As I have alluded to in the past, I had another opportunity to step back into the Brock Kinesiology lab to participate in another series of tests and, consequentially, further develop my overall ‘mental toughness’ this year. This time around the research dealt with the effects of heating and cooling on firefighters. Yup, this means I got to dress up as a firefighter and live out the dream of every little boy on the entire planet including myself. Seriously, who didn’t want to be a firefighter growing up?
I got the email from Matt a few months ago inquiring if I was up to the challenge. I like to think that he remembered me on account of my God like level of uber-fitness and total domination on the bike, but as I disclosed in my previous blog post during the ‘Separate and Combined Effects of Hydration Status and Thirst on Voluntary Exercise Capacity’ study (click HERE) that, well, sadly, this wasn’t necessarily the case. It was probably more along the lines of ‘who else would be stupid enough to do it?’, but I digress…
Whatever is was, I agreed immediately. What can I say? I like testing my mental fortitude in interesting and challenging ways; I’m a sucker for data and information about my current level of fitness; and maybe…just maybe…I missed having something stuck up my ass. Who knows? But, hey, they promised me a t-shirt…so how could I say no?
Anyway, this particular study went by the rather spiffy title of ‘Effects of Cranial Cooling on Temperature, Ventilatory, and Perceptual Responses to Exercise in Fire Protective Ensemble’ (say that three times fast). The purpose of the research was to study the effects of cranial cooling during recovery on temperature and breathing responses during exercise with fire protective clothing ensemble.
When we exercise, our muscles produce heat. If the heat can be released to the environment the body can “thermoregulate” itself and, theoretically, remain somewhat comfortable and functioning adequately. The protective clothing used by firefighters traps the heat, which often results in a condition called “Uncompensable Heat Stress” (UHS). In UHS, body temperature is elevated and work capacity can be severely impaired. In order to reduce the effects of UHS, the study is seeking to explore countermeasures that help to cool the body either during exercise or during recovery periods. This particular study was designed to evaluate the effects of a cooling strategy that pumps cool water through aspecial green balaclava-like hood that can be easily worn during recovery periods. The testing for the study involves periods of hard exercise followed by recovery periods aimed at monitoring how this cooling strategy might affect body temperature and breathing.
What this meant for me in the long run (or short walk, if you will), is four separate parts scheduled over approximately two to four weeks. The duration of each part will vary between 1.5 and 3 hours. The first includes a ‘Graded Exercise Test’ (GXT) which measures my peak oxygen uptake (VO2peak) while walking on a treadmill wearing the full fire protective ensemble (FPE) and breathing with a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA); the second part is a practice familiarization session of two 20 minute periods of exercise and two 20 minute periods of recovery, complete with measurements on my core temperature (yes, this means the probe), skin temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, perceptions of effort, breathing and temperature stress, respiratory muscle strength, body weight, and urine specific gravity. Sounds like fun, amiright? Fortunately there was no need for blood samples so I wouldn’t have to undergo the whole IV insertion unpleasantness, so that’s good. The next two parts consist of the actual study sessions identical to the practice trial; one trial will use the cranial cooling technique during recovery.
The initial explanation and consent form said this about the study:
“The exercise and heat stress experienced in this experiment will be challenging.”
This could quite well be the understatement of the century, but more on that later.
Day 1: The Graded Exercise Test
The GXT involved about 15 minutes of exercise on a treadmill where the exercise gets slightly harder every two minutes or so. The treadmill speed is set at a normal walking pace and will not change throughout the test. At the start the treadmill will be level but the grade will increase slightly every two minutes. As the test proceeds the exercise gets more and more challenging until, eventually, I can’t go any further due to the extreme exhaustion. At this point, they can determine my highest rate of oxygen consumption, or my VO2peak.
Here is a snippet from the consent form:
“The graded exercise test requires maximal effort in order to keep exercising until exhaustion. There may be some health risk with this type of exercise. During and following test, it is possible that you may experience symptoms such as abnormal blood pressure, fainting, lightheadedness, muscle cramps or strain, nausea and, in very rare cases, heart rhythm disturbances or heart attack.”
