Two WMC professors use frigid race for research

Alaskan endurance event is lab to measure energy consumed in cold climate

March 26, 2000|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

After 47 hours of trudging across 100 miles of Alaskan wilderness in the middle of winter, two Western Maryland College researchers keep talking about how enjoyable the experience was.

"People ask me how it was, and the first thing I can think of is that it was fun," said Sherri Hughes, a psychology professor who completed her first Iditasport endurance race this year. "They just think I'm nuts."

H. Samuel Case, professor of exercise science and physical education at the college -- who, with Hughes, has used the race as a real-world laboratory -- agrees, adding that cold weather has intrigued him for years.

"The cold and Antarctica have fascinated me since I read Jack London as a kid," Case said. "I love winter. It's my time of year."

For more than eight years, Case, who has a doctorate in exercise physiology from Ohio State University, has been studying how exercising and working in extremely cold conditions affect the body.

His studies, which started with the Iditarod dogsled races in 1990, have taken him back to Alaska seven more times and to Antarctica three times for high-level research with a team of individuals working there.

"I spend a lot of my time traveling between the North Pole and the South Pole," Case said.

In 1997, Hughes, who completed her doctorate in industrial and organizational psychology at Georgia Tech, joined Case to help shed light on the mental state of people competing in these events.

"Their motto is `Cowards won't show, and the weak will die,' " said Case of the 100-mile race that follows a lollipop-shaped track. "The race begins where the road ends."

Competitors in the Iditasport event -- who can use snowshoes, skis, specially equipped bicycles or simply hike the course -- trek 25 miles out into the Alaskan wilderness in early winter. They then follow a 50-mile loop and return on the same 25-mile stretch they began with.

"Dr. Case originally had been working on the nutritional stuff," Hughes said. "We were talking one day, and he said he thought it would be interesting to collect some psychological data on these folks."

Their findings over the past few years have included quantifying how much more energy people working in colder climates consume than those doing similar tasks in warmer areas.

In addition, people in the cold are less likely to recognize their need for fluids and can become dehydrated quite easily, they found.

"Those people who finish the race in a good mood had eaten well and rehydrated themselves," Case said, noting that those individuals typically drank 2 to 3 liters of fluid every 25 miles. In addition, they consumed about 100 calories for each 10 miles of the race.

Case said that because of the frigid temperatures, it can cost "three times as much energy" to do this type of activity. "People who had not eaten or drunk properly were incoherent at the end of the race."

Hughes and Case also found that, psychologically, those who participate in the race aren't unusual.

"I expected these people to be really different from the people I meet every day," Hughes said. "I was really struck by how they're really not that different."

Hughes said the few differences she found make a great deal of sense when one considers the demands of the 100-mile Arctic race.

Competitors enjoy challenges, but aren't likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as illicit drug use or irresponsible alcohol use. They enjoy being adventurous but don't bore easily.

"That's consistent with what's necessary to train for a 100-mile race," Hughes said, adding that she and Case ran a 15-mile trail along the Northern Central Railroad in Westminster several times a week to prepare for the Iditasport. "If you get bored easily, that's not a lot of fun."

In another test, Hughes and Case found that participants in the Iditasport were less likely to be thrown by adversity.

"That really fits with what the race is like," she said. "A person who worries or gets anxious is not suited to go out on a 100-mile race in the Alaskan wilderness."

But what Hughes and Case found most critical was how working in cold weather can affect an individual's judgment.

Using a cognitive interference test -- which requires subjects to read three lists of words and identify different characteristics about the lists -- researchers found that individuals tested well before the race and poorly when the event was over.

"When you're in an environment that can be hostile, you need to have all your faculties about you to make the right decisions," Hughes said. "When we put ourselves in a situation that involves a lot of risk, we have to have all of our cognitive functions to do problem-solving and creative thinking."

Both researchers are considering ways that activities, diet and nutritional supplements might help individuals combat mental stress in this type of event.

In addition, people who live close to either pole must deal with intense cold and long periods of darkness during the winter months.

"These people lead the league in depression, alcoholism and suicide," Case said, noting that more than 280 million people live in circumpolar regions. "If we find out how to cope with these conditions successfully, we would be rendering a service to those folks."

The researchers say their studies could be applied to conditions affecting people in less severe weather conditions. Research on seasonal affective disorder and chronic fatigue could benefit from their findings, Case said.

Both are gearing up for next year's race.

"I love to find out what makes us tick," Case said. "I don't want to stagnate, and this opportunity to work with younger, more recently trained individuals is marvelous."

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