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Hardrock Hallucinations

July 18, 2012

Prior to this past weekend’s epic Hardrock 100, I had the good fortune of watching the ‘Voices of Hardrock‘ video series published on iRunFar.com. Evan Honeyfield did a wonderful job interviewing many people and capturing the essence of Hardrock with this six-part series. Nice work Evan. One night while lying in bed I watched part 1 of the series which highlighted many competitors and centered around the theme of ‘adventure.’ Good stuff indeed, but I grew more and more skeptical as I watched. Why? Well, one of the interviewees (Mark Heaphy) mentioned his experience with hallucinations during Hardrock. “Yeah right.” I said to Annie. “I’m so sick of hype and hyperbole’.” Picture a condescending sniff and a self-righteous look. My eyes rolled as I scoffed at the melodrama. (Sorry Mark!)

I knew what he was talking about. (Or so I thought) What he was actually describing were mere thoughts of hallucinations. He really meant: “Man… that rock over there sure looks like Uncle Frank.” or: “That tree looks like a person.” I’m trying to make the distinction between thinking you saw something and actual vivid hallucinations. Me? I’d been there. After-all, I’m the dude who swears he saw a baby elephant on a run 5 years ago. (Turns out it was a porcupine and I’m just a moron). I thought this was just another case of sensationalism regarding ultrarunning. My last thought as I finished watching part 1 was: “Nice work Evan… really hyping this thing up… entertaining for sure.” 

Turns out, not only am I a smidgen too cynical, skeptical, negative, and self-absorbed, (“I’ve never experienced that, so… it can’t happen!”), but I was also wrong. I experienced true hallucinations while pacing my good friend Tim Parr this past weekend at the Hardrock 100. I picked up Parr late in the afternoon (4:00pm) in Ouray at mile 43 of the race. The plan was for me to run with him throughout the night and hand him off to another friend and pacer (Jerry) at Cunningham Gulch (Mile 93) just before sunrise. No problem, right? Parr was in good position, but started to suffer on the climb up Handies Peak. He rallied a few times from mile 60 to mile 90, but generally slowed down considerably as he dealt with significant stomach issues. Parr is one tough dude and his willingness to keep ‘marching-on’ while suffering furthered his innate toughness. As we climbed 0ut of the Sherman aid station and the clock rolled past 2:00am, I (his loyal friend and night-time pacer) began to fall asleep. It was subtle at first; a few yawns, a little stumble, a head-nod, a bobble… but as we staggered to Pole Creek it was obvious that the coke and the food was not keeping me awake. I tried to ‘up’ my encouragement of Parr, thinking that it would help me stay awake. This was not to be and through this ‘sparsely-marked’ section of the course, we walked slowly over the cross-country sections, occasionally stumbled on the trail, and doggedly hunkered down for the last push before sunrise.

As 3:30am clicked by on my watch I stumbled more and more frequently. I never completely fell over, but I was falling asleep, catching myself, walking on, falling asleep, catching myself, gasping for air, marching on. This cycle continued for a while as I tried to keep Parr eating and encouraged him to keep moving. He was alert (or so I thought) but I was a walking zombie… a walking zombie that was definitely falling asleep as I jogged, shuffled, walked, and pushed on in support of Parr. My eyes closed and a vivid flash of a yellow school bus with 40 kids sitting in the seats jumped into my brain. I thought for sure there was a school bus just up on the hillside to the right of us. This sight lasted for 3 or 4 seconds before I gasped and my eyes flung open to the light of my head-lamp again. “Whoa, I’ve got to get my %&!@ together.” I bit my lip harder, pinched the skin on my neck, shouted encouragement at Parr, and kept moving. My eye-lids closed again and I saw a pair of sunglasses that I was about to step on. I flung my eyes opened, convinced I had just crushed a pair of $200 Oakley sunglasses. Nope… just a couple rocks. More hallucinations came and went. I saw skulls popping out of boulders. I was convinced there were multiple styrofoam cups from Sonic (fastfood place) (You know the cups I’m talking about.. the ones that you can order a 64oz slushy in!) on the trail. Nope. I reached out at the chest-high plants and bushes next to the trail… absolutely sure they were trekking poles. I longed for sleep. I snapped awake. This cycle went on for quite some time and Parr had no idea. Truly, the only clue that I was struggling was the increased frequency of my stumbling, which by 4:30am had become dangerous. I would wander off course, only to stumble, snap awake, and begin talking to Parr again.

My final hallucination that I remember, was a vivid picture of my hand brushing the tops of corn plants on a sunny day. I was reaching to the front and the side, touching the plants and bushes by the side of the trail. I thought for sure I had become a farmer. (After the fact, the image that came to mind is that of Maximus (Russell Crowe) as he is wading through the wheat fields in the movie ‘Gladiator’) (These scenes from the movie were the times when he was fading in and out of death). I gasped as my eyes snapped opened. I was disheartened to see that indeed I was not farming on a sunny day in Iowa, but rather still in the dark of night at Hardrock. Once I snapped awake from this vision, I could see the light of the Pole Creek aid station at mile 80. I focused on this light, encouraged Parr, and we made it. Parr took a short rest here (10 minutes) as I chugged coffee and ate a few peanut M&Ms. The sun was now rising and the land was growing brighter. With the growing light came the end of my weird hallucinations. Vivid. Real. Slightly scary. Mostly annoying. A sign that I was desperately sleepy. Perhaps now I won’t be so skeptical in the future when I hear of other people’s experiences. 

Parr? Timmy Parr did just fine and did not suffer any hallucinations. He stayed positive despite a deteriorating race, toughed it out, and finished in 31 hours and 50 minutes, for 17th place. Nice work Parr. I only hope my lack of preparedness for pacing Parr all night did not slow him down or cost him anything. I feel really bad for struggling with tiredness so much that night and generally I’m just glad we didn’t get lost out there. Parr is a good friend and a tough competitor, and I am honored to have paced him for 48 miles. He’ll bounce back with many fine performances to come. As for his pacer? Well… he needs to go to bed. Thanks for reading. DC

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One Comment
  1. July 19, 2012 6:26 PM

    That’s a pretty crazy race, especially once you add school buses on the course…

    Saw you signed up to StumpJump. Should be fun.

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