The Twilight Zone - Page 3
NOT FOR HARDCORES ONLY
Hallucinations are not the sole domain of hardened veteran runners. The vulnerable minds of novices are equally susceptible. In 2004, Baltimore runner Justina Starobin, 44, was cutting her 100-mile teeth in Vermont, when she encountered a cinematic oasis in the New England woodlands.
“It was two in the morning, about 72 miles into the run, and I was practically sleepwalking,” says Starobin, “when on a hill in front of me, I saw a drive-in theater, with a love scene playing. It involved a woman with dark, shoulder-length wavy hair and a clean-cut, dark-haired man. Both were very tan, caressing each other and talking.”
Starobin’s pacer sought to be a voice of reason, and argued that there couldn’t possibly be a drive-in theater there, but Starobin wasn’t buying. “I was certain [my pacer] was wrong,” she explains. “I could see the movie right in front of me, so I didn’t say anything. I was just focusing on the dialog and story.”
As the tandem neared the top of the hill, reality abruptly ended the movie. What spurred Starobin’s hallucination was an aid-station light casting shadows of swaying trees on the side of a barn. “I was very disappointed,” offers Starobin.
Mind alterations helped motivate Wyoming runner Kevin O’Neall, 49, to his first 100-mile finish. It happened at the 2003 Javelina Jundred, an autumn amble through the stark beauty of the Arizona desert.
“The night had a dream-like quality,” remembers O’Neall. “I recall feeling calm and safe in the night air with the full moon and coyotes howling. Then an eclipse began, and the sudden lack of light was eerie. The raucous coyotes quit singing. Right in front of me, I saw a man hanging by a rope. He was wearing a cowboy hat and boot-length duster. There were no trees nearby for him to be hanging from.” The man turned out to be a bush, and the hanging rope a tall reed protruding from behind. The shock of the vision gave O’Neall a second wind.
Later in the race, large Saguaro cacti began chasing O’Neall, prodding him to a sub-30-hour finish.
Often, public figures or characters weave their way into the mental fantasies of trail runners. Lisa Demoney may or may not have seen late Grateful Dead singer and guitarist Jerry Garcia wink at her in the later stages of the Massanutten Mountain 100-Mile Run. Scott Brockmeier happened upon Saddam Hussein during a 70-mile run across the Smokey Mountains, in Tennessee.
During an Eco-Challenge, Marshall Ulrich watched a teammate’s face metamorphose into that of gap-toothed MAD magazine icon, Alfred E. Neuman. On his Appalachian Trail quest, Andrew Thompson saw singer Dave Matthews’ face perfectly etched into a tree, and later Michael Jackson’s face in another tree—a vision that he found quite disturbing.
Florida runner Jeff Bryan encountered a former president during a recent Pennar 40-Mile Endurance Run, an out-and-back jaunt from Pensacola Beach to Navarre Beach. “I crashed and burned,” he says. “I was suffering from major dehydration and cramping. Between miles 30 and 35 I was running with a friend, Gary Griffin, when Bill Clinton rode by on a bicycle. He waved, shouted some encouraging words and rode off into the horizon.”
“I looked at Gary, and Gary looked at me,” Bryan continues. We continued for about half a mile, when I couldn’t contain my thoughts any longer, and asked, ‘That was Bill Clinton who just passed us, wasn’t it?’ Gary got a shit-eating grin on his face and responded, ‘Pal, I’m glad you saw him, too.’”
“As a Republican, I found it very scary,” adds Bryan.
CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?
Hallucinations are generally thought of as being visual, but often manifest themselves in other ways. Blake Wood is a tough-as-steel trail runner from New Mexico who has seen Volkswagen Beetles hanging from trees and rock lichen transform into a running friend. Once, in the later stages of Barkley, he chased a non-existent kitten through dense woodland, believing it belonged to a park ranger. But on one occasion, Wood’s ears deceived him.
“It was the 1997 Barkley and I was approaching the Coal Pond area, just beyond Son-of-a-Bitch Ditch,” explains Wood. “I heard someone blowing a whistle in the dark. I could only assume they were in distress, so I called back. ‘Who are you? Are you in trouble?’”
“When I received no answer, I got really concerned and ran toward the sound, the whole time yelling ‘Hold on! I’m coming! It’ll be OK!’ I ran and ran and ended up on the shore of Coal Pond. The whistling was just frogs peeping.”
Hallucinations don’t require the victim to be on the move. The overactive mind may even lead to post-race visions.
Jeff Keyser, 44, of Alabama, completed the 2003 Mountain Mist 50K Trail Run near Huntsville, Alabama, as his fourth marathon or ultramarathon in 10 weeks. “I ran a fever, and was cold and miserable the entire race,” says Keyser. “Afterward, the only thing I could think of was getting to my car and into clean clothes. I was shaking uncontrollably. As I approached my car, I noticed a cowboy kneeling next to it, panning for gold. He had a big hat down over his face and one of those long coats.”
Further inspection revealed the culprit as a three-foot shrub. “I do not have any fond memories of that day,” says Keyser.
Veteran Massachusetts runner Stanley Tiska, 48, had a similar experience. It happened following a vigorous 35-mile training run on the Metacomet-Monadnock Trail, which threads through the scenic Berkshire Mountains. Tiska wandered off course and ran longer and harder than planned. “After the run I was driving home alone, very exhausted,” he recalls, “and noticed a speed skater racing me. I could see the texture of his black body suit and hood, and his muscles straining for more speed. All I could think about was ‘Wow, look how fast he’s going! He’s doing great!’”
Tiska can usually erase his hallucinations by diverting his focus to other objects, but the speed skater proved persistent. Tiska was forced to pull over for a rest break. “Not only did I have an unforgettable run that day,” he says. “But also an unforgettable drive home.”
This article originally appeared in our January 2006 issue.
Michael Strzelecki, of Catonsville, Maryland, is no stranger to running hallucinations. Once, during the late stages of a 24-hour run, he yanked his wife (pacer) out of the path of an imaginary car trying to run them over.