Basically, nothing I mightn’t experience on a typical Friday night anyway so, yeah baby, let’s get it on.
During the test, I was expected to be dressed in the full FPE and breathe through a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). I will admit to being really excited for this part as, like I mentioned above, I had that typical firefighter fantasy as a child. With some assistance, I was fitted into the rather heavy outfit complete with cotton shirt and pants, jacket, overalls, hood, tank, helmet and gloves. In all, the entire ensemble adds an additional 22.5 kg (50 lbs.) of weight and therefore resistance to the workout. Once I was successfully ensconced in my suit, I kind of felt like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man but, still, it was pretty cool. Complete with the inhaling and exhaling sound through the SCBA gear, the whole getup reminded me of that classic horror B-movie scene where you see the psycho killer approaching the unsuspecting victim from the vantage point of looking through the eye holes of their mask. The breathing especially is a bit challenging at first and the minimal visibility of the visor makes things rather claustrophobic. Now I know how Anakin Skywalker must have felt behind the Darth Vader mask.
First all the usual body fat and weight measurements were taken. If I ever see another pair of calipers again it’ll be too soon, let me tell you. However, making things a little more awkward this time around was the PhD student in charge of the study was a girl named Maz and another assistant, Tyce, was from Brazil. So, yeah, just what every insecure, aging, fat triathlete wannabe enjoys: having his folds of body fat scrutinized and recorded with attractive females in the room.
“Oh boy, can we?!”
Eventually, we were ready to begin. Before the test started I was allowed to warm-up on the treadmill to get accustomed to being in my suit. Imagine walking normally on a treadmill. No big deal, right? Now imagine doing it while dressed in a 50 lb. clown suit complete with head; the SCBA apparatus was particularly awkward and definitely took some getting used to. Now imagine that while walking in that clown suit, somebody keeps increasing the grade on the treadmill every two minutes. Still sound like fun?
Motivated by my meager “Good” result last time around, I was determined to do better. I spent the first few minutes, 10 or so, focusing on my breathing and simply trying to get ‘in the zone’. I focused on maintaining a strong and relaxed breathing pattern through my nose as I’ve learned to do when I start to get uncomfortable. Every few minutes I was asked to give my rating on a series of scales posted to the wall in front of the treadmill including ‘RPE’ rating my physical exertion, ‘Breathing Stress’, how labored my breathing feels, and ‘Thermal Comfort’, or how my body was actually feeling in relation to the heat stress being placed upon it. Other than those stimulating visuals to focus on, there was only the hand that would magically appear out of my peripheral to increase the treadmill grade one agonizing percent level at a time; there was none of the usual motivation stimuli to give you that added push. Sure, the research assistants would offer the occasional praise or motivation but, truthfully, you couldn’t really hear them above the sound of my own labored breathing and the loud din of the oven’s fans overheard. All you really had to egg you along was your own mental fortitude to keep going at all costs and this was fine for, say, the first 10 minutes or so.
By the 13-14 minute mark, I felt my composure begin to break down. My breathing became labored through the SCBA gear and I had to break my steady walking pace into that of a light run against the ever-increasing grade while carrying all that gear. By now it was a matter of survival and simply hanging on and my mental fortitude was beginning to wane.
Now, I’d love to tell you here that I had lots of inspirational thoughts going through my head as I did on the bike previously but, well, this was an altogether different feeling. The only thing I really remember towards the end was simply counting the seconds down in my mind until I collapsed (or died) as I was definitely reaching critical mass.
At approximately the 17 minute mark, I had officially reached my ultimate end game for the test and I tapped out for good. I collapsed into a chair while my overall results were calculated. Turns out, my original VO2peak score of 41.51 ml/kg/min. during November’s test had improved drastically to a 47.75 ml/kg/min. now, which, is still 10-15% lower than what it would have been had I not been wearing that heavy firefighting gear. That means my VO2peak score might have scored as high as 52-53 ml/kg/min., classifying me as almost “Superior” on the general VO2-Max classification for men my age (40-49); just a tad bit better than “Good”, huh.
Here’s the official results:
Who’s your daddy?
That’s right, bitches.
