up and down a flight of stairs in the Visitors Center while Forde stretched and walked backward.
Normally they run longer.
"But for this week, there's no sense in it," said Forde. "What purpose does it serve? We have a keen sense of our bodies, and we know how much we can push and how much to hold back. We know when to stop and drink or find a shady spot. We exercise judgment."