Drinking Problems

Hydration is both an art and a science. And sometimes, it's just hard to figure out.

Photo: Illustration by Kevin Howdeshell

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I cannot overstate the importance of proper hydration.

Nonsense. I could easily overstate the importance of proper hydration. I could say, “Not being properly hydrated is the leading cause of impotence in trail runners,” or, “Without proper hydration, rabid gophers will hunt you down and chew your lips off.”

The truth is, proper hydration isn’t the most important thing. Coffee is the most important thing, but getting fluids is right up there, too.

Let’s say you’re in your 20s and you and your buddy decide to go run the Grand Canyon. You drink coffee to stay awake and drive most of the night to get there. When you step onto the South Rim the next morning, “We Are the Champions” is blasting on the radio and you feel good. But that’s mostly because you just downed a Mountain Dew for breakfast. You start running and, before you know it, you’re in the canyon bottom, asking your buddy, “Did you bring any water?”

When he says, “No,” you realize your college degrees are worth about their weight in finishers’ ribbons because you didn’t bring any, either. Slogging uphill many hours later, you both collapse trailside from dehydration.

That’s when you decide to eat cactus. You cut off a prickly pear cactus with your pocketknife, trim the big needles, peel the skin and devour the fleshy insides, only to realize four zillion microscopic cactus slivers are now stuck in your lips.

Clearly, not being properly hydrated can lead to cactus slivers permeating your lips. The important thing was that we made it out, even if our dignity didn’t.

Coincidentally, it was in this era that someone invented water bottles. After our trip, we bought some.

Hydration scientists would probably recommend you carry a water bottle to run the Grand Canyon. But two survivors proved you don’t need water at all. Just perseverance, and tweezers.

Of course, if you want to figure your sweat rate so you can ascertain how many water bottles to carry on a run like the Grand Canyon, hydration experts have come up with a formula: Get naked and weigh yourself (pre-run), run for an hour at your anticipated pace (not necessarily naked), weigh yourself naked again (post-run). Subtract your post-run weight from your pre-run weight and multiply that figure by 16 ounces.

Example: 150 pre-run weight minus 148 post-run weight is two pounds. Two times 16 ounces is 32 ounces of fluid lost. You’ll need to replace 32 ounces each hour, or eight ounces ever 15 minutes. Scientists are so logical.

I didn’t research formulas when I rode my bicycle to the Pacific Ocean from Colorado one August. I just loaded up my wheels with 80 pounds of gear, including three gallon water jugs. When I saw the sign “No Services Next 100 Miles” in the Nevada desert, I laughed, because I thought I had all the water I needed. Then, when I was 90 miles into a planned 125, the temperature reached 113 degrees. Two tires burst because the hot pavement melted holes in them. I quit laughing, and patched the holes with one of the water jugs under an overpass.

It was there I discovered I couldn’t force myself to drink hot water, even if it was wet, in blistering heat. I doused myself instead, letting breezes cool me, and waited for nightfall, counting heatstroke symptoms … eight. When it got dark and the temperature dropped below 100, I continued riding.

But that wasn’t a problem. The problem was walking into a restroom near Vegas at 3 a.m. to refill my water jugs and having two drunk rednecks want to beat me up for wearing Lycra bike shorts.

The obvious lesson here is: lack of proper hydration can lead to violence. (Some people just don’t like Lycra.)

Exercise physiologists might’ve recommended baggier shorts, and a flavorful drink mix to make the hot water more palatable. A high-energy electrolyte concoction with sodium might’ve taken the edge off some heatstroke symptoms.

Out on the trail, you should know your limits and preferences when it comes to getting fluids. I’ve found mine on days like these and have used that knowledge in trail running ever since. I’ve also found that even a dehydrated desert drifter in Lycra can still move faster than two alcoholically hydrated rednecks in boots and jeans.

Bernie drinks … green tea mostly.

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