Surviving Sleep Deprivation: Hallucinations on the Cape Wrath Trail and in Ultra Running

Sleep deprivation is a common occurrence in ultra running events, which are races longer than the traditional marathon distance of 26.2 miles. Ultra runners may compete in events lasting anywhere from a few hours to several days, and many races require runners to continue running through the night.

During these long races, sleep deprivation can become a significant challenge for ultra runners. The physical and mental demands of the race, combined with the lack of sleep, can lead to a variety of problems, including decreased alertness, impaired decision-making, and increased risk of injury.

To combat sleep deprivation during ultra running events, some runners choose to take short naps or breaks during the race. These naps may only last a few minutes but can provide a much-needed energy boost and mental break.

Other strategies for managing sleep deprivation during ultra running include maintaining a consistent sleep schedule leading up to the race, consuming caffeine or other stimulants to stay awake, and engaging in mental exercises to maintain focus and alertness.

Ultimately, every ultra runner is different, and what works for one person may not work for another. It’s important for runners to experiment with different strategies to find what works best for them and to prioritize their health and safety throughout the race.

Sleep deprivation can have a range of negative effects on both physical and mental health, and one of those effects is the possibility of experiencing hallucinations.

Hallucinations are sensory experiences that occur without any external stimulus. They can affect any of the senses, including sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Hallucinations can be caused by a number of factors, including sleep deprivation.

When you don’t get enough sleep, your brain can start to experience changes in neurotransmitter activity and hormonal imbalances, which can lead to hallucinations. These hallucinations can take many forms, including visual distortions, sounds that aren’t really there, and even tactile sensations.

One of the reasons sleep deprivation can cause hallucinations is that the brain has a harder time differentiating between reality and imagination. When you’re sleep deprived, your brain is more likely to misinterpret sensory information, leading to the creation of false perceptions or even delusions.

I had no idea how my body would react to lack of sleep over many days as I had never pushed it to such extreme limits before. Although I had been on my feet for over 24 hours before, I had never gone beyond that. The fear of losing control of my senses due to sleep deprivation was constantly on my mind. Unfortunately, during the Cape Wrath Trail, I did experience severe hallucinations on a few occasions, which I will detail in the hallucinations section. They felt very real!

Speaking of sleep, I managed to get a total of only 95 minutes of sleep in 86 hours of running. The first nap I took was just before Craig on the edge of the forestry. It was warm and sunny, and I found a comfortable spot on some grass after crossing a forestry gate. I set my alarm for 20 minutes, but a sudden gust of wind woke me up in less than 15 minutes. I was so shocked that I immediately stood up and started moving. Surprisingly, I felt great after the nap, and my brain was refreshed, ready to take on the challenge.

The second sleep happened just after I had my first hallucinations on the high grounds above Corrie Hallie bothy. I found a soft mossy spot with a rock behind it, and I lay down on my left side. I was warm and snug thanks to all the layers and kit I had, and I set my alarm for 20 minutes. However, when I woke up, my whole right leg was stiff from top to bottom. I started walking immediately, and it loosened off.

The third sleep occurred much later during the day on a grassy hill before Inverlael. I just needed to rest, and I took another 20-minute nap with no drama.

The fourth sleep happened after a series of terrible hallucinations. The terrain was not ideal for sleeping or hiding from the elements. The wind was too strong, and the boulders and bog made it difficult to nap comfortably. I was near Glendhu bothy at the seashore, and I found a sheltered area between some boulders. I patted some dry bracken and fell asleep. After 20 minutes, I woke up to another hallucination, which was so realistic that it shook me up badly. I started moving much faster than in the previous hours.

My last 20-minute nap was at the ruins at Bealach nam Fiann, just before reaching the top of Ben Dreavie. I ate lots of food and fell asleep sitting with my back against the ruins’ wall. Luckily, the sun was shining during the last days, keeping me extra warm.

Time of sleep in minutes: 5 naps – 15min, 20min, 20min, 20min, 20min – TOTAL 95min

In summary, I only managed to get 95 minutes of sleep in 86 hours and 40 minutes.

Hallucinations? I had many… Read about them in the previous blog:
The Haunting History of Clearances: Exploring Cape Wrath Trail Hallucinations in the Scottish Highlands

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s