Within the Dreams, Reality, and Hallucinations of Ultra-Marathon Runners

According to Herodotus, author of the Histories, during the height of the Persian Wars in 490 B.C., an ancient Greek named Pheidippides ran a monumental run from Athens to Sparta. The distance he covered was 152 miles, and he managed to reach his destination in only two days. On one of those days, near the top of Mount Perthenium, Pheidippides witnessed the apparition of the god Pan. Pan called Pheidippides by his name and instructed Pheidippides to ask the Athenians why they had forgotten him. Pan explained to Pheidippides that he has helped his people in the past and he would help again in the future. This encounter with Pan motivated Pheidippides to continue the run at a non-stop rate to reach his destination and to deliver the message (Herodotus. History of the Persian War, 2003).

In the summer of 2002, a ten-time Badwater ultra marathoner named Marshall Ulrich ran a similar race from Badwater, California to Lone Pine, California. The distance between these two locations is about 135 miles across Death Valley, and the race was done in July, one of the hottest months of the summer. He finished the race in only two days. On one of those days he reported experiencing a variety of fantastic images such as watching a mysterious woman wearing a silver bikini rollerblading in front of him, seeing green lizards that never existed, and experiencing the sensation of an air plane pulling up beside him (Bowers, 2002). These images caught the attention and imagination of a fascinated public who eagerly listened to this NPR special human-interest report. From this story, the public as well as Marshal Ulrich could easily rationalize that these visions didn’t actually exist, but were only in the confines of his mind. Thus, his experience was categorized as a hallucination.

An interesting question arises when analyzing these two stories. If Marshal Ulrich’s experience was the result of a hallucination, could we categorize Pheidippides’ experience in the same modern definition of a hallucination? Based on the literature, there is a relationship between hallucinations and long distant running. Some of the predisposing factors that facilitate a hallucination are similar to what the body goes through when running a long distance event. Some of these examples are: an increase in body temperature, dehydration, hyperventilation, extended fasting, sensory deprivation/overload, sleep deprivation, prolong physical or emotional pain, and stress (Slade & Bental, 1988; Ford-Martin, 1999). Today, people who participate in other ultra-marathons, any marathon over 25 miles (Blaikie, 2003), have reported instances of hallucinations such as in the Barkley Marathon (Biddle, 1996).

The hallucinations induced by ultra-marathons can give the sensation of reality, depending how many sensory modalities are affected. (Weiss & Heckers, 1999; Izumi, Terao, Ishino, & Nakamura, 2002) The degree of the intensity of the hallucination is affected not only through certain biological conditions of hallucinations, but also through a person’s cognitive perspective (Glicksohn, 1990; Klemperer, 1992). The cognitive aspect of perception plays an important part in helping a person to distinguish the normal from the abnormal. The presence of fatigue, monotony, or intense emotions, can obstruct these cognitive mechanisms that are normally used to help filter sensory information, creating an even more realistic hallucination (Beyerstein, 1996).

The present study set out to investigate the extraordinary hallucinations of Badwater runners due to the fact that this particular race was known for its hallucinations and it provided a unique opportunity to simulate some of the conditions that Pheidippides might have had to endure. Badwater has been dubbed by many runners as one of the most difficult races in the world because of its unique features. The distance is 135 miles, the equivalent of five standard marathons, and temperatures can reach up to a sweltering 130 degrees in the summer. Another unique feature about Badwater is its drastic change in elevation. It starts off in Badwater, which is 280 feet bellow sea level, and terminates at Mt. Whitney, 8000 feet above sea level. This ultra-marathon is done on highway as opposed to trails. The highway presents difficult obstacles for the runners to overcome. The black pavement absorbs all of the sun’s energy, raising it to a torturous 200 degrees and making it difficult for the runner to finish the race. Also, the runners are in a constant forward motion causing damage to their feet such as “black toe” and huge blisters. Since the race is done on the highways, runners have to be aware of motorists traveling through Death Valley. The wild life of Death Valley might also present a problem to the runners as litter may offer a tempting meal for the natural denizens of Death Valley (Badwater Ultramarathon Race Magazine, 2003).

