“What Do You Think About When Running That Far?” + My Cool Moon Hallucinations

Many people assume that running long distances must be somewhat boring (if suffering from constant pain can be called boring, that is). You have only your own mind to entertain you, and, as many of us probably sometimes feel, that’s not always the best company. It’s no surprise then that I’ve heard this question perhaps more than the notorious “I don’t even like to run that far!”

But really, what do I do with myself when “running” for any time longer than two hours? What are the options one has when moving forward on their own two legs for longer than would be probably advisable? What can you do to keep your mind from going haywire?

There’s actually a lot you can think about when running. You can think about how much you hate it. You can think about how great it feels. You can think about how you shouldn’t have eaten that burrito only thirty minutes before your run.

Mostly, what goes on in my head is a combination of these, plus about a million other thoughts. Especially during races, when it’s hot outside, or on very long runs, I try to think about how much I eat and drink and when was the last time I put on sunscreen. Remembering to re-apply anti-chafe products also proves very useful. Many times, these very logical thoughts drown in the ocean filled with other stuff, such as “Why on earth would you do that,” “Stop right now you blasted idiot,” or “This all is one huge mistake.”

The question of what did I do with myself for so long came up especially after I “ran” (ehm… struggled through) Cool Moon—my first 50-miler that took me astounding 25 hours. Okay, it was “only” 24 hours and 55 minutes… but still.

What I thought about during Cool Moon

I’d love to say something cool. Something like “I came up with the plot to the next great mystery novel” or “I figured out how to stop global warming.” After all, 25 hours is a lot of time to come up with something great. But the truth is, I had “Whooooh-oh-uh-ah-aaaah, it’s a morning in America!” stuck in my head for the entire 25 hours it took me to finish the thing. It’s just one phrase of a song that kept playing in my mind on repeat without a break. When the day broke the next morning, I finally sang it out loud to my pacer. Couldn’t listen to the song for several months afterward.

I tried to listen to music but it just wasn’t working that day. Interestingly enough, it’s on the long-distance runs, when one would presume I’d need teh distraction the most, that I don’t like listening to music. I’ll do an 8-hour (and much longer) run without music. On the other hand, I can’t survive my usual 10k loop on the streets of my town without it. I managed to get through an hour-long video of Courtney Dauwalter’s Tahoe 200 documentary. I know it by heart by now and listen to it as a podcast when I run. But that was the end of media for me.

For a portion of the race, I also thought about how much it hurt. I got an injury at mile 23 and another one only four miles later. They were both quite painful. But eventually, these injuries in combination with extreme chafing and general muscle soreness started to hurt so much I didn’t have words to describe it, and so I became delirious instead. And, well, my mind kinda took it from there. I had wild hallucinations, and those provided enough entertainment, to say the least.

Hallucinations

If you get hallucinations, you have entertainment taken care of. Oh, the things I’ve seen and heard! And while my pacer was most likely watching a comedy (although a mildly disconcerting one, as he’d never seen anyone go through an ultramarathon, let alone deal with hallucinations), I was in a confusing mix of a horror movie and a Ghibli classic.

It started slowly. My first was a hand-sized black-and-white-striped praying mantis on the trail. My brain caught up pretty quickly to that one, translating it into a stick. The second one was a hand-sized black-and-white checkered spider. And even though I’m terrified of these, my brain, once again, figured out it was just a pine cone pretty quickly, before I had the time to get a heart attack.

However, it was the third one that got me, and after that, everything was real. We were hiking on a single-track on a steep hillside. I’m not afraid of lizards. On the contrary, I love them. They’re adorable. What a surprise then that suddenly, a malicious lizard ran across the trail in a flash of aggressive movement! I screamed, turned around to run away, and was caught and stopped from tumbling down the hillside by my pacer who, eventually, convinced me that there were no lizards trying to climb up my ankles and that I could turn around and continue walking on. The “lizard” turned out to be just a tiny twig.

Little translucent bulbous people took it from there. They looked like the Kodama from Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke, just a bit bigger, about a foot or two tall. And after a few sets of dark bony arms that looked like they belonged to bog bodies reached out from the trees surrounding the trail to catch me and pull me off the trail, these forest spirits emerged, sitting at the bases of tree trunks and walking across the trail. Somehow, they kept me safe. I admired them for a bit and then started to ask them if they could please move off the trail so my pacer and I could pass. There were many of them and I ended up, according to my pacer, mumbling nonsense for what amounted to an hour or two.

When we were climbing yet another hill (which I was a hundred percent sure couldn’t possibly be a part of the race and, therefore, assumed we were off-course), the Kodama-like creatures disappeared when I saw a rattlesnake in the grass right next to the trail. While I refused to move, my pacer kept convincing me it was just another hallucination, until…

“Holy cow, it’s real!” he said and we waited for the snake to cross the trail. It was the middle of the night. Rattlesnakes weren’t supposed to be out.

Right after we passed the very real rattlesnake, there were several wooden mailboxes in the curve of the trail.

“Why are there mailboxes in the middle of the forest?” I asked. It was the first fully understandable thing I said in several hours. My mind was clearing up a bit. Still, I believed there were actual mailboxes in the middle of nowhere.

The last hallucination I had came at around 4 a.m. when we were approaching the top of the hill. I was convinced I saw the water-only aid station that I’d been expecting for about an hour by then on the top of the hill off-trail. My pacer patiently explained that it wasn’t there over and over. Then, after we finally reached it and my brain snapped out of its delirium, came the hardest part of the whole race. As I said, hallucinations can be good. Especially when they’re preventing you from a) getting absolutely, totally bored, and b) feeling all the pain. Because that shit was overwhelming when it came back.

A short list of things to think about when running

  • Food (especially that burrito that tasted like heaven but you probably shouldn’t have eaten it)
  • Coffee and Painkillers (hey, this could be a name of my new band… if I had any musical talent at all)
  • Your mortgage (because no matter how terrible the hallucinations are, nothing can be scarier than that)
  • That one embarrassing thing that happened to you in fourth grade (or any other grade, really, there’s always a lot to choose from)
  • How you absolutely totally hate running and won’t ever do it again (only to be back out there the moment you can stand up again, even if the doctor said to take a six-week break at the very least)

Read about my experience at Cool Moon HERE! 🙂

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