Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. -Romans 12:2
One of the battles I have struggled with during my previous 100 mile races, before the Cruel Jewel, was the debilitating and relentless sleep monsters that would attack as darkness descended. The desire to close your eyes for just a quick nap can be so overwhelming. It can lull you into the crazy idea to stop on the side of a cold, wet trail in the middle of the night for just a few minutes of rest despite the inherent danger in doing so.
Music and Caffeine
I have written numerous times about trying to use music to stay awake. While I have received some relief from the weights pulling down on my eyelids, any music, regardless of the genre never seems to have lasting results.
Probably the most involved approach for me to fight this issue has been with the use of caffeine (gels, mountain dew, etc.). The process begins in the 3-4 weeks prior to race day as I try to detox or cleanse my system of this legal drug in hopes that the effects will be exacerbated when needed most. While it hasn’t been effective in its primary objective of keeping me fully alert, I do believe there is some benefit. As a result, I will probably continue to torture myself in the weeks leading up to the race by depriving myself of coffee and other sources of caffeine that normally help me start my day or get through endless meetings. However, it definitely doesn’t compare to one of the most powerful stimulants, the Sun!
Sun and Sleep
Nothing can be more effective in helping me put the sleep demons to bed like the rising sun or a quick 15 min power nap. There are many factors as to whether someone will see a sunrise. It can depend on things such as pace, time of day the race begins, time of year, or any number of these combinations. However, for those of us who have experienced the rising sun in an ultra, it can be amazing.
A power nap has had the same effect as I learned at WS100. After realizing sub-24 hours was not an option, I decided to make the most of my time at this legendary race and its aid stations by closing my eyes for 15 minutes. Not only were the significant benefits noticeable to me, but my pacer Jim suggested I should have crashed earlier in the night to have made up more time! The idea of sleeping in an ultra might be as repulsive to some as walking is viewed by a marathoner. However, unless you are going to finish in the top 10 at a race, I suggest you do what works for you.
When it comes to sleep and performance, nothing is as critical as the rest one gets in the days and even weeks leading up to the race. In addition, it’s not just sleep but rest in general. The amount of stress one is under leading up to a race can further exacerbate issues during the race itself. I am 100% convinced that my DNF at Grindstone last year had more to do with jet lag after flying back from Taiwan less than 36 hours before the race began ( I had hoped it could work to my advantage.. NOPE!).
What Has Worked For Me Beyond Sleeping?
I have been blessed to have had some incredible pacers who have helped me fight through some difficult patches. However it was last August during ES100 when my pacer Jimmy noticed I was swaying and stumbling as I fought off sleep. He knew my faith was important to me and started asking me questions about my church, beliefs, and related topics. The discussion engaged my mind to the point where I was not only fully awake, but felt as focused and engaged after my nap at WS100. It was this insight that helped me at the Cruel Jewel 100.
What I realized was that I needed to fully engage my mind. Not passively trying to stimulate it by listening to music or loading up on chemicals. I had to find a way to remain alert when I became drowsy so that I could go back to engaging with His creation, my body, and any runners that might be around me.
What ultimately worked for me and may work for you is listening to a Podcast. Listening to something which truly interests you, that makes you think, and engages your brain in an active as opposed to passive manner.
For me it was a collection of sermons I downloaded. Similar to my experience with Jimmy at ES100, these sermons were about hearing the Lords Word which reminded me of the blessings in my life, challenged me in several ways and ultimately strengthened my faith and focus at times when I needed it most. (Too bad I didn’t start listening to them until after I got lost!)
I know sermons may not be of interest to many of you but I would encourage you to find what works. Choose something that requires you to be engaged mentally. Even if it’s not a podcast, try finding something to emotionally engage and motivate you.
If you’re looking for some podcasts, there are some great ones on ultrarunning such as UltraRunnerPodcast and TalkUltra. Try this out one day and see if it works for you. Ultimately we each have to find out what works for us individually. I hope that you find something that can help you face those sleep demons if they attack at your next race.