”Almost Superior”…sweet. How fucking awesome is that? I found it extremely reaffirming to know that the past months of training were paying off. So despite my present battered condition, I felt…well, pretty fucking awesome actually.
I won’t lie.
Day 2: The Familiarization
After the previous weeks GXT I can honestly tell you that I was less than excited for this trial session. The novelty of getting to dress up in a firefighters outfit had long since passed and I more dreading having to get back into it, anticipating that this session was going to be much worse, like, way worse. Remember, the exact term the PhD students used was “challenging”.
Now, the word ‘challenging’ itself isn’t very scary, nor does it ever phase me anymore, Lord knows I’ve done ‘challenging’ things, but the look in their eye when they used it actually sent chills down my spine. As it turns out, this was the only ‘chill’ I would ever really experience the entire time I was in the lab (with the exception of the cold shower afterwards). The look was like what you might get from a veteran when they talk about their experiences during the war. They may say ‘bad’, but it’s almost spooky the way they say it. You just know it was much worse than they are willing to say so you don’t press for specifics. The way the lab assistants used the word ‘challenging’ was exactly like that; you just knew it was going to be much worse than they were able to say, except I didn’t know by how much…yet.
I did however take one piece of advice to heart from Phil (one of the PhD students) to make sure I was adequately hydrated so, for the next three days, I hydrated like it was my fucking job. In fact, it was seldom I ever went more than 90 minutes without having to go to the bathroom. In fact, I barely made the drive from my office to the Brock lab – a mere 20 minute commute – without pissing myself. So mission accomplished there.
The first 30 minutes or so in the lab were spent getting prepared and dressed. This process included (among frequent trips to the bathroom of course) such things as being weighed, providing a urine sample (no problem there) to determine my hydration status, strapping on a heart rate monitor, attaching heat sensors to my body,and, yes, inserting that damn core thermometer (not to mention the dreaded ‘Shuffle of Shame’ from the change room afterwards). I am pleased to announce though that the term ‘Shuffle of Shame’ has now been adopted by the kinesiology department as standard terminology for this short walk between the change room and the lab with a probe up your ass.
Again, from the consent form (just in case you missed it the first time):
“Core temperature will be monitored continuously during all practice and experimental trials. The system used for monitoring core temperature requires that you insert a small diameter, flexible plastic probe to a depth of 15 cm into your rectum.”
If ever a single sentence could strike fear into the hearts of men, this would be it. Well, most men anyway. For me, however, this whole insertion process was old hat and was more like getting reacquainted with an old friend (click HERE). Well, maybe not an old friend so much as someone who used to bully you as a child perhaps, but you get the idea. Let’s just say that this definitely wasn’t my first rodeo and if anyone needs any information or clarification on the proper procedure for shoving a probe up their ass – I’m your guy.
All this was accomplished rather quickly and soon it was time to begin the trial and really open the floodgates…literally.
The first time I stepped into the environmental chamber (or the ‘oven’ as I likened to call it) back in November, the climate was set at 35°C with a relative humidity of 45% and bearing in mind that I was only wearing a typical cycling kit made of light, breathable materials. Today’s session was about as far from that as you could possible get, like, eons apart. Not only had the Velotron bike been substituted with a treadmill inside the oven itself, but while the temperature remained at35°C as it did before, the humidity had now been cranked way up to 65%. Oh, let;s not forget to mention the added 50 lbs. of FPE. Yeah, this was going to make my first foray into a hot yoga class years ago (click HERE) seem like a day at the beach by comparison.
Here’s how it was described in the consent form:
“The protocol will last approximately 100 minutes, and during this time you will walk on the treadmill for 20 minutes, recover for 20 minutes and then repeat the cycle. At certain times during the exercise and recovery we will measure heart rate, blood pressure, skin and core temperature, oxygen consumption, and breathing. We will also ask you to provide your perceptions of exercise, temperature and breathing stress using simple scales that are graded from “0” (no stress) to “10” (maximal stress).”
Sounds easy enough right? Where’s the ‘challenge’ right?
