High, hot and dry—not typically a hospitable environment for cyclists from the low and mild climates of the Pacific Northwest, as I found out.
It begins with training specific to the event one will be participating in. Training for extreme conditions, such as high elevations and heat, is nearly impossible in the Pacific Northwest, though.
I found this out during the "Death Ride," a competition for well-trained cyclists who tackle five high and hard mountain passes in one day. Each pass consists of an hour-and-half to two-hour climb, each of which is more than 8,000 feet with steep, dangerously fast descents.
The distance: 129 miles. The temperature: 90 degrees or more.
On ride day, after about six hours and two long mountain passes, the electrolyte drink I had no longer tasted good. I knew I had to drink and stop at the rest stops for food, but I didn't replenish my body with the critical electrolytes that water simply couldn't provide.
The hotter and further into the ride I got, the more water I drank. Salt crusted around my mouth, and my stomach was so swollen I looked like the Pillsbury Doughboy.
By the last pitch before the top of the third pass—a 12 percent grade—I didn't feel well but thought resting in the shade and drinking water would solve the problem.
Around eight hours into the ride, I couldn't think clearly or keep up. I could hardly move the pedals. I don't remember much after that, other than my friend calling for an ambulance. I was in and out of consciousness en route to South Lake Tahoe Hospital.
While in the emergency room, I heard a voice say, "Don't' give her any more water!" My next drink was Gatorade, which didn't stay down, and then I lost consciousness for the next 12 hours.
I am lucky. I am lucky that a good friend called the medics. I am lucky that the emergency room doctors quickly diagnosed and treated a condition called Hyponatremia.
Hyponatremia is one of the most common electrolyte disorders—a metabolic condition in which there is not enough sodium in the body fluids outside the cells. This imbalance of sodium causes the brain cells to swell, which can lead to brain herniation, coma and death.
When I regained consciousness, my doctor told me my sodium level was that of an 80-year-old who hadn't eaten for four days.
The symptoms of Hyponatremia
• Muscle weakness
• Decreased consciousness
Recognize the signs, and take precautions to keep yourself safe during strenuous activity. Hydrate smartly. Fueling properly for your events is critical and can save your life; as can a friend. So make sure never to ride alone. No matter your level of athleticism, just be prepared. We're not invincible.