The breathtaking beauty of the San Juan Mountains helps keep the most breathless runners of the 100-mile Hardrock Endurance Run on their stride.
It’s the sights that are not there that can throw them off their game.
Hallucinations are not uncommon in a race where the trail runners will ascend and descend a total of 66,000 feet.
The mind starts to play games as the fatigued, sleep-deprived runners try to make a 48-hour deadline to finish a race that starts and ends in Silverton and winds through unpaved mountain trails to the ghost town of Sherman, Ouray and Telluride.
Hallucinations usually occur at the end of the race, “when you have gone a night without sleep,” said Kerry Collings of Utah.
“You’re tired, and your brain is trying to make sense of things. Nothing totally out of the blue, but you get fooled for a minute,” Collings said.
“One time, I thought I saw a teepee by a river crossing. It was just a pine tree,” said Collings, 64, who was running in his ninth Hardrock this weekend. “Then, I thought I saw snakes cross the trail. It was probably just night crawlers.”
At one aid station near a ski area, he was startled to see “new condos” in the distance.
“I asked my pacer, ‘When did they build those?’
“He said, ‘What?’
“‘Those condos.’ Then I realized they weren’t there,” Collings said.
Experienced runners “know your mind is playing with you. I have seen dogs that are really rocks. You sort of laugh it off because you know what’s going on,” said Margaret Heaphy, 57, from Montana.
Blake Wood of New Mexico said he has had similar experiences in other marathons.
“The first couple of times it’s kind of scary, actually,” said Wood, 54. “You see something and think, ‘Can that be happening? Well, naah. I won’t worry about it. It can’t be real.’”
In the delirium to finish the race, a runner once told Wood that he felt like his feet could pass “through the rocks” and the rest of the race went “great!”
In his book Eat and Run, vegan superstar runner Scott Jurek wrote that racers in the Hardrock 100 have watched “boulders turn into Subarus, trees morph into masses of laughing worms.”
Jurek wrote the slower runners have the most visions, “probably because their sleep deprivation was more extreme.”
Veteran Hardrocker Billy Simpson, 58, from Memphis, recalled a rough year when he competed just a few months after breaking his ankle.
He was on a slower pace, but a beneficial hallucination made for a Dr. Doolittle-style flourish to his finish.
“The second night is when you start seeing stuff,” Simpson said. “In the last two miles, I looked off into the woods, and there was this giant wolf. He was looking at me; he was kind of illuminated at night from my head lamp.
“So we started carrying on this conversation for a mile. He was guiding me to the finish. It was pretty cool, like he was there to protect me and not hunt me. It was like he was taking care of me to the finish. It was pretty wild.”