Prior to beginning the first 20 minute session I was asked to walk on the treadmill for 3 minutes at an easy 3.5km/h pace at a 1% grade (2) which was approximately the equivalent to my grandmother walking to market. It was just an opportunity to get moving comfortably, well, as comfortable as possible with all that FPR and SCBA gear anyway and get used to breathing through the SCBA. Immediately following the warm up, it was the ‘ol familiar “THREE…TWO…ONE….”
…and the gates of Hell were opened once again.
Each of the actual 20 minute trials were programmed into the treadmill at 5.6km/h for a 4% grade (5.6) incline. It’s work, but barely. What was making it difficult (as you might expect) was carrying that50 lbs. worth of added weight and those preset hotter than fuck atmospheric conditions. Soon, I was sweating like the pig who knows he’s dinner. Every 2 or 3 minutes the research assistant (Bryan) asked me for my subjective perceptions based on those scales posted the wall in front of me, just as I had done during the GXT test the previous week.
I have to say, the first 20 minutes wasn’t bad. Sure it was hot, yes I sweated my bag off but, really, it wasn’t overly difficult. Following the first session I was allowed off the treadmill and cool down passively in a chair. By ‘passively’ they simply mean remove my helmet, hood and gloves. That’s it. Big deal. I was hoping for maybe a cold beer or a margarita, a Slip n’ Slide maybe, anything that might offer me some relief from the intense heat and humidity. The good news was that I was half way done and just beginning to think that this wasn’t going to be too bad. Yeah, right.
Following the 20 minutes cool down I stood up and immediately, things got ‘challenging’. Oh shit. My neck was sore from supporting the helmet and I felt lightheaded and disorientated and not at all like putting all that shit back on and climbing back on the treadmill. Furthermore, while I was a bit more comfortable, it was clear that my body was still very hot and the thought of putting the hood, helmet and gloves back on was not a happy one. About this time, Phil had a conversation with me about their expectations to only ‘do as much as I can’; but there was that faraway look in his eye again. Determined to make a go of it, however, I staggered back on the treadmill and allowed the researchers to put all that shit back on.
The second session began with the same 3 minute warm up, except that by the time the second 20 minute trial was ready to start it was like my body was on fire. So this is what a pot roast feels like? I can’t say I liked it…like, at all. I tried as best as I could to regularize my breathing and clear my mind of negative thoughts but, seriously, there’s little one can do to calm themselves when they’re being roasted alive. My mask started to fill with perspiration so that each time I exhaled I was splattering the inside of my face mask with droplets of sweat and my hands felt like somebody was applying a blowtorch to them inside the gloves.
Seriously, this is what firefighters have to deal with? Hol-lee fuck! It was all I could do at this point to trudge on as best I could and wait for the sweet release of death to rescue me from this agonizing torment.
It’s safe to say that I have never experienced anything like this before…and I have done some crazy as shit. This, however, was completely different. If my initial goal for this study was to find a new way to test my mental toughness, well, I need look no further as this was about as tough as its ever going to get. It was excruciating; words simply cannot express. The only way I could ever communicate my perceptions of stress levels was by holding up fingers and even then, that was effort. Phil’s words ‘you can quit whenever you want’ were resonating in my brain but I trudged on. I knew at this point that making the whole second 20 minute session was slim to none as I was feeling faint, my vision was beginning to blur and I was getting sick to my stomach. It was hard to breathe and my organs were cooking. I almost tapped out 2 or 3 times but, somehow, I managed to carry on with my Death March. ‘One more minute…one more minute…one more minute…’ was the only think I could think of.
When Bryan counted out the 10 minute mark I knew I was 99.9% spent. By eleven minutes I was done and finally tapped out. By this point I was ready to chew through my helmet in panic and they couldn’t get it off fast enough. They quickly ripped it off (albeit not quick enough for my liking) and a tidal wave of sweat was instantly released out of the helmet and onto the treadmill; so much so it splashed my running shoes. It was like a water balloon had been dropped out of the helmet. I was allowed to sit again, this time with a green cooling hood that kind of made me look like the Great Kazoo…not that I gave a shit mind you. It was bliss.
