Runner vs. Nature: Lightning

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It was the great summer thunderstorm of 2015. You see, we here in Central California don’t see many storms, let alone a day-long thunderstorm that produces over 35,000 lightning strikes and nearly an inch of rain. If you’re familiar with the drought we are going through here on the west coast, you’ll understand that we really can’t get enough precipitation. Needless to say, this storm has been the talk of the town for the past week.

Thinking I could beat the storm, I heard the thunder get quieter and figured I had a small window to get in a rainy run. About halfway through my adventure, drenched in warm summer rain and bombarded with the thick humidity, lightning in the distance, I asked myself, What would I do if the storm got closer? Being only slightly aware of the dangers of being outdoors during a thunderstorm (I’m a California kid, it’s not my fault…), I told myself that I would count the seconds between lighting strike and thunder clap, and if the storm seemed to get too close, I would seek shelter or sprint home. Well, the thunder got louder and the lightning got closer, and so I decided to take the quick loop home to err on the side of caution.

I couldn’t help but wonder as I hurried home… did I put myself in real danger by going on this stormy run in the first place?

SONY DSCKnow when to skip your run.

There are two good rules of thumb when it comes to deciding if a run would be safe.

  1. If you can see lightning, stay indoors. I call this the “better safe than sorry” rule. If you’re already out on a run, seek shelter immediately. You should wait 30 minutes after viewing a lightning strike before venturing outdoors.
  2. The 30/30 rule.You know what you do? When you see the lightning… you count ’til you hear the thunder. If you can count higher each time, that means the storm’s movin’ away. Wanna try it?” (Poltergeist, anyone?!) Thunder travels roughly one mile every five seconds. When you see lightning, start counting, and if you hear thunder before you reach 30 seconds (putting you six miles from the strike site), don’t go for your run. If you’re already running, get somewhere safe. Then refer to the first rule and wait 30 minutes after the last lightning strike before resuming your run.

Know the facts about lightning.

Here are a few questions you may have about lightning safety, along with safety advice.

  1. How dangerous is lightning? Summer is the season for thunder, and as enchanting as lightning can be to watch (from a distance and a safe, sheltered place), it is a very dangerous natural phenomena that kills an average of 54 people a year. Hundreds more are seriously injured from lightning strikes.
  2. rainy_car_mirrorWhere is a safe place to seek shelter? Hard-topped vehicles and substantial buildings are safe shelters that will minimize your risk of being struck. Structures with deep foundations and in-ground materials, including piping, telephone lines, and other materials that will direct the lightning strike down into the earth and away from you. If seeking shelter within a metal or solid roof, make sure you are not touching the metal framing. A common myth about seeking safety within a vehicle is that it is the rubber tires that provide insulation; really, it is the metal of the car that will conduct the charge around and away from you as you are safe inside.
  3. What is an unsafe place to seek shelter? Unsafe places include sheds and other similar non-permanent structures, trees and foliage, bleachers, and places near tall objects or standing water.
  4. What if I’m on a long run or nowhere near a safe place to seek shelter? If you find yourself in close proximity to the thunder and lightning, you may feel your hair stand up or have a tingly feeling. It is suggested to put your feet close together and squat down, tucking your knees to your chest in a tuck position. Since lightning seeks tall objects either by direct hit or ricochet, or conduct through the ground. If you make yourself as small as possible, you decrease your probability of being struck. This method is a last resort, however, as squatting does not hugely reduce your risk.
  5. Are direct strikes the only danger? No, in fact, direct strikes are rare. Other forms of lightning-caused injuries/fatalities include side flashes (lightning strikes taller object and the current jumps and strikes the victim), ground currents (strike is nearby and the current travels through the ground, entering the body, traveling through cardiovascular and/or nervous system, and exiting the body), and conduction (lightning traveling through a metal substance). The most common strike to cause injuries or death is through ground current.



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