Do Sleep Monsters Bite?

The 100-miler concept is no longer foreign to South African trail runners. We have a few local options to race this kind of distance, and we’re using some tough, shorter races at home to qualify for international 100-milers. Whether it be because our much-loved local hero, Ryan Sandes, took top spot at Western States 100 this year, or because the South African running culture is built on the pursuit of distance, there certainly seems to be an increase in the uprising of brave souls preparing themselves for the kind of trail running that takes you way beyond your physical self, and in to a trippy zone of sleep deprivation, where sleep monsters come to play.

If you are one of the warriors considering your first 100-mile trail race, then you’ll want to take some of the following wisdom from these extreme athletes to heart.  Or, just have a jolly good laugh!

Rob Walker, 53, participates in ultra-endurance, self-supported bike rides and races e.g. Audaxes, and most recently the Transcontinental Race. He hails from Someset West in the Western Cape.

The Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) in 2015 was the race where things got super weird for him. PBP is a 1,230km Audax, self-supported with a 90 hour time limit and the clock doesn’t stop. It’s the grand-daddy of all Audaxes, and one every Randonneur has on their bucket list.

“It was on the 3rd day of riding PBP – 9:38am, 19 August 2015. Quite by chance I bumped into two fellow SA Randonneurs and riding buddies, Nico Coetzee and Barry Shaw as we approached the town of Fougeres. The 3 of us headed to a McDonalds for breakfast. It must be said, I’d had around 6 or 7 hours of sleep at most by this point over the last 3 days.

The McD’s was equipped with a new high tech self-server ordering system consisting of huge touch panel screens. It baffled all of us and, even with help, refused to offer all of the choices we craved. It was a bit of a shambles really, none of us were fully mentally equipped by this stage of the ride.

What happened next is undoubtedly the most bizarre few minutes of my ride, or any Audax ride for that matter. As I headed for the luxury of a clean toilet, some very non-standard McD’s music came blaring out over the PA – Rammstein’s Du Hast. Some moments later, I opened the stall door into total darkness. Dark except for the two purple alien eyes that were glaring ominously back at me, thrash metal still blasting into my ears. I honestly thought I’d lost my mind. The slightest motion of my hand resolved the scene in a way my sleep deprived brain could not – energy saving lights flickered on, and ahead were two urinals with some kind of UV sanitising light. Phew!”

Rob reckons there was a gorilla at the finish of the race, which apparently no one else saw… His advice for coping with extreme sporting and sleep deprivation:  

“Most endurance racers in any sport know there are two kinds of sleep – REM sleep, which needs a minimum of a 2 to 2.5 hour cycle to complete. More than that is a luxury but not a necessity. Day after day, 3 to 5 hours sleep is quite manageable. The trick (again well known) is to learn how to take short cat naps – 35 to 50 min maximum for most people. You need to avoid slipping in to a REM cycle – once that kicks in you need to let it complete. If you really want to max the effect of a cat nap, drink an espresso first, but only if you can be sure of getting straight to sleep – 20 or 30 minutes later the caffeine kicks in, wakes you up fresh. The risk is if you can’t drift off fast enough, your sleep window is gone again for several hours.

The thing about cat naps is, they bring on the hallucinations. A handful of cat naps a day is plenty for your body to function, even day after day, but without REM sleep your mind does not get to reset itself. Eventually it gives up waiting for you to go to sleep to dream and just starts day dreaming all on its own, right in front of your eyes.”

Well known Cape trail runner once made a bit of an “ass” of himself on a non-stop race… Entirely worth it for the story, though!

Noel Ernstzen from Scarborough in the Cape is a 58 year old lover of the single track. He prefers technical trails with big climbs, and usually races between 30 and 70km. His racing career kicked off at 38 when he was overweight a smoker, and his life motto was “why run when you can drive”.

“After some tentative Argus Cycle tours, and one or two Knysna half marathons, I saw a pic in a mag, of huge sand dunes in Namibia, with the caption, “toughest AR race in Africa, 300km non-stop in Namibia” That pic changed my life entirely.

8 months later at race briefing for Dessert Challenge, on the banks of the Orange River, my partner and I were introduced as “paddling specialists” from CT, as we were rookies, and nothing was known about us (mainly because we had done nothing else). At that stage I had spent a total of 8hrs training in a K2…

After 45hrs, with a 90min sleep, we started the last leg, a 60km run/hike that would take us through the night. At around 10pm, we had resorted to a shuffle whereby we would move along for about 20min, then go down on our knees and rest our head on the ground with our asses in the air, for 1min, this way it was easier to get up and start running again. At around 1am, 50hrs down, and desperately wanting to finish, a donkey comes waltzing into our view. This was our ticket home! He literally stopped 2metres away from me, and I could see every detail; his whiskers, his long eyelashes, grey black nose, and big brown eyes. This was many years before Shrek came out, but he was a dead ringer for the donkey in that, just no Eddie Murphy voice.