Including the initial 3 minute warm up I lasted a total of 14 minutes. Now that may not seem like a lot of time but, I assure you, it’s an eternity in those fucked up conditions – or so it felt anyway. It was a while before I felt comfortable enough to stand up again and disrobe and it wasn’t without a great deal of help that I managed to get out of my FPE and SCBA gear; I might as well have been a newborn infant for all the assistance I could provide. My cotton shirt and pants were completely saturated with sweat. It looked like I had jumped into a pool and they made the same sound that a wet towel makes when it hits the ground after being dropped from a height…SLOP!
To put it all in proper perspective, before the trial started I weighed in at 88.16 kg, afterwards… 85.96 kg., which represents a total loss of 2.2 kg (4.8 lbs.) in a mere 37 minutes. Yeah. That’s insane. I do believe that’s a new lab record for sweat loss. And since I’m seldom ever setting ‘records’, per se, I’m choosing to take it and run with it.
Here’s the evidence:
Anyway, all the sensors were then removed which, I might add, is much easier to do when you’re completely dripping with sweat. The tape practically leapt off my body in protest. I was asked to provide another urine sample (I’m actually surprised I had any fluids left) before I was allowed to remove the probe (which, is much worse than putting it in – go figure) and cut loose with an earth-shattering fart, or ‘fartgasm’ as I will now call it (let’s see if that term catches on at the lab). Oh, and I had what might very well be the best cold shower I’ve ever had.
Not that I care to relive it any, but here’s a brief glimpse for you of the trial itself in progress (pardon the shitty sound of being in the oven):
Day 3 – Experimental Protocol 1
To say I wasn’t looking forward to the next days experimental protocol would be an extremely accurate statement; so would ‘I’m as excited to get back in the oven as I am to get a root canal’. Truthfully, I’d rather just be hogtied to the treadmill and have the research students take turns kicking me in the junk but, hey, I’m going to persevere and get this done just as I agreed to come Hell or high water, which, in my case, are almost practically guaranteed.
After the last weeks’ familiarization session, the first thing I recall is having one serious appetite…like, ravenous. Seriously, on top of the leftover sandwiches I was offered in the lab, I could have easily made short work of any buffet table I might have encountered had I been given the opportunity. I mean there’s ‘hungry’ and then there’s HUNGRY, and I was definitely HUNGRY. Secondly, I was probably more tired than I’ve ever been in my entire life. Not just the typical kind of fatigue I experience after my other workouts and events, but the ‘holy shit, I can barely remember my name’ kind of fatigue; I could have slept for weeks and I was practically useless at work the next day. I didn’t really work so much as I just stared blankly into the computer screen.
The good news is that I know now what they mean when they say ‘challenging’. String Theory is ‘challenging’; following the plot to Inception was ‘challenging’; running a marathon is definitely ‘challenging’. This was torture…pure and simple. So while I was still nervous about the days protocol, I felt I was more mentally prepared than I was the week before and I was determined to give ‘er, even if for only one minute longer.
For that particular protocol the girls took over applying the blood pressure cuff and all the heat sensors to my pudgy body with tape, and afterwards helping me to get dressed; definitely not one of the finer moments in my life. I guess they have to learn somehow by talk about awkward! The indignities we lab rats subject ourselves to. Within minutes, however, I was all fixed up, attached to all my bodily devices, dressed in the FPR and SCBA gear and ready to get my sweat on. It’s evident how nervous I was when my first blood pressure reading came in at 155/91.
Although I had been through all this once before, it was almost worse this time around knowing what was going to unfold. Ignorance is definitely bliss. During the previous week’s familiarization session it had all been revealed how incredibly difficult today’s protocol was going to be; Pandora’s Box had been indelibly open. I knew now how challenging that days session was going to be. It was going to suck on a proportionately epic scale.
Whatever fun we might have had last week with the joking and humorous back and forth banter was now tossed directly out the window and I was beginning to focus myself on the task at hand…survival. It was go time. It was really no different than the moments before any major triathlon events, all is silent as the participants ready themselves mentally and put their game faces on. The mood in the environmental chamber got serious…fast. After getting squared away on the treadmill I was asked if I was ready to begin and I gave a very nervous thumbs up and within seconds the countdown started, “THREE…TWO…ONE…”
…and my return to Hell started.
