Running through Hallucination

Or how I literally screwed myself during a 110 KM Ultra Marathon.

It’s a mother sitting with two of her daughters.
Eyes blink.
It’s Bungalow building it’s own walls…
Eyes blink.
It’s a huge dinner table, bigger than a mountain, and their is a family ready to dine.
Eyes blink.
It’s a road made of the beard of old man.
Eyes blink.
It’s a cloud having a hand and fingers, playing guitar……

This was the state of my mind during the last few hours of a Ultra-marathon I completed in October, 2017. It was perhaps the longest distance and time that I was on my foot. 23 hours of running (and sometime brisk walking). No rest no TV time. I am novice in the ultra running world which means I was OK with just finishing this one without DNF (24 hour was the cut-off). The run was fantastic, beautiful and mesmerizing. Until I reached the final two hours of the run. The nightmare started…

I started seeing ‘stuff’’. These were weird. Very loosely connected to real world, but somehow blown out of proportion. Distorted, broken and abstract but reassembling something. Remember Francis Bacon, the artist and his paintings? Something pretty similar to that.

Francis Bacon: Three Studies for the Portrait of Henrietta Moraes

I knew it was not real mainly because of the scale issue. I saw a lady sitting in kitchen, only that her body was bigger than the mountains. and the kitchen was smaller than a tree. It was weird, but I loved it at the start (I never knew about race hallucination that time and I thought this shit is pretty cool! Who can imagine such complex figures in the middle of the night 3 am. Free entertainment I thought to myself!!).

And all it required was a blink to vanish. It was like a painting on slate, and the blink was all it needed to wipe off clear. But the blink was also the hand of the artist, because the moment my eyes opened again, I could see something different, totally different. A father teaching his daughter to play chess. Again everything distorted out of proportion, huge and complex, moving absurd (like walls having legs and they coming together to make a house).

I now knew I was in trouble. Some trouble. The run was inside a forest and I was running alone. I still had 30 km to go. People who do ultra running know that in long runs, we are all lonely. I can’t run fast enough to catch-up the runner ahead of me and neither can I stop and wait for someone to come and join me… So I kept my pace.

But the worst was yet to come. I started stumbling. Not stumbling as in falling, but stumbling with calculation. One moment I was on side of the trail and the next instance I was on the other. And then I was back on the opposite side. I was flipping, swinging like a pendulum, all while running.. I realize that my hallucination was creating path for me where there wasn’t one. I was seeing trail going in direction where there wasn’t one. I knew this could get me in trouble for that forest was cutting through mountains and I was at a elevation (1500 mts), falling from which, might not kill me, but could easily get be bed ridden for months.

But I kept running. Primarily because I was near the finish line. I had all my energy in me, my legs were strong. No sprain, no fatigue. So close to the finish line, I had no reason to quit (and I had already DNF one of my 100 that year, so it was a no brainier — I gotta complete this). I knew that something is playing with my head and that I need to focus. I thought music would help and it did. But only for a while. The hallucination was overpowering all my attempts to subsidize it. It was like a shadow, growing over me. With every step, I was coming closer to the finish line. But the hallucination was also getting intense. Never in my whole life have I seen so many visuals so rapidly. Every blink created a new one.

The last 10 km was on a ‘good enough’ road. Luckily, I saw a fellow runner sitting on the road, struggling with his feet (he was so badly cramped and injured, after the race was over, it took him days to start walking properly, weeks to sit on floor). I told him what is happening to me and that I need help finishing this race. I knew in my heart that this thing is getting dangerous and if I don’t take care of it now, I would hurt myself pretty bad (the road now had trucks and heavy vehicles passing us. It was now a matter of seconds before I could get hit by one because of this stupid hallucination). The friend agreed to run (or walk) together till the end. He was right besides me talking to me the whole time. I was still hallucinated, but I was not wobbling around the road. He used to hold me and call my name out when I moved sideways without reason.

The final KM was on the horizon and I had bit of fuel in my tank. I paced-up to finish fast (there was a photographer near the finish line). The moment I crossed the finish line, I wanted to sit and cry. It was a emotional moment for me. Completing the distance was one, but doing this when my brain was on a Picasso High made this a whole lot difficult.

I got home the medal and the nightmare

After coming home, I read an interesting research paper by the Badwater guys on the topic of Ultra marathon and Hallucination.

Malnad 110k

Bottom line, I should have stopped and asked for help earlier. This could have turned pretty bad and I was only lucky that it didn’t for me. For my next 100 miles, I am preparing appropriating so as to not face this same issue (I am mainly running midnight after a exhaustive work day so as to stimulate the race day condition). Hopefully I will be fine this time!

Happy Running!!