Josh Lichtle's friends and family have learned a lot about hyperthermia in the week since his July 4 death, in which he suffered from exertional heat stroke at the AMA RedBud National motocross race in Michigan, and they're hoping to use that information to help spare other motocross athletes from a similar fate.
On Sunday, the family announced that they'll be bringing life-saving information about pre-race hydration and preventing hyperthermia to the motocross community through an educational campaign aimed at riders and fans, starting at next month's AMA Amateur National Motocross Championship at Loretta Lynn Ranch.
"We're calling it Godspeed 811: Proactive Injury Prevention," says Bill Licthle, Josh's older brother. The family is channeling donations from Josh's fans towards the project, and has set up a website in partnership with MX Donations at www.Godspeed811.com. "My dad was really crushed and he was carrying this big weight around for a few days, then all of a sudden he comes back to the house with this huge smile on his face, saying, 'Josh wants us to go out to these races with a rig and just take care of people to prevent them from getting overheated and injured.' When he said it I'd just been thinking of what we could do to turn this tragedy around and do some good, so that's the vision we're working with. We've already had a guy give us a truck rig to use, and we're taking donations now to get this vision off the ground."
Hyperthermia was listed as the official cause of Lichtle's death: He collapsed on the final lap of Moto 1 on July 2 at the sixth stop of the AMA Lucas Oil Motocross Championship, in what was supposed to be his big comeback race. Licthle, 23, held 27 national titles as an amateur rider and was briefly ranked seventh in his class in the country, but his pro racing career was cut short due to a 2006 ankle injury.
He had qualified in 30th position for the 40-rider field at RedBud and was eager to show he could be a champion once again, but in the final laps he began to display signature symptoms of hyperthermia: Appearing to be intoxicated, collapsing on his bike, then fainting when he tried to get back up. He was treated for heat-induced seizures at the track and at a nearby hospital, where doctors induced a coma in an attempt to stabilize his internal organs. He died early in the morning on July 4, prompting discussion throughout the industry about what might be done to prevent similar deaths in the future.
Hyperthermia (the opposite of hypothermia) brings the human body's core temperature above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, decreasing blood pressure and putting the internal organs at risk of failure. It can be caused by environmental and exertional exposure to heat and stress. Strenuous physical exercise like motocross racing can also increase the risk of heat stroke, which is further exacerbated by heat from the bike's engine and by the full-face and full-body protection the sport requires: An athlete who is overheating can literally be cooked inside the microclimate created by his or her protective gear on a hot day.
Sounds like every motocross race ever, right? Promoters for the RedBud National and the AMA Lucas Oil Motocross Championship series say the temperature at the track during Licthle's race was around 93 degrees, not uncommonly high, and Licthle's death is the first hyperthermia-related death on record at an AMA event, but the entire motocross sports industry is now contemplating what it might do differently to protect its riders going forward.
"We think Josh would still be here with us today if he'd had some better training and better advice out there on the track, and that's what we're hoping to offer to all of the up-and-coming riders out there," says Bill. "The trainers he'd been working with -- the people who were keeping him on a professional diet and keeping track of his race day hydration back when he was winning races -- those guys all kind of disappeared over the last few years after he hurt his ankle. So, like a lot of these up-and-coming riders out there, Josh was kind of on his own and he was struggling. We want to share some pro tips with these younger amateur riders with a focus on proactive prevention, and not just on race day either, because a rider's overall diet and training regimen are as essential to preventing hyperthermia as what they eat, drink, and do on the big day."
Bill grew up racing with his brother, and says, in retrospect, that hyperthermia in the sport may be more common than most people acknowledge or know enough about to give a name to. "If you've ever seen somebody throw up or pass out after a race, you've probably seen hyperthermia in action," he says. "I've actually experienced it myself: Three years ago I was racing at Loretta Lynn and after my race I drove over to the wrong motor home, crashed into it, and went in and laid down as if it was mine. I didn't know what was going on at the time. Now that I do, I know I'm lucky to be alive."
Fortunately, preventing hyperthermia is pretty simple, says Bill: Stay hydrated, take frequent breaks, and, whenever possible, get out of the heat and out of your protective gear during those breaks to help regulate your body temperature. He says he also sees hope in some new technologies for cooling and hydrating motocross riders while they ride, and for monitoring their heart rates and core body temperatures proactively. He says he'd also like to see event promoters take some further steps to help athletes cool down before and after their races.
"My mom is a certified nurse and has always been the track nurse for Josh and I and the other riders we grew up with, and my dad knows what it takes to raise and mentor a champion, so we're just going to keep doing what we know. There's such an empty feeling in my family right now, but I think once we start helping people it's going to help fill some of those holes in our hearts," says Bill.
Valley Motocross, Josh's home track in Stanton, Michigan, will be hosting an "811, Ride With Wings" Memorial Ride Day on August 11, which would have been his 24th birthday. For more information visit valleymotocross.com.