Much like the previous week, the first 20 minutes were manageable and were completed fairly quickly. I mean, it was hot and it sucked but it was doable. Unfortunately, today’s protocol was passive cooling (no cooling hood), so my subsequent 20 minute “cool down” (and I use that term extremely loosely) was going to be passive (i.e. no hood). My body was so hot and uncomfortable. As part of the cool down I was offered a water bottle with only 200 ml of water to sip on; in impossibly small amount given the nature of what I had just completed. It’s like offering someone who’s just crossed the Sahara Dessert a Dixie cup. But I made due by rationing my meager portion accordingly and resisting the urge to dump the entire contents over my head.
While sitting, my blood pressure was retaken a few more times which was extremely unpleasant given my current state. Each time the blood cuff was inflated, I could feel my heart beating in my teeth. My fingers tingled to the point of extreme discomfort and I felt like crying out in pain. I just can’t articulate how discomforting it is to have your blood pressure taken when you’re hotter than Hades and feeling cranky and uncomfortable. It’s brutal.
I also have to say that sitting idly for 20 minutes is almost as unpleasant as walking on that damn treadmill. You become keenly aware of all the sweat dripping down your body and pooling into your shoes. Within the first five minute the towel I was given was completely saturated. Likewise, knowing how intensely shitty the second 20 minutes is going to be its rather like waiting to be executed by a firing squad. Not fun. You just want to get up and get it over with, but you don’t. It’s a total mixed bag of emotions.
Once the cool down session is over, the next two minutes are also particularly ‘challenging’ (insert faraway look in the eye here). Immediately upon standing, all the blood that has been running to your legs immediately rushes back up to your head and you become extremely disorientated and dizzy. You almost want to quit altogether at this point as it’s hard to imagine continuing doing, like, anything. All you want to do is lie down, preferably in a Turtle Pool full of beer…ice cold beer. But what choice do you have? So you allow yourself to get suited up again, slip that fucking mask over your face and before you can protest it’s “THREE…TWO…ONE…”
…and you’re off. Let the Big Suck commence.
Eventually, the queasiness passes and after the initial 3 minute “warm up” (I guess it goes without saying that this is another understatement of supernova-like proportions) on the treadmill we begin the second 20 minute session. At first, it’s not so bad. I’m still hot and uncomfortable but, again, it was manageable. I was beginning to think that I might be able to make the distance this time so I tried to focus on anything but the burning sensation in my gloves, the sweat pooling in my mask, the soreness in my neck from supporting the helmet and the ever rising temperature rising inside the suit.
Remember, this is all I have to look at for the entire session:
Not very stimulating is it?
After, say, the first 10 minutes into the second session what little confidence that had started to build suddenly began to crumble…rapidly. It’s incredible to me how fast your mental and physical state can deteriorate in the oven. I actually started to pray. It’s true. I would have happily converted to just about any world religion at the time had it provided me with any actual relief. Shit, I would have sacrificed my firstborn to the Dark Lord himself had someone offered to save me from this torment. As the heat and discomfort continued to escalate and my breathing became more difficult I asked my mom for strength, I continued to recite what few verses of prayer I actually know and genuinely tried to convince myself that I only had another 10 minutes left…I can do anything for only 10 minutes right? How wrong I was.
A single minute later (which still felt like an eternity), Maz reminded me that I had reached last week’s tap out time (11 minutes) and to keep it going. She reminded that I still had lots of oxygen and to try and breath comfortably but by that point it was all to no avail…I was cooked. Quite literally! I was growing desperate.
By 12 minutes I was reaching my critical mass again. My breathing was extremely labored and I had that pot roast feeling again. Just…hang…on…
At the 14 minute mark (17 minutes including the warm up) I tapped out. Same as the familiarization session, the researchers scramble to get me out of the gear. It’s an ‘all hands on deck’ kind of deal, all scrambling simultaneously to release me from my confines as if my life depended on it which, truthfully, it certainly felt like. I didn’t even make it through the next 20 minute “cool down” session, after my blood pressure was taken (which I’m surprised didn’t explode off my arm) I begged to get out…like, begged. It was right out of Oliver Twist, pleading eyes and all.