The purpose of this study was to gain an initial insight into the basic facts surrounding these hallucinations. The areas studied were: first, how common were hallucinations among the runners, second, what time did these hallucinations take place, third, basic descriptions of their hallucinations, and fourth, what were their theories about their own hallucinations. The investigators sought to study these questions by traveling to Badwater, California to observe and analyze the Badwater 2003 Ultramarathon race. Personal interviews were conducted after the race. Questionnaires were distributed and gathered before and after the race.

We started with several hypotheses regarding the hallucinations since there were numerous possible causes and broke it down to the five best explanations. First, we hypothesized that the hallucinations might be due to dehydration. In a short period of two hours, a person can lose about 2 gallons of fluid from their body by sitting perfectly still in the shade. Thus, if a person is running a marathon in Death Valley, they will lose an incredible amount of fluid (Lingenfelter, 1988). For the second hypothesis, we theorized that it might be due to the physical exhaustion because of the harsh physical conditions of the race. These physical conditions will make the runner fatigued and they will experience various levels of physical pain throughout their body. For the third hypothesis, we theorized that these hallucinations were the result of a dramatic increase in the internal body temperature. In Death Valley, temperatures can exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. This prolonged exposure to this temperature in Death Valley, combined with the strenuous physical activity of this ultra-marathon, could raise the internal body temperature to an unfavorable condition affecting the metabolism of the brain potentially inducing a hallucination. A sustained body temperature of 107 degrees will affect the mental functions of a person (Taylor, 2003). The fourth hypothesis was that sleep deprivation contributed to these hallucinations. Badwater veterans have often stated that runners will often run with inadequate amounts of sleep just to finish the race under the 60-hour time period. Functioning on a limited amount of sleep or no sleep can temporarily impair some of the cognitive abilities of the runners (Beck & Rector, 2003), thus increasing the probability of having a hallucination. The fifth hypothesis is “conning behavior”. This is a social phenomenon in which runners tell “tall tales” about their supposed hallucinations that are vivid but not actually true.


Study Participants

The participants were 20 runners (15 male, 5 female) competing in the Badwater 2003 Ultra-marathon who agreed to be a part of this experiment. Nineteen of the participants identified themselves as Caucasian and one was Hispanic. Eighteen of the participants were American citizens while the other participants came from other countries (specific national identities are not given here in order to protect the confidentiality of the participants). The mean age of participants was 46.8 (range 31 to 58.)


Two paper and pencil questionnaires were utilized. A pre-race questionnaire was distributed prior to the race and a post-race questionnaire was distributed after. The pre-race questionnaire asked for information about the participants’ past experiences with hallucinations while running in other ultra-marathons. This questionnaire also collected information about the participants’ regular sleep cycles and their basic demographics. The post-race questionnaire was designed to document hallucinations that occurred specifically in the Badwater 2003 Ultra-marathon.

Post-race interviews were also conducted. These interviews consisted of a series of open-ended questions allowing the participants to talk about their hallucination at Badwater with the interviewer. The interviewers were two undergraduate Psychology majors form The University of Texas at El Paso. All the interviews were tape-recorded.


Runners from around the world came to Badwater to run in this high endurance event. The runners had no prior knowledge that there was to be a study gathering information about hallucinations on Ultra-marathon runners until the first contact by the researchers, approximately two weeks before the race. Utilizing the participant information supplied by the director of the marathon, Chris Kostman, we sent e-mail messages to all of the prospective runners (73) prior to the race. E-mail became the most effective means of communicating with the runners. We found that most of the runners had e-mail accounts and computers that they could easily access. There were five people who didn’t have computers or e-mail accounts. The e-mail messages were the same, introducing the study and giving the recipients a general time when the interviews would take place and the questionnaires distributed.