I was so excited, and shouted, “grab him, grab him, we can ride him to the finish!” I was so angry, because my partner just stood there staring at me, and I thought, to h*ll with you, if I catch him I’m riding this bad boy on my own!

I was always under the impression that hallucinating was more like seeing a strange shape bush or tree or cloud, and thinking it looks similar to something, when in actual fact, your brain is able to conjure up the most detailed vision that is indistinguishable from the real thing.”

 

Marius Smith is a 29 year old semi-pro Obstacle Course Race (OCR) athlete from Vereeniging, and travels extensively to compete in OCR events.

“The Warrior Extreme 24 hour Race was my first OCR endurance race I took part in, the race course was a 5km lap with 15 obstacles at rookie (novice) level or that's what they said in the briefing. This was the race that brought me to my knees as I battled with sleep.

It started off just after midnight and I was trying to complete lap after lap, but my body wasn't coping well with the water obstacles. I had been racing for over 9 hours and my body was struggling to keep warm. It got so bad that while I was running I was sweating and shivering at the same time! I could slowly feel my body get more and more tired as the minutes went on. When both your mind and body are exhausted, it’s a dark that place and rest is necessary. I decided to go to my pit crew and rest for an hour or so just to warm up my body so that I could come back and continue. Once I got to my crew I knew that getting any sort of sleep was going to be very hard as there was constant noise from the speakers, lights and movement around the venue. I had not planned it very well.

My advice to any athlete taking on an endurance race through the night would be to pack ear plugs and an eye mask. Bring or pack warm clothes or enough kit to change into dry clothes as being wet for too long or staying in the same kit for a number of hours after you have been sweating can become very uncomfortable for the body. A comfy mattress of sleeping bag is very important. A big thing when you are racing for so long is to listen to your body, when you feel tired rest for a bit or sleep if you have to, it makes a huge difference to your race when you give your body a chance to recover. Sunblock is also another good tip. It's hard to get comfy or get any rest or sleep when your body is sun burned.”

 

Robyn Ferrar, 41, from Newlands, Cape Town describes herself as an adventure racing enthusiast in her previous (pre-family) life, but of late has turned to the simplicity and pure joy of trail and mountain running.

“The race that introduced me to my fondly remembered Sleepmonsters (although not at all monstrous, thankfully) was the 2005 World Adventure Racing Championships in Fort William, Scotland.  My team and I had been racing for 3 days and 2 nights without more than 2 hours rest (1 hour sleep for me).  I had also injured my knee on day 2 trying to get my foot out of a faulty cleat on my bike.  The first encounter happened in the wee hours of a wet and windy night.  I was on tow (attached to a team-mate via a bungee cord and being pulled along to quicken the pace) trekking across a Scottish moor after paddling the lochs in equally appalling weather.  It was dark, cold and raining.  My knee was agony and my only focus was picking one foot up after the other, clearing the ‘baby heads’ and placing each foot into my team mate’s vacated footprints.  I was just marvelling at my ability to endlessly do these things whilst staying upright, when I heard one of my team mates announcing our arrival at a checkpoint.  We stopped and I looked to my left and saw the marshal, decked out in full Scottish rain gear, lounging on a deck chair next to his tent with a beer in his hand.  We both just stared at each other for a long surreal moment (I think I even said hi), enough time for me to wonder what the hell he was doing lying out in the rain instead of in his tent and also why my team mates were now heading in the opposite direction.  I turned to tell them they’d gone straight past the CP, only to hear them shouting to someone else (the real marshal) 20 odd yards to our right. I had just enough time to swing back to my left and find just more empty Scottish moorland, before being pulled away by the bungee cord to the real CP.

Soon after that we made it to what seemed like a ghost town and I convinced my team-mates to rest for 10 mins in a bus-stop shelter before continuing on to the next part of our hike - back into the moors to bag a Scottish peak.  It was just starting to get light and we were trudging through a narrow valley on our way to a distant peak.  The whole way up this valley I was continuously turning around to see who might be laughing and chattering behind me when my team mates were in front and we hadn’t seen another soul since the lochs.  In a race you are prone to worrying about the next team coming up your rear anyway, so it was easy to imagine all these teams ascending on us with chattering, mocking laughter.  To add to this though was something even more bizarre and had me searching the ridges and peaks around us for what felt like hours.  And that was the certainty that someone had conspired to place megaphones and speakers all around us blasting out the song “bridge over troubled waters”… just the chorus, over and over for an eternity of agonising trudgery.  To this day I marvel over my brain’s choice of song that morning.