“Get me…out…of…here…like, NOW!”
I was nice about it, of course, but still very insistent I’m sure. I just wanted out badly as I’m sure you could tell from this video:
Taking off the tank and jacket might just be the most joyous thing I have ever experienced; I swear, angels sang. I stripped out of my drenched clothes down to my skivvies (running shorts) in what must have been the unsexiest striptease ever attempted. I’m sure the girls are probably scarred for life now and I couldn’t care less.
Oh, and yeah: Mental Note to Self: NEVER step on the core probe wire as you’re trying to undress.
The final measurements were then taken and consistent with the previous week I had expunged a complete tsunami of bodily fluid; this time exactly 2 kg (4.4 lbs.) of sweat during the 40 minutes of testing. Yay me! Not quite the achievement I had been looking for originally but I’ll take ‘em wherever I can get ‘em.
Day 4 – Experimental Protocol 2
It is with mixed emotions that I begin the next protocol session. Where I wasn’t at all thrilled to go back into the oven (never mind the core probe, heat sensors, FPE, etc.), I was extremely pleased that this would be the last time I had to do it. Likewise, knowing I was also going to be allowed to wear the cooling hood this time around that that will make things in the oven marginally more comfortable and (dare I say it) less ‘challenging’.
By then I had the whole pee, weight and probe routine down pat. I’m certainly beyond the embarrassment and indignity of having my chubby frame taped up and affixed with sensors and what have you, so with little difficulty I was all dressed rather quickly and ready to roll. You could say I was pretty eager to get this last torture session over with…pronto! I guess my mindset was similar to the common philosophy for removing a band-aid…STRAIGHT OFF!
I was determined to make the distance this time, well, I’d be happy with one minute longer anyway. To help, I decided to take matters into my own hands and provide my own motivation aside from those damn scales taped to the wall:
Of course, Maz wasn’t too impressed.
Similar to before the first 20 minutes went by pretty smoothly. There was a little complaining from Thunder n’ Lightning given I ran 17k the day before but, other than that, things went pretty uneventfully. Helping matters along, of course, was knowing that I was going to spend the next 20 minutes during the cool down session wearing the cooling hood. So upon finishing the first test session, I took a seat and allowed the hood to be applied and just reveled in the instant relief it offered against the roasting feeling in my body.
I also took the advice from another peer who is also doing the test, to raise my legs on an incline against the treadmill to help prevent the blood running to my feet and then back to my head afterwards when I stood back up and, hopefully, avoid the whole nauseous light-headed feeling again.
So there I sat, legs raised, Nalgene bottle in hand, and pretending I was looking at this:
Of course, this is what I was actually looking at:
Once again…quite the let down. But what can you do?
Truthfully, the cooling hood really helped improve my recovery and I definitely felt more comfortable for the first cooling session. If my body was still roasting (and apparently it was) I couldn’t really notice. I was beginning to think that maybe my next 20 minute test session was going to be a bit easier, then Maz explained to me that, physiologically speaking, while I might feel better now, the test was rigged in that ergonomically it was still going to be ‘as challenging’ during the second test session. My positive can-do attitude began to shatter around me like breaking glass.
Making matters a bit worse is that the cooling hood started to fail. I felt completely ripped off. For 4-5 minutes it lost its cooling properties and my normal sense of heat discomfort began to return. Thanks Christ Phil got it all sorted out pretty quickly and I had the remaining time of my cool down in relative comfort, but then it was back to the grindstone I’m afraid.
Fortunately, my legs up strategy worked and when I stood up I felt relatively good and I didn’t need that extra moment to collect myself. I had the hood, helmet and gloves put back on and began the process of mentally preparing myself for the complete Suckfest to come.
Eventually Bryan counted me down: “Exercise to begin in THREE…TWO…ONE…”
…and here we go again. God help me.
Just as Maz explained, the heat returned rather instantly; so much for my whole physiological argument. Don’t you just hate it when girls are right?