Pre-race meeting. A pre-race meeting of all Badwater participants took place on July 21, 2003, the day before the race was scheduled to begin. This mandatory meeting was designed to let the runners turn in all their paper work and have one last meeting before they attempted the ultra-marathon. Since everyone who was going to run the 2003 race would be present, the meeting was a perfect opportunity to distribute the pre-race questionnaires. To increase the response rate, an announcement was made by Chris Kostman to encourage the runners to participate in this study and arrangements were made so that everyone would receive the pre-race questionnaire. The consent form and pre-race questionnaires were placed in a packet that every runner received.

First post-race get-togethers. Two get-togethers were held following the race giving the runners a chance to talk to each other informally, to share stories, and to distribute awards to the runners who finished under 60 or 45 hours. The first post-race get-together was held immediately after the end of the race, July 24, 2003 at 6:00 pm, in Lo-Inyo Elementary School, Lone Pine, California where most of the 135-mile race was completed. This was an appropriate time to distribute the post-race questionnaires due to the fact that if runner had experienced a hallucination, the memory would be more immediate and accurate. During the first post-race get-together, another announcement was made by the race-director to encourage runners to participate in the study. At this point, the investigators asked the runners if they would like to be a part of the study and gave a post-race questionnaire to any runner who wanted to be a part of the study. Those runners who agreed to participate were also asked for a potential time after the race when they could be interviewed. Most of the surveys were filled out that day. However, a few runners asked if they could fill out the survey at a later time and return the questionnaires through mail or e-mail.

Second post-race get-together. On the morning of the 25th, the second informal post-race get-together was held at the Season’s Restaurant in Lone Pine, California from 8:00 am to 10:00 am. This second post-race get-together gave the runners one last opportunity to talk to other people to share their stories and experiences. This location was smaller than the first post-race get-together and could hold only 75 people. A free breakfast was provided for all runners, crewmembers, and family members. Everyone sat in small groups of four or more, and the post-race questionnaires were distributed once again to anyone interested who had not filled out any questionnaires at the first post-race meeting. While the questionnaires were distributed, the investigators asked the runners if they had time to schedule a quick interview. Because there were no speeches or ceremonies, the setting provided the opportunity to talk to participants about their experiences. All interviews in the study took place at this second get-together. The investigators used a tape recorder and notebook to record the content of the interviews.

Final Post-Race Contact. Many of the runners were interested in being a part of the study, but only a few turned in all the questionnaires. Before the marathon, the use of e-mail was an effective means of communication as a way of introducing the study. Thus, it was used again following the race to distribute questionnaires to runners who had not provided data at the two follow-up meetings. This means of contact became critical in that it provided a quick and easy way for the participants to fill out the questionnaires while the memory of the race was still fresh. These e-mails contained the consent form and the pre and post-race questionnaires. It also gave explicit instructions so that the runners could either respond by e-mail or print out the forms and mail the data to the primary investigator.


Pre-Race Questionnaire

Three pre-race questionnaires were collected before the race using pencil and paper. Several participants expressed an interest in filling out the questionnaire but asked to do so after the race rather than before it. Because the questionnaires dealt mainly with the participants’ prior history of hallucinations while running, these participants were allowed to submit the pre-race questionnaire by e-mail after the race. Nine questionnaires were collected via e-mail, bringing the total number of completed pre-race questionnaires to 12.

Amount of normal sleep when not running a marathon. The most important aspects of the pre-race questionnaire were the questions that dealt with amount of sleep the participants normally got at any given day, and if they ever had a hallucination while running any long-endurance race. The average amount of sleep in the sample of 12 people was 6.8 hours.

Post-race Questionnaire

Fifteen participants completed post-race questionnaires using paper and pencil surveys. Fourteen of these completed the questionnaire at the post-race get-togethers following the race, and a single participant mailed in a completed questionnaire within 3 weeks following the race. An additional 5 questionnaires were collected by e-mail within 4 weeks following the race. Thus the total number of participants who completed post-race questionnaires was 20.

