How ultra runners and crew can avoid sleepwalking into disaster

How ultra runners and crew can avoid sleepwalking into disaster

If you’ve never seen a sleep-deprived runner trying to recalibrate after a dismal, crumpled car-nap, a Coke and some chips, it’s a sight to behold.

A couple of nights into a long-distance ultra, I think these runners all do much the same; spin around on the spot a few times while gazing desperately to lock focus on the tiny trail on their watch, before waddling off like an unsteady toddler taking first hopeful steps.

You want to grab them lovingly by the shoulders, point them in the right direction; prime the kid for the opening gambit in a game of pin the tail to the donkey.

Instead, you just have to watch. Hope they don’t bump their heads as they navigate kerbs, drunks and street furniture strategically placed to up-end the weary traveller.

Off into the deep darkness they go. 

At least the runners have the run.

What about those ‘left behind’, the crew?

There may be hours until the runner hits the next checkpoint; but the life of the long-distance crew is all go. 

How ultra runners and crew can avoid sleepwalking into disaster - Garry and a runner stopping for a hot drink out of the back of a car at night during the Centurion Winter Downs 200

Photo courtesy Centurion Running

Hunt for parking spot. Hunt for phone signal. Dot-watch. Scour maps. Boil water. Plan sleep – after guessing the runner’s next arrival time (minus an hour or so just on case). Prozzie wash. Eat. Brush teeth. Hope sleep comes. Repeat.

Hurry up. And wait.

I’ve crewed a few multi-day races in the last 12 months; GB Ultras’ Chester 100 at the end of May, Centurion’s inaugural Winter 200 last December and the 100-mile Arc of Attrition in January.

The Winter 200 stretching out over four days made it the most demanding. It was also the most revealing of my own capabilities and limitations. 

At the time, what I thought it was teaching me was that I don’t need sleep, the real, ‘go to bed for eight hours’ sleep. I didn’t keep a detailed record, but reckon I only managed around eight or ten hours sleep for the entire duration of the race. 

I felt as though I was functioning well enough by snatching an hour or so here or there. Only once did I almost miss my runner, dropping back to the land of nod after fumbling the alarm on my phone.

With that nap in the bag, we were both able to kick on for a good few hours. Indeed, I felt largely normal during daylight hours. 

My preconceptions had been bolstered the night before when an uncrewed runner transformed himself from broken to emboldened with just ten minutes, eyes shut, in the back of my car. He subsequently finished the race and later said the short break absolutely saved his event.

That chimed with reports I had read, most notably by Barkley and Spine winner John Kelly, that said dropping on the trail for just ten minutes or so seems to be most effective for injecting fresh life.

My own experience was certainly suggesting that the best naps seemed to be the ones that lasted the shortest time. 

The longest nap came when my runner finally caved to the inevitable on night three to hunker down in the back of the car, while I stretched my legs out across the gearstick and the front passenger seat. Although we were stuck in an awful municipal car park lit by the harsh neon of a mobile chip and kebab trailer, for 45 minutes we shared a dreamy, half-sleep of the righteous.

However, the science suggests that my brain was tricking me into thinking I had it all under control. 

Russell Foster is dubbed the ‘Professor of Sleep’ by the media. Officially, he is Director of the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at the University of Oxford and author of the book: ‘Life Time: The New Science of the Body Clock and How It Can Revolutionize Your Sleep and Health’.

It’s impossible to distil his years of sleep-related knowledge into anything less than a book; but it would make a useful read for runners, crews and Race Directors alike. Indeed, his views on the demonic effect of severe, accumulative sleep-loss would possibly keep the more risk-averse RDs awake at night.

For runners, Professor Foster is pretty clear. When decent sleep isn’t an option, shorter periods of no more than 20 minutes can be enough to keep the show on the road. 

And humans are uniquely placed in the animal kingdom to activate that sleep-depravation response.

“The data is clear,” he said. “The recommendation is for no longer than 20 minutes. If it’s longer, you can fall into deeper sleep. And then the recovery from that leaves you groggy and it’s worse; it’s counterproductive.

“Short naps can be very useful under these extreme circumstances in ultra marathons. But the runner should make sure that they don’t go any longer.