Anyway, I labored on just as I had before and the suck factor ramped up quickly to nearly unbearable. After the 12 minute mark my breathing started to become labored through the SCBA gear and I heard Maz whisper to Bryan that it probably wouldn’t be long now. How I ever heard that I’m not sure; maybe some super natural presence wanted me to hear it. I gave her a look and shook my head…whether she had understood or not that I had overheard her I’m not sure. I wasn’t angry exactly, but I definitely more determined than ever to suffer. 14 minutes was my benchmark to aim for and as it approached I was trying to mentally assess how much longer I could go. At exactly the 16 minute mark, I made the mental choice I was going to go for broke and shoot for the 20 minutes, if anything to prove Maz wrong. Hey, in this kind of experiment you simply take your inspiration wherever you can get it.
Now, I know what she mentioned to Bryan was not intended for me to hear, nor was it a challenge or pre-determination on my ability. She was only basing it on her past experiences and observations with us lab rats in the oven under these circumstances, as any significant increase in breathing difficultly typically spells out the beginning to the end. I get it. In fact, by the 18 minute mark I was beyond suffering. The torment was almost surreal and I almost tapped out twice. My ‘RPE’ was 19, my ‘Breathing Stress’ was maxed out, and my ‘Thermal Comfort’ was definitely a 9 to boot, or ‘The heat is unbearable’ according to the rating system. In other words, I had pretty much maxed out across the board and it sucked. It sucked bad. This was making my whole experience with the heat and humidity during the Cancun 70.3 competition seem like a walk at the water park.
For whatever reason, I thought about this from the consent form:
“If you become ill or injured as a result of participating in this study, necessary medical treatment will be available at no additional cost to you.”
It did considerable little to comfort me.
By this point, however, Bryan was counting down my time in 30 second intervals and I was simply taking it one painful interval at a time. The last two minutes were brutal and were far beyond any realm of discomfort I have subjected myself to in any of my previous training or competitions. In fact, simply being flogged for an hour would have been infinitely more pleasurable and preferable. Words simply cannot express.
Eventually, I reached the 20 minute mark and there was an all out panic to get me out of my FTE and SCBA gear. I swear, I could not get those gloves off fast enough. The feeling of air, regardless of how hot and humid it was, was still an immediate relief once the mask came off. I was spent.
I was pleased to have finally made the entire 20 minutes but I was barely cognizant of that fact at that exact moment. It was rather like being rescued from a bad dream in that everything was still very surreal. The consequence however was that I was 100% broken mentally, physically and emotionally. It was a few minutes before I could really stand or communicate effectively. All I could really do was bury my face in my hands and thank Christ it was finally all over. Luckily, when you’re that sweaty nobody can instantly tell if you’ve been crying or not. I’m confident that sweat was not the only liquid that poured from my helmet, believe me.
I think the end results tell the true tale: another 2 kg (4.4 lbs.) of sweat lost during the testing. Now, how much of that was actually lost in tears will forever remain a mystery. I have never been so happy to be finished anything in all my life. This was definitely harder than anything I’ve ever subjected myself to. Shit, even the 35 kilometer mark of the Ironman Wales marathon was more bearable than this. I could probably spend a month in a Turkish prison at the height of their summer season and say, ‘Hey, at least it’s not the oven at the Brock University kinesiology lab.’
So, that’s that. My time in Hell is finally over. Based on my time in the oven (as well as others), the lab researchers were able to determine that….well, I’ll have to blog that when the results get officially published. In the meantime, I’m back focused on my training and preparing myself for September’s competition.
What about future testing you ask? Well, I’ve already volunteered for the next two series of lab experiments beginning in July and November respectively. Maybe I lost a little a few marbles through this experience, but I really do enjoy testing my limits and seeing the quantifiable results afterwards. Plus, by now I’ve developed a rapport with the researchers and I take great pride in having some part in them completing their studies (however small a part suffering on a treadmill provides I guess). So while I won’t say I’m necessarily excited to get back in the lab, I will do so happily when the time comes.
Besides, after this total horror show, how bad could it really be?
P.S.> I am also happy to report that I got my promised t-shirt. Yes, it might be for the Edmonton Fire Department but, shit, I’m thrilled nonetheless. After all, a well-earned trophy is a well-earned trophy.