The participants. Of the 20 participants, 15 were male and 5 were female. The average age was 46. Nineteen of the participants were Caucasian and one was Hispanic. The majority of participants were American citizens, 18 USA, and two came from different countries. Six of them were returning veterans and 14 were rookies

Education. Nine people were college graduates, 4 people attended or finished graduate school, and 3 people reported they were medical doctors, 2 people attended college but didn’t graduate, one person had a PhD, and one person didn’t answer the question about their level of education.

The amount of sleep. Fifteen people reported getting at least some sleep during the race. Based on those people, the average amount of sleep was 162.85 minutes. Four people reported they didn’t get any sleep during the race. One of the participants didn’t respond to the question regarding amount of sleep.

Hallucinations. Six people out of twenty participants (30%) reported that they experienced hallucinations during the 2003 Badwater race. Fourteen people reported they didn’t experience any type of hallucinations. One of these 14 indicated on the questionnaire that she didn’t have a hallucination, but later reported during an interview that after filling out the questionnaire, she had been told by her crewmembers that she had been observed hallucinating during the race.

Sensory mode of the hallucinations. Of the six people who experienced hallucinations, two reported experiencing visual hallucinations only, two reported auditory hallucinations only, one reported a combination of visual and auditory hallucination, and one reported a combination of both visual and tactile hallucinations.

Insight about the hallucination. Four of the six participants reported that they knew their hallucinations were illusory rather than real at the time that they occurred.

Time of the hallucinations. Four people experienced their hallucinations between midnight to sunrise. Two people experienced their hallucinations at two different times, one between sunset to midnight, and the other between midnight to sunrise.

Duration. Four people reported their hallucinations lasted for less than one minute. One person’s hallucination lasted 5 to 15 minutes. One person experienced a hallucination for more than one hour, although he stated in post-race questionnaire that the hallucination was sporadic throughout a one-hour period.

Emotion. Four people reported they felt other emotions that were not on the post race survey’s answer choice. One person said they were both angry and frightened when they had their hallucinations, while one person didn’t answer this question.

Theories. Many of the participants had thoughts about why they hallucinated. As examples, they described sleep deprivation, personal feelings, the darkness, and fatigue as reasons for these hallucinations.

Starting and finishing time. From the three starting periods, 6:00 am, 8:00 am, and 10:00 am, the average starting time for most of the participants was at 8:00 am. Five people started the race at 6:00 am, nine people started it at 8:00am, and six people started at 10:00 am. Eleven of the runners completed the race in less than 48 hours, seven finished the race in less than 60 hours, and two did not complete the race. The average time for finishing the race was 47.36 hours.

Participant Interviews. There were five people (3 females and 2 males) who agreed to be interviewed in this investigation. All of them were American citizens and two out of five were returning veterans. Four out of the five completed at least one of the questionnaires; only one person didn’t complete either of the two questionnaires but agreed to be interviewed. Based on the pre-race survey, two people had a history of hallucinations in long endurance races.

Participant A. Initially, participant A had no memory of her hallucination until one of her crewmembers told her she had one. The crewmember noticed that she was exhibiting odd behavior that he thought to be indicative of someone hallucinating. According to what her crewmember said about this event, she stared at an object off the side of the road and said in a calm voice, “I know you are not real”. She continued the course unaffected by her hallucination. The hallucination lasted for only a few seconds and her crewmembers said she was perfectly tranquil during this entire event. Participant A couldn’t recall the exact details about the image she saw on that night because she didn’t feel fully conscious at the time. However, later on that night, at mile 90 near Darwin, she was wide-awake to report her time and number to the time station.
The basic description of her hallucinations was based entirely on what her crewmembers remembered about the event. She did, however, say that she knew she had hallucinated because she recalled it feeling like a dream that couldn’t be recalled at the beginning; but became clearer as more memory cues were given.

Other comments by Participant A regarding her own and other people’s hallucinations. She theorized her body needed to rest; running Badwater deprived her of that chance. Participant A thought that her brain went into a conservation mode that only allowed a minimal amount of activity. Participant A said this had been the first time she stayed awake for the full 52 hours in the race. She took a few 10-minute naps in the car.

