The Twilight Zone - Page 2
“I’d been running for 49 hours without sleep, when things became hazy,” he recalls. “Switchbacks became confusing. I felt I was just walking back and forth on a single stretch of trail without going anywhere. Soon, I couldn’t even tell whether I was ascending or descending a mountain, or just standing still. Houses started popping up along the trail in the brush. Then office buildings.”
Thompson knew of the Barkley’s reputation for generating outlandish hallucinations, and his mental disposition went from bad to worse. “Suddenly, an entire neighborhood of homes appeared. I had vivid images of people walking by, cars driving past. I was even able to identify the specific models of the cars. Then, things got weirder. I suddenly became a garbage man trying to identify which houses to visit for trash duty, and which to bypass. Then, I changed jobs—I was a landscaper, carrying lawn refuse from the house to a street. Next, I was an ice deliveryman. Does this house need ice, or are they all set?”
In his delirium, Thompson wandered off course, perhaps to deliver imaginary ice, and joined the ranks of other Barkley DNFers.
“I lost my mind in the full definition of the phrase,” he explains. “I worked so hard to get to that point, and then I pissed away the Barkley. I hate hallucinations!”
Thompson’s experience is not uncommon for runners who participate in extreme endurance events. Textbooks define hallucinations as sensory perceptions not related to outside events. They’re simply seeing or hearing things that aren’t there—your mind turning cartwheels, pulling a sleight-of-hand on your sense of logic and reality.
Hallucinations are typically associated with drug use, psychosis or neurological illness. So what causes them in long-distance running events? Dr. Jeffrey Lynn, an exercise physiologist from Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania, studies running hallucinations as part of an ongoing study on the physiology of running 100-mile races. “Based on my experience, hallucinations in endurance running events are typically caused by the combination of sleep deprivation and exhaustion,” explains Lynn. “I think both factors are responsible.”
Lynn acknowledges that little is known about the relationship between endurance events and hallucinations, or their inherent dangers, but sees no reason to panic. “Right now I don’t know of anyone studying what’s happening when runners hallucinate,” he explains. “However, I doubt that hallucinations pose much of a danger. They’re usually innocuous and runners typically pull out of them quickly.”
ILLUSIONS OF GRANDEUR
Most trail runners experience hallucinations of the garden-variety type: rocks becoming raccoons, boulders turning into cars, grass clumps morphing into giant spiders. Some, however, transcend the common.
Take, for instance, those of Marshall Ulrich, 54, a world-class trail runner, adventure racer and mountain climber from Colorado. Ulrich’s exploits are legendary. Thirteen times he has finished the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile summertime sweatfest across Death Valley and up Mount Whitney, winning four of those races. He’s run a 586-mile quad Badwater, repeating the course four times consecutively. In 1989, he became the first runner to complete the Last Great Race, finishing all six major 100-mile trail races in one summer. He’s also stood on the highest peak of every continent, and is one of only three athletes to have competed in all nine Eco-Challenges.
Ulrich also hallucinates in epic fashion.
During his 1999 self-supported solo crossing of the Badwater course, where he pulled 225 pounds of water and food in a rickshaw for the entire 135 miles, Ulrich’s mind played wonderful tricks. “It was the second day of my crossing, getting toward dusk,” explains Ulrich. “I was running at about three miles per hour, when suddenly, a woman in a silver bikini appeared. She was rollerblading at a pretty decent rate. Every so often, she would turn around to smile and wave at me. She was just perfectly proportioned, this ideal woman in the middle of Death Valley.
“I’ve had hallucinations before, so I knew it wasn’t real,” adds Ulrich. “But this was such a good one, and so entertaining, that I perpetuated it for six or seven minutes. This is one I didn’t want to go away.”
At another point in his lonely solo crossing, Ulrich subconsciously created his own crowd boost. “I was pulling the cart along the left-hand side of the road,” he recalls. “And a massive, wingless 747 pulled up beside me. I looked up and through the portals saw people waving. Men, women and children were all cheering me on.”
Envisioning airliners, however, did not play as well with Ulrich. “Seeing the skater was entertaining, but not the plane,” he remarks. “That vision was just bizarre, a little too vivid, too real.”