Jun 10, 2009
It’s summertime. Everyone is in vacation mode. The days are longer, and we have more time to play outdoors. But overdoing it in the heat can take the fun out of summer in a hurry.
Hardin Watkins is in marathon shape. He should be; he has run eight marathons.
Watkins traveled to Vermont in May 2008 to run the Vermont marathon. At age 41, he had been training for months and was ready.
Just 50 yards from the finish line, Watkins went down, his body temperature spiking to 108.5 degrees. Paramedics carried him across the finish line on a gurney and plunged into a tank of icy water. Twelve hours later, he woke up in the intensive care unit of the Fletcher Allen Health Care center in Burlington, VT. He went into acute kidney failure, and fought for his life there for a week before being transferred back to Duke Raleigh Hospital.
Watkins is well known in the Triangle. He is the manager of the Town of Garner. His brother, Battle, is head basket ball coach at Knightdale High School.
“When we hear about heat exhaustion, we hear a lot more about football,” said Wake County Public Schools Athletic Director Bobby Guthrie. “But the thing you have to keep in mind is that whether you play tennis, or golf or soccer, heat issues can catch up with you, regardless of the physical shape you are in.”
Even if you are fit enough to run a marathon.
All organizations associated with school sports, from the NC High School Athletic Association to the various school systems to individual schools have guidelines in place to help coaches and athletes avoid heat-related injuries and illness.
Policies and procedures don’t always prevent tragedies. Last summer during football practice at Chapel Hill High School Atlas Fraley, who had a history of problems with dehydration, collapsed and died at his home after a practice. It was widely reported that he had taken in fluids, but he became ill and called 911 from his home. Paramedics arrived, assessed him, and then left. Fraley died later. Although the state’s medical examiner never presented a specific cause of death, some health experts believe it was due to dehydration.
Schools have trainers on staff, and at most sports, they are present during matches and practices. But high school athletes often train or play on the weekends with their buddies, when no trainers are around. It is important to know the warning signs and how to be careful, Guthrie said.
But sometimes, you don’t recognize those signs. Watkins didn’t.
“Let’s face it, at the end of a marathon, you feel horrible anyway; you are exhausted, and I have always been taught to suck it up,” Watkins said.
He has no memory of the final steps in his fateful race.
“I remember passing my wife, Liz, at the 26-mile mark; she took my picture and I waived. The next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital two days later, and didn’t know what happened,” he said. “When they told me, of course my first question was ‘did I finish the race?’”
The paramedics who took him off of the course made sure his race chip went off when they carried him across the finish line, and he logged a finish time of 5:06.42, his targeted time.
“You read all this stuff about the symptoms of heat stroke - you stop sweating, feel dizzy. I didn’t feel any of those things,” he said.
Watkins has stopped running full marathons, but he has not stopped running. He has completed five half marathons since his near-death experience, and is thankful that he was surrounded by spectators, his wife and medical personnel.
“We (in the school system) have started advising athletes to use the buddy system,” Guthrie said. “Find someone you’re with most of the day during practice. You all buddy up and talk to each other.”
The Wake School System, like others, requires athletes to have physicals and report their medical histories. Coaches should also know about any sort of health issues or pre-existing conditions.
“If you have a previous adverse medical history, any mention of a problem will grab a coach or trainer’s attention,” Guthrie said. “Red flags go up everywhere.”
In sports, athletes want to push themselves. That’s how they improve.
“There’s a fine line as to how far you can go,” Guthrie said. “If something doesn’t feel right, let somebody know.”
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