The hallucinations participant A observed of other people dealt with depth perception. For example, she described how a man who ran Badwater at a previous race experienced an abnormal event with the white line that divided the road. The white line rose up in front of him to form what he saw as a huge white wall. Later on, that same white line formed an image of a trench that the man tried to avoid. She also pointed out, that in general, runners will see familiar objects in Death Valley, but in their mind they will change the way the object looks and functions. For example, bushes and rocks in Death Valley can become the outlines of creatures or other objects created in their minds. She theorized why people, in general, are not scared of these events. During a hallucination, runners are temporarily stuck in a semi-conscious state, which renders the experience less frightening than people might think because the runners are not thinking rationally.

Participant B. At the Badwater 2003 Ultramarathon and in other Badwater Ultramarathons, he only experienced auditory hallucinations. These hallucinations are voices or noises that he heard coming from behind. He reported that his hallucination happened on the second night, but added more information about the time that wasn’t on the questionnaire. He said that these hallucinations are not exclusive to the night and it can continue into the following day. Participant B was unclear as to whether this hallucination occurred beyond the second night. He only added this information to clear up the mystery of hallucinations occurring the next day.

During the interview, he described that he would either hear voices or something else coming up from behind. He would frequently check around him when he was hallucinating even though he knew there no other people in sight. He stated that it lasted for a few seconds at a time, but it continued during this time period. The voices were unclear and muffled and he did not hear his name or any other important message called out to him. He felt these hallucinations had no special meaning, and viewed this entire experience as something non-frightening because he recognized that it was an only a hallucination, and not a total loss of reality.

Participant B experienced hallucinations on other ultra-endurance events. He commented that although he just heard things in Badwater; he saw things at other ultra-endurance events. In the interview, he described a visual hallucination during a100 mile trail run that could best be described as tunnel vision. The world appeared as if he were inside a tunnel limiting his visual field to a narrow opening in the horizon. Participant B said he only felt curious about this event. He said he was not scared, happy, sad, or any other emotions listed in both the interview and the questionnaires. This hallucination lasted as long as his regular hallucinations in Badwater, but the information regarding about time, frequency and the duration for his this event were not given in the interview.

The explanation he had for this type hallucination was based on his idea that his mind might be processing only the minimal amounts of information about the world. He believed he experienced tunnel vision because this run required him to be more aware of the trail as opposed to Badwater.

Other comments by Participant B regarding his own and other people’s hallucinations. He explained he was able to handle the race for the first 24 to 30 hours without any trouble, but after 30 to 36 hours, his body began to shut down for a few brief moments. He believed his hallucination happened because of fatigue and sheer physical exhaustion from the race. Participant B knew that there was nothing he could do to prevent his hallucinations because he would still hallucinate when he regained his strength to finish his race. Participant B said hallucinations are common among runners in long endurance events. The stories he had heard from other people varied in their level complexity. Some people had saw very vivid images while experienced a hallucinations that was very simplistic.

Participant C. Participant C’s interview was conducted over the phone two weeks after the race. He was the only participant who filled out both the pre-race and post-race questionnaires.

Participant C’s hallucinations occurred from midnight to sunrise on the second night of the race. He had more than one hallucination on the same night, visual and tactile. The first visual hallucination was about how the white line on the highway formed a structure resembling a barricade. The second visual hallucination was a red holographic image of a table. Participant C mentioned that he wanted to touch this table, but was unable to sense the table with his hands. For the third visual hallucination, he experienced tunnel vision. Participant C also experienced a tactile hallucination in which he felt the sensation of a bat or something else slapping against his shoulder. He knew these experiences were the result of hallucinations. He mentioned that he had the ability to control his hallucinations. By focusing on something, he could make it go away; or by relaxing, he could allow his hallucinations to reappear. Participant C felt like these hallucinations had no special meaning to his life. He said that this entire experience interested him and that none of the options in the interview or the questionnaires could accurately describe his feelings towards these hallucinations.