That night, for the first time in my life I slept like the dead for 13 hours straight.

My advice for dealing with SMs is to preferably know yourself and how well or badly you cope with sleep deprivation, or failing that, surround yourself with team mates that you trust and that know you well enough to understand what is happening.  Having said that, from the many experiences I’ve heard of in racing circles, SMs are generally just surreal and bizarre rather than frightening. And even if it is frightening you are generally too spaced out to actually feel scared, so just enjoy the ride and then get some rest!”

 

Armand du Plessis, a 38 year old extreme mountain running enthusiast from Llandudno in the Cape, has travelled to compete in some of the world’s greatest ultra-distance races in recent years.

“My first encounter with the effects of sleep deprivation was a few years back during the Diagonale des Fous 100 miler on Reunion Island. I think it was deep into the second night of running when I regained some form of consciousness to find myself running through a jungle with a motorcycle helmet on my head. It’s strange how the brain works and cycles through scenarios trying to make sense of what seems like a very improbable scenario, yet all the input it’s getting is saying “yes - you are running probably somewhere in the Amazon wearing a motorcycle helmet!” Yet the logical brain argues that 1) you’ve never been to South America and 2) you don’t own a motorcycle…

This struggle to make sense of it all probably lasted for a few minutes when (luckily) a runner stumbled into sight out of the rain wearing a Diagonale des Fous race number. This was the visual stimulus needed for things to click back into place – “this is not a motorcycle helmet I am wearing. I’m running Grand Raid on Reunion Island, its pitch dark, there is pouring rain and I’m wearing a rain jacket with the hood on.” The helmet effect was caused by my headlamp… 

Later on in the same race I was running behind another person watching grass turning into snakes and reaching for his legs. At this point I was more comfortable with the hallucinations so it didn’t really bug me much. 

At the Tor des Geants 330km/27000m d+ in Aosta Valley I met a Stone(d) Gnome. To be honest on this amazing journey following the spectacular paths in the high Alps around Aosta Valley I was expecting more hallucinations! As things go with ultras the race took longer than anticipated and I ended up spending 110 hours on the route with just over 4 hours of sleep. 

I think it was around the 3rd evening, I had been semi-awake for around 70 hours with some short 20 minute naps so things were pretty surreal. I hadn’t seen another soul apart from a few cows (there’s a surprising number of cows at these high-altitude grazing lands) for many hours and was looking forward to getting to a small bivacco where there would be people and some food and potentially shelter from the storm that was rolling in. I was running on a fairly well groomed trail, listening to some music, content to just keep moving forward when I saw him. In the middle of the trail with his staff in his hand there was a gnome. Now being more familiar with these sorts of episodes (and having learnt to embrace them) I knew he wasn’t real but try as I might I just couldn’t get him to turn into the tree, rock or cow that I knew he must be. We held our standoff - me sort of laughing nervously at the absurdity of staring down a gnome. It was only when I was about 20cm away from him that I could finally make out the rock structure.  I took a photo of him to revisit after the race which fortunately showed that it was not such a farfetched hallucination.”

“Another related aspect of Tor I remember vividly was the straps of my poles turning into blue snakes curled around my wrists.  It’s a strange feeling seeing the snakes but being completely at peace with them. I guess some people pay good money to see these things but we just have to go for a little run.

The best advice I have is to embrace the experience. See it for what it is. A chance to let your brain go and mess with you for a bit. However, if you are getting to the point where you are finding it difficult to control your movement or the lack of sleep is affecting your ability to take in nutrition or water you are putting yourself at risk. Especially when you are on remote mountain trails where you can wander off a cliff. What I found to work well is to lie down on the trail - set your phone alarm for 20 minutes and put it under your head. Linda Doke taught me this before my first Grand Raid - 20 minutes being an optimum nap to regain energy to get you to an aid station or help you make it to the morning. Everything is ALWAYS better in the morning!”

Indeed, sleep is the inexhaustible topic of conversation wherever endurance athletes (or new parents!) gather. Sleep is the muse of artists and poets, and the subject matter of thousands of scientific studies.  And, whether the sleep monsters visit in the form of metal music and alien eyes, or stoned gnomes on a trail standoff, they seem, all in all, to be another good reason to venture in to the arena of non-stop racing.

Goodnight.