Ticks and Such | January 23, 2011
You’ve probably noticed that ultrarunning doesn’t happen exclusively in your backyard. Most races and a lot of your ultra training will take place in some pretty wild and remote places where you have the chance of encountering some of Mother Nature’s less attractive features. While enjoying the scenery, you’ll want to watch out for noxious plants, stinging wasps and bees, disease carrying ticks, potentially lethal animals like rattlesnakes and mountain lions, and other surprises that could be scattered along the way. Before you venture out into an unknown area, find out from other runners or from the race director if there are particular hazards you should be prepared for. While you can’t totally eliminate the chance of running into trouble, there are some basic precautions that will help keep your fun run fun.
Of course, every area of the country is different in terms of what hazards you may run into, and in any one area, what you should be concerned about in June may be completely different from what may pop up in late fall. Some hazards are pretty universal, such as noxious plants and ticks, and could be an issue just about anywhere you get out onto open trails. Other hazards are localized. Here’s background on some common hazards that you would want to be concerned with if, for example, you were running the Western States 100 or training in that general area.
Some time during your running adventures, you are going to meet up with ticks. Ticks are technically arachnids, like spiders. They look like little brown discs with their legs bunched up near the head. You need to learn to identify them. They are a concern because they can transmit Lyme disease and other illnesses, especially if they get a chance to dig under your skin and stay there for awhile. If you are in an area known for ticks, pay attention because you can usually feel them crawling around on your skin. You can also feel the first prick when they start to break the skin. They wait in bushes or in tall grass along trails and hitch a ride when you go by, so after pushing through brush or wading through tall grass, take a minute to stop and look for them on your arms, legs and clothes. In some areas during the right season, you can push by a bush and then glance down to find ten ticks making their way up your leg.
Insect repellant is partially effective against ticks, but the best way to deal with them is to thoroughly check your clothes and skin after a run. If you find that one has burrowed its head in, lift it up and pull it out carefully. The bite area may be itchy for a day or two. Wash the site thoroughly and apply an antiseptic. If a big bulls eye swelling occurs or a rash starts spreading, see a doctor. If the tick manages to escape your notice and gets lodged under your skin for more than a day, definitely see a doctor.
Poison oak and poison ivy
Poison oak and poison ivy are widespread throughout the USA and Canada. In some areas, it can make up practically all the underbrush beneath the trees. Be sure you can identify whichever type of poison oak or ivy is found in the area where you’ll be running, and then be as careful as you can to stay away from the stuff. Some people are lucky enough to not be very sensitive to it, but others are extremely susceptible and will break out with a severe, itchy rash after only slight contact. It is the oil from the plant that gets into contact with your skin and causes the problem, and any part of the plant, including bare leafless stems, will have the oil. The oil will also cling to your shoes and clothes, so you need to handle your clothing carefully and wash everything thoroughly.
If you’ve run in an area with poison oak or ivy and suspect you may have come into contact, you need to wash the oil off your skin as soon as possible. There is a lot of discussion about whether or not just soap and water is sufficient. Some people claim its necessary to use a detergent to really break up the oil, and many swear by a product called Technu, which can be applied right after a run or after a break out of the rash and then washed off. There are also products you slather over your legs ahead of time that are meant to act as a barrier against the oil contacting your skin in the first place. If you develop a very severe rash or experience swelling or rash in your nose, ears, eyes, or throat, you should consult a doctor.
Rattlesnakes are not hard to identify. There are other snakes that have the characteristic diamond shaped pattern on their scales, but the rattlesnake’s flat, triangular shaped head and the rattle on the end of its tail make it unmistakable. They are wide spread throughout the United States and are particularly numerous in the Southwest. They frequent trails as part of their hunting activity and will sometimes stretch out in an open spot to warm up in the sun. If you pay attention to the trail in front of you, you can usually spot the snake in plenty of time to avoid it. Be careful if you have to put your hand or foot somewhere that you can’t see, such as when you’re stepping over a log. Rattlesnakes generally avoid contact with people, but if they feel threatened, they’ll strike. The goal when you encounter a rattlesnake is to leave it alone and give it a wide berth. Most bites result from trying to handle, provoke, or kill a snake.
If bitten, don’t panic. About one-third of venomous snakebites are “dry”: no injection of venom. The key is to remain calm and get medical attention as soon as possible. Making incisions over the wound, icing, or severely restricting the flow of blood have all fallen out of favor as treatments. The American Red Cross recommends washing with soap and water and keeping the bitten area immobilized and lower than the heart. If help is delayed, a cloth band tied an inch or two above the wound is helpful, but keep it loose enough to slip a finger underneath. Fatal rattlesnake bites are relatively rare. More people die each year from severe reactions to bee or wasp stings than from snake bites.
Bees and Wasps
Bees, wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, and biting ants are just facts of life in many areas where ultras are held. If you have a string of runners pounding over a yellow jacket nest, which can be a hole in the ground right in the middle of the trail, you are going to get a swarm of highly motivated wasps and people are going to get stung. Often you get no indication that a stinging insect is around until you’re actually being stung. Other times, you may get a warning by spotting the insects in the air or even by other runners yelping in pain up ahead. If there is a way to give the area a wide berth, you can try that. If you find yourself in the midst of a swarm, keep moving and try to brush the insects away as best you can. Help others do the same thing if you’re in a group.
A bee or wasp sting is painful but not a particularly big deal unless you develop a severe allergic reaction. Remove the stinger if there is one and when you get a chance wash the sting area carefully and apply an antiseptic. Most people will have some redness and itchiness around the sting site for a few days. If you develop more severe symptoms, like significant swelling, shortness of breath, swelling away from the sting site, nausea, or anxiety, you should get to a hospital. You may be having a systematic or allergic reaction to the sting. People who have had allergic reactions to stings in the past and know they are susceptible should carry a self-administered injectable epinephrine sting kit. And unfortunately, because you have been stung before with no allergic reaction, it doesn’t mean you might not develop an allergic reaction with continued exposure.
The mountain lion’s population and range has increased dramatically in the past few decades, and sightings near populated areas are much more frequent than in the past.
Still the mountain lion (also known as puma, cougar, catamount, panther or just lion) is a very secretive, mostly nocturnal animal and will avoid people as much as possible. They are often active in the early morning or at nightfall when deer, a typical prey for the mountain lion, are out feeding. Even though encountering a mountain lion is quite rare, especially in broad daylight, it is a good practice to run with a partner when you visit more remote areas or areas where mountain lions have been spotted by others. Making noise will decrease the chance of you surprising a lion in your path.
If you see a mountain lion, keep eye contact, raise your arms or jacket over your head, make noise and back away slowly. You want to look big and threatening to the animal. The last thing you want to do is try to run away as that could trigger the lion’s chase response. Do not approach the mountain lion, and be sure to give it a comfortable avenue for escape. Usually the mountain lion will regard you with some slight interest and then move on. If it does attack, you should fight back vigorously with whatever is at hand, sticks, stones, pepper spray, or for that matter with your bare hands if need be. The lion can be persuaded to disengage.
Reviewing all these hazards makes it seem as if a day out on remote trails is going to be fraught with danger. The fact is, though, most runs are going to go by without incident and without involving any murderous predators. If you are armed with a little knowledge of what to expect in the area where you’ll be running, if you have a running partner, and if you stay alert while you’re out on the trail, the odds are way in your favor that you’ll be just fine.