Other comments by Participant C regarding his own and other people’s hallucinations. Participant C believed he had these hallucinations because he was exhausted. He believed he could not have prevented these hallucinations, but suggested that if he had gotten more sleep he might not have hallucinated. In regards to his insight about other people’s hallucinations, he said it is very common for people to hallucinate during long endurance events. People all have different hallucinations, and it varies from person to person.

Participant D. Participant D experienced a combination of visual, auditory, and tactile hallucinations. Her visual hallucinations consisted of terrifying images of rotting corpses watching her every move, and following her during the race. She also saw giant beetles and ‘mutant mice monsters’ crawling on the road. She heard noises from behind her, but didn’t want to check their source. She also described a tactile hallucination of something pushing or grabbing her. This tactile hallucination was not documented in the post-race questionnaire, but was gathered from this interview. Although she commented that these scary images did frighten her, most of her fear came from the overwhelming sensation of having no control of the situation.

All of her hallucinations took place on the second night between 9:00 pm and 11:00 pm. These hallucinations lasted for only a few seconds with it reoccurring throughout this time period. Participant D stated it was difficult to distinguish between her hallucinations and reality. She felt her hallucinations interacted with her because it felt like these creatures were out to get her.

Participant D had a hallucination prior to Badwater, 2003, at a different long endurance race. She said she saw an image of a tree that looked liked it had worms in place of leaves and branches. Participant D said this image didn’t scare her, and felt like it had no special meaning to her life. The specific details about what time the hallucination occurred were not given in this interview. What is known was that she experienced a visual hallucination that lasted for only a brief moment similar to Badwater.

Other comments by Participant D regarding her own and other people’s hallucinations. Participant D believed she couldn’t have prevented these hallucinations because if she knew how to control it, she would have tried to stop it. In regards to other peoples’ hallucinations, Participant D said that these hallucinations were quite common in events like Badwater. She also stated that even those who did not experience hallucinations noted that everything they perceive becomes magnified and exaggerated.

Participant E. Participant E’s observations and theories regarding other people’s hallucinations. Participant E didn’t have a hallucination in the Badwater 2003 Ultramarathon or any other hallucinations induced by prolong running. The observations he provided in this interview are based entirely upon individuals he personally assisted at previous races and personal experiences in running Badwater marathons. He began the interview by comparing the similarities between hallucinations in Badwater and normal dreams. He suggested two main points about both of them typically occur when the sun goes down, and there is an impression that the same minimal amount of brain activity associated with sleep might be connected to hallucinations. He explained he had not heard of anyone having a daytime hallucination, but acknowledged that it could theoretically exist.

His other theory about the origin of hallucinations was based on the variant amount of attention people have given to the race. He suggested that if the runners have nothing to focus on during the night, this lack of attention could possibly induce hallucinations. The logic behind his theory derives from the fact that many of the runners wear headsets that play their personal music. He suggested that the runners who wear these headsets might be reducing their chances of having a hallucination since their attention is shifted towards their music.

Participant E described how the artificial light in the night affects the runner’s perception, and how these same events could also induce hallucinations. The runners will often see a world of unusual patterns of light from reflective materials and flashlights. He mentioned that these lights could give the false impression of movement in an inanimate object or make the object appear to be an animal.

He stated in the interview that he had not heard of anyone having a hallucination at the beginning of the race. As runners get deeper into the course, they become more fatigued and physically exhausted that increases the likelihood of hallucinations. According to what other runners have told him, after 18 hours, they will start to get tired, and after 42 hours, hallucinations often occur. On the second night, there is a strong tendency for the hallucinations to become more dramatic when compared to any of the other days. Also, at certain locations in the race, Darwin (90 miles) and Keeler (107.8 miles), and particularly at night, people will often experience visual hallucinations. These visual hallucinations can take on the form of a variety of different images such as road signs, condominiums, scorpions, and panda bears.


Four findings from the present study seem particularly notable. First, 30% of the participants in the present study reported hallucinations of some kind during the Badwater race of 2003. Second, all of the hallucinations took place at night. Third, all of the runners reported an abnormal amount of sleep. Fourth, a peculiar notable finding, is the accuracy of the runners’ memory. Each of these findings will be discussed in the following sections.