“It’s better to have these rescue naps than not to have them. But they are not for recovery. They will just get runners through.

“In doing this, though, people are working against their biology. Their body is activating the stress axis and releasing adrenaline and cortisol at a sustained level. 

“If you look at most animals, a dog for example, they just crash. But humans can override this.

“It’s how night-shift workers cope. The downside is that, of course, you are becoming a bit more vulnerable to other sorts of illnesses. One night of no sleep can reduce the effect of natural killer cells by 27 per cent.”

While 20-minute naps may suffice as a quick fix measure to carry runners through in the short term, long multi-day races such as The Spine see a mix of various strategies adopted at check points by runners desperate to ensure progress. 

Military life offers some suggestions in this regard, with four hours apparently considered an acceptable compromise when a level of performance is still required of troops. Sleep can be measured in cycles and the most restorative ‘deep sleep’ often comes in the first portion of the sleep.

“This is certainly better than the alternative of not sleeping at all,” Professor Foster added. “There’s some interesting biology here that means that if you’re doing repetitive exercise, such as running, the brain may go to a slightly different state.

“It’s a sort of local sleep, some bits of the brain will fall into a sort of deep sleep but other bits will still function. There are reports of runners believing they’re asleep while they’re still running.”

It’s here that Professor Foster highlights the impacts of sleep deprivation that can plague runners but could have far more serious consequences for support crews and race organisers.

“The tired brain can’t really detect how tired it is,” he added. “And that could be a problem for support crews who need to drive, for example.

“When we’ve asked taxi drivers how they manage on the night shift, they’ll often say ‘no, it’s fine, it’s not a problem’. Then you bring them into the lab and you ask them to do a bunch of reaction tests. Things can fall apart pretty badly.

“The bad effects accumulate with time. You can probably get away with it over a day or so. Beyond that, you’re in more dangerous territory.

“Driving performance will certainly drop. There was a study which said that 57% of junior doctors reported having had a crash or a near miss on the drive home after their night shifts.

“So, there’s a serious risk from driving on limited sleep. I do not know what the legal position would be if challenged by a lawyer. It would be difficult to defend in light of the published work. 

“Another aspect of sleep deprivation is that emotional and cognitive responses fall apart pretty rapidly. There will be mood fluctuations, irritability, anxiety, loss of empathy. You’ll say, ‘you know, I don’t fucking care’.

“Risk-taking and impulsivity will increase too. So, you’re much more likely to do stupid and unreflective things. You know ‘I can get that red light or I can get that traffic light before it turns red’. No, you can’t. And you wouldn’t ever dream of doing it if you weren’t shattered. 

“In planning for races, it’s very important for crews to flag this up, to take mitigation such as buddying-up with the driving and to be aware that they need to be vigilant against this kind of stuff. They need to process in advance the fact that they’re going to behave badly.

“Once cognitive responses fail, the ability to think productively and make a decision, to extract the right bit of information from the stuff that’s coming in, is not good. Decision-making is going to be more complicated and problem-solving ability is going to fall apart really quickly too.

“The ability to concentrate goes, the ability to communicate clearly goes. All of this is going to happen across the two, three, four-day timescales that we’re taking about in some of these races.”

The best mitigation appears to be to ensure crews in testing one-day or multi-day events are doubled up. Other strategies may fall well short, including the age-old ‘tactic’ of banking sleep in the days before a race.

“Banking sleep in advance doesn’t realty help,” Professor Foster adds. “It’s actually difficult to bank sleep because the body tends to get the sleep that it needs.

“Of course, it makes sense for the runner to ensure that they don’t go into a race with a sleep debt already, so good sleep beforehand is important. But you can’t really get in credit with sleep. It just doesn’t work like that.”

T.S. Eliot famously said: “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

I reckon he’d had a good night’s sleep when he came up with that.

Running into Trouble and out of Injury
Running into Trouble and out of injury

"My preconceptions had been bolstered the night before when an uncrewed runner transformed himself from broken to emboldened with just ten minutes, eyes shut, in the back of my car. He subsequently finished the race and later said the short break absolutely saved his event."

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