I’m a runner and we live in a small, closely knit suburb of Birmingham. So when I run, I almost always see people I know.
Later, when I see them out in the community, they’d invariably ask me if I’m training for something.
Previously I’ve responded, “no, I’m just running to be healthy.” But I’ve changed my mind. I’m training to be a Southerner.
I’m not from Alabama. I was born in California, raised in Tennessee and California, and lived in Chicago and Virginia before landing in Birmingham. And while I’ve lived in Birmingham for nearly 25 years, I still cannot understand how Southerners deal with the heat.
It’s unreal. How they can mow the lawn in blue jeans in 100-degree weather. How they can gather ’round a grill and cook meat in the burning heat of an August day. How they can sit at the baseball field for hours as the sun beats down on them. Never flinching. Almost never even sweating. Honestly, I just don’t get it.
My husband, who’s a born-and-bred Southerner, is also a runner. For years I’ve gotten up hours before him on summer weekends to run before it gets too hot. Even then, when I return I’m soaked to the bone with sweat, about to die. Time after time, I’d collapsed in a puddle on the kitchen floor when he would roll in from his mid-day run.
“Wasn’t that awful?” I would moan.
“Not really, there was a breeze,” he’d causally reply.
The next weekend, I would do the same: hit the road early to avoid running in what basically feels like an oven. I would crawl back into the shockingly cold house and try to avoid total heat-related collapse, when he would bop in, barely breaking a sweat.
“Okay, now that was pure misery,” I would say, assuming he couldn’t possibly disagree with me.
“Not too bad,” he’d respond. “The humidity was lower.”
Really? Was he messing with me? But I knew he wasn’t. I ran with my best friend three days a week for about five years and the heat never bothered her one bit. She is from South Alabama, and she would complain if the temperature fell below 95 on a summer morning. I managed to keep up with her on all those runs out of sheer pride, but I died a little inside on every mile.
So, after all the taunting from stoic, heat-resistant Southerns, my type-A personality decided I was going to learn to run in this heat. I approached it methodically. I’d run a little later each day. I’d acclimate myself almost like Mt. Everest climbers who go a little higher on each ascent. I tried and tried. I ran and ran. I worked and worked. I failed and failed.
Yes, I did learn to appreciate the difference between 85 and 95 percent humidity.
Yes, I grew to understand that even a hairdryer-like breeze could provide a minuscule amount of bodily cooling.
And my runs started looking like the zig-zag on heartbeat monitors on hospital TV shows as I learned to run from one side of the street to the other to take advantage of even the tiniest bit of shade.
But in the end, I had to admit defeat.
I’ve come to the conclusion there is simply something genetically different about folks in the Deep South. And barring any kind of sketchy, south-of-the-border stem cell treatment, I’m simply going to remain a heat-weakling outsider, forever in awe of the true Southerner’s ability to endure blistering temperatures with unperturbed, indifferent, sweat-free grace.