Rate of Hallucinations during the Race. Thirty percent of the participants in this study reported at least one hallucination during the Badwater race. It appeared that these hallucinations were usually brief. All of the runners had insight into their hallucination. Their hallucinations were either auditory, visual, tactile, or a combination of the three. The most common sensory mode affected was visual. It is interesting to note that, by contrast, hallucinations of schizophrenics tend to be auditory and more frequent. Also, schizophrenics often have little insight into their own hallucinations. (Lobban, Haddock, & Kinderman, 2002) This suggests that the causes of hallucinations in the runners may be different from the causes among schizophrenics.

Hallucinations in the Night. A frequent theme in both the post-race questionnaire and interviews was that hallucinations took place at night. The usual report from both sets of data (questionnaires and interviews) was that the hallucinations transpired around midnight. When the participants were asked to give a brief description of their hallucination in the post-race questionnaires, they typically included a physical description of the night being a part of their hallucination (i.e. unusual light patterns from flashlights or stars). Based on the data from the interviews, the runners were able to provide specific details about the time, which was not detailed in the post-race questionnaires. All participants mentioned that their hallucinations happened on the second night. In the case of participant B, it went beyond that standard time period. If participant B’s hallucinations continued to occur on to the remaining days of the race, the second night was the most dramatic and intense. Participant E mentioned a similar notion of the second night being the most memorable hallucination. He gathered this from his personal observations of different people he had assisted at previous Badwater races that the second night was the most intense and widely reported. From this set of data, the second night is consistent in containing the most descriptive part of their hallucinations. Also, an interesting finding in the literature is that other ultra-marathon events have noted that runners frequently experience hallucinations on the second night (Hagen, 2001).

Many runners viewed the night as an important factor that shaped their hallucinations. Many often spoke about how the shadows formed basic outlines of figures that triggered their imaginations. Another common theme was that the artificial light created perceptual errors in gauging the size of the white line along the highway. Based on these interviews, three people reported a similar story of a man drastically miscalculating the size of this white line. One of the participants reported that he personally went through this experience. The other two reported they witnessed it while they were crewmembers at previous Badwater races. In all cases, the story was about how this white line became an obstacle for the runner to overcome. In his mind, he saw the white line as either something that stood up from the ground like a wall, or something that sank into the ground like a trench.

Abnormal amount of Sleep. Another common result was that all runners were unable to get the normal amount of sleep. Many reported they didn’t get any sleep during the 48 or 60 hour time period, while others managed to take brief 5 – 20 minute naps throughout the race. One of the participants managed to rest while running. He accomplished this by letting the pacer guide him away from danger. By letting the pacer guide him, he felt comfortable enough to close his eyes and enter into a relaxed state while running on the highway.

Based on the information gathered from the interviews, people related their hallucinations in Badwater to typical dreams that anyone could conceivably experience. There is often an implied analogy that the two are related to each other. The reasons for this belief stems from the fact that both occur at night when the body is tired. The mind processes old sensory information and, like dreams, people are usually not completely conscious about the entire experience. With questions that dealt with the participant’s explanations about why they hallucinated, they often connected their normal experience in nightly dreams to the extraordinary cases of their hallucinations. They made this connection by stating that they were very tired when they hallucinated, or they described the experience as if it were a dream.

The Runner’s Memory. People may forget that they had a hallucination because they were only partially conscious for some parts of the race. Participant A initially reported that she didn’t have a hallucination on the post-race questionnaire, but during the interview, one day after finishing the post-race questionnaire, she came back to say that she did have a hallucination. The reason she had this sudden shift of memory was due to the fact that her crewmembers told her that she had hallucinated. The crewmembers knew she was hallucinating by witnessing her odd behavior on the second night (see participant A). This finding suggested that other people might have hallucinated, but they may have had no memory of their experience. Participant E mentioned that during certain parts of the race he was not sure how he got “there” because he couldn’t recall how he got from one location to another.


