The secrets of the darkest ultramarathon in the world: hallucinations, blindness and 55 hours without sleep

The most demanding ultramarathon in the United Kingdom

What used to be a railway tunnel at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century has become in recent years one of the most demanding challenges that ultramarathon runners can face. It is that thanks to the idea of ​​Mark Cockbain, the Combe Down Tunnel is now the scene of the darkest and scariest race in the world.

This English athlete saw what no one else saw when he traveled to the town of Combe Down, south of Bristol, and came across a pedestrian tunnel that used to be part of the train route that connected that town with Bournemouth. When going through it, he imagined that those 1,672 meters long could become the test he needed.

I wanted to create the purest form of ultrarunning without distractions. Sensory deprivation. I decided that darkness and monotony would be the answer. I looked for suitable tunnels and found one”, he commented in dialogue with infobaefrom England, the man who has participated in more than 100 ultramarathons around the planet and who withdrew in 2012 due to a knee problem.

These types of races were designed for those looking for something more than the 42.195 kilometers that traditional marathons cover. For this reason, they not only consist of a greater distance, but also often have an X Factor, so many of them are held in the mountains, the desert or the jungles, where the climate plays a fundamental role in the physique and the mind of the runners.

In Ultra Tunnelthe rules are simple: Participants must travel 200 miles (322 kilometers) inside the tunnel, that is, they must do 200 times the extension of the Combe Down Tunnel (100 in one direction and 100 in another). The time limit is 55 hours and, in addition, at 27 hours and 30 minutes all those who have not reached half the journey are eliminated.

At the same time, the use of canes and headphones is prohibited, although the use of flashlights is allowed, to avoid accidents: “Sensory deprivation (and safety) is the objective”, Cockbain explained, making it clear that this race also seeks an internal connection in each competitor: “Everything is directed inward, towards the runner. They will have to overcome monotony and an internal struggle that cannot be alleviated with distractions/scenery. They must be mentally strong.” Obviously, the test is so demanding that not everyone can sign up, but only those who have already completed ultramarathons of 160 kilometers or more are admitted.

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To have notion, the first time only two athletes were able to pass the test and in the last one there were only 14 of 41 who achieved it. “This does not surprise me. It was what I expected. 48-50 hours is a good time for 200 miles on a track. So I added darkness and it became more difficult.

The darkness between 11 PM and 5 AM reaches such a point that there are runners who have suffered temporary blindness and therefore disorientation. The confinement caused by the tunnel and the constant comings and goings during the night has caused some to forget which way they are going and end up leaving due to dizziness. “During the night it is completely dark and it feels like you are alone. Many runners experience wild hallucinations during the second night without sleep. Some can’t remember which way they are going in total darkness.”

On the website they are also clear in the warnings: “This is a very low key, no nonsense, extreme test of skill and endurance racing.” In addition, the organization provides drinks and snacks that can be found in one of the tunnel exits, next to a rest area.

Cockbain is proud of the test he has created, since it is the first time that there is an ultramarathon capable of driving the participants crazy and not because of the heat, cold or fatigue, but because of the darkness and confinement. When asked about advice for those who sign up for the next edition to be held on March 31, he was concise: “Keep moving forward at all times.”

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