In the Introduction, we described several hypotheses regarding the hallucinations of the runners. In the following section, we discuss each of these hypotheses in light of the present findings.

Dehydration hypothesis. One hypothesis is that the runners’ hallucinations are caused by dehydration. This hypothesis cannot be evaluated with the data from the present study. The questionnaires didn’t effectively measure the actual amount of dehydration since it didn’t take into account the amount of fluid going in or out of the body; nor was there a question as to the type of drink(s) the runners consumed to stay hydrated. Future studies may evaluate this hypothesis by addressing these issues. It would also be necessary to have questions that asked if the runners noticed if their urine was visibly darker during the probably time of their hallucination.

Exhaustion hypothesis. One hypothesis is that the hallucinations are caused by physical exhaustion. This hypothesis received some support from the present study because all of the runners experienced some form of physical exhaustion while running this ultra-marathon. Although this may be one of the causes of their hallucinations, it may be connected to other predisposing factors of hallucinations. Future studies may evaluate this hypothesis in depth by using a rating system to measure the amount of pain they experienced at that particular moment of the race.

Prolonged exposure to high temperature hypothesis. This hypothesis dealt with how an increase internal temperature could theoretically induce a hallucination. This hypothesis is difficult to evaluate with the current data. All of the runners were exposed to the same high temperatures of Death Valley, but it is difficult to discern to what extent the temperature might have played a role in inducing hallucinations to individual runners. All the hallucinations in this sample occurred during the night. This might lead to the assumption that temperature was not an important factor in inducing a hallucination since no hallucinations were reported during the day. Further studies may evaluate this hypothesis by addressing this issue by using a practical method of measuring the internal temperature of the runners without sacrificing a substantial amount of their time.

Sleep deprivation. According to what veterans of Badwater have commented about the race, the runners will often sacrifice sleep so as to finish the race under 40 or 60 hours. One of our hypotheses was that sleep deprivation played an important role in inducing hallucinations. All of the runners in this sample got an abnormal amount of sleep during the race as compared to their normal functional daily amount of sleep. Based on the data supplied by the runners who hallucinated, every hallucination took place during the night, which supported the premise that the disturbances in their sleep pattern produced these dream-like hallucinations.

Further studies may evaluate this hypothesis by asking the runners how they slept. Based on the interviews, one participant indicated that he managed to rest a little while running. The future studies could also use an additional question stating the least amount of sleep needed to function. This additional question could be used in conjunction with what was asked previously concerning their normal amount of sleep.

Conning behavior. This hypothesis focused on the “conning behavior” of the runners. There may be a social phenomenon occurring in which the runners tell “tall tales” about their supposed hallucinations. Their accounts about their hallucinations are vivid but not really true. The runners were given the post-race questionnaire immediately after the race, thus reducing the “conning behavior”. Interviews were conducted a day later to verify the account of their hallucinations, and to see if there were any noticeable changes in their story from the post-race questionnaire to the interview. Further studies may consider using this method in conjunction with a separate method of interviewing the crewmembers that assisted the runner. The crewmembers could be asked if they noticed any strange behavior that is indicative of someone hallucinating and to describe the runner’s actions, words, and gestures during the hallucination.

Based on this data, we can make a reasonable conclusion that Pheidippides experienced a hallucination in 490 B.C. much the same way Marshal Ulrich experienced his hallucinations in 2002. Both of these men went through similar conditions that predisposed them to experience these vivid, realistic hallucinations. Their incredible journeys contained the classic elements of the struggle against the forces of nature and they both entered the coveted realm of existence where imagination and reality are one. Their stories inspired two different authors to give separate explanations as to what actually transpired; one explained it was a direct contact with the gods, and the other explained that it was a mere perceptual miscalculation of the mind. As the study of hallucinations continues to be investigated, our definition of what is imagination and what is reality will continue to be redefined.


2003 Badwater Ultramarathon Race Magazine adventureCORPs Los Angeles, California
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