On 10th June 2014 – I was one of 6 women on the start line of Race Across America – a 3000 mile non-stop trans continental cycle.
Oceanside, CA, 10 Jun 2014 to Effingham, IL, 19 Jun 2014. Solo (DNF) – 2150 miles out of 3020
For this instalment, rather than write about the route and things that happened, I thought you might be interested in the surreal and paranormal goings on in my mind during 9 days of continuous racing.
I’ve never taken mind altering drugs but my experience of RAAM has been the biggest trip of my life.
I’d been traumatised by goblins in Race Around Ireland, and the idea of seeing them again was my biggest fear of RAAM. In the dark country lanes these creatures had materialised in the branches. You can tell yourself all you like that they aren’t real, and on occasion I told them the same thing, but they were as realistic as anything I’d seen in films. I could not have described or drawn these creatures previously but they were firmly fixed in my mind after cycling around the Emerald Isle.
From reading around the subject of hallucinations I’d come to the conclusion that they must be formed from something that is already inside your head. In my case in Ireland, the swaying trees had possibly triggered memories of creatures from Tolkien’s Middle Earth… in the howling wind, the moving boughs turned into limbs holding weapons (axes and those spiky clubs) being launched at me by the distinctly unfriendly goblins.
Last winter, I spent hours of training out in the dark around my house – I found the perfect unlit road covered with overhanging trees – trying to make the goblins reappear, so I could figure out how to deal with them. However much I tried to contort the branches of the trees, they never did. But it gave me an idea that if I could try to pre-empt what my brain might see in unfamiliar shapes, I could choose passive or docile beings that wouldn’t give me nightmares long after RAAM.
I’d read many stories about apparitions in RAAM and was already thinking ahead about lines on the road looking like live snakes, or grain elevators taking the form of alien machinery. Of course I didn’t really know what to expect before reaching the US, but I made it my mission early on to identify visions that might become troublesome as sleep deprivation set in, and teach my brain that they were OK.
Initially I was preoccupied with getting through the desert without overheating and then the incredible sight of Monument Valley. Neither would yield views that would trouble me for hallucinations but not long after I started to notice the same recurring tufts of grass on the side of the road. My first thought was how they looked like cute little porcupines, all lined up with their toes on the roadside and their elongated spines blowing in the breeze. Big ones; small ones; ones that looked like they were about to cross; ones that were nibbling away at the ground. And so, I thought about porcupines for many, many miles. I talked to my crew about them – who knows what they were thinking? – but I was completely lucid and pleased with myself that I had got one up on RAAM with my mind games. I could steer my thoughts back to the animals by the side of the road each time they drifted. They never did turn into hallucinations, just innocent shapes – just like when you see people or countries in cloud formations.
My background reading had enlightened me about auditory hallucinations. I hadn’t realised how common they were, not just associated with schizophrenia or mania. And I certainly hadn’t really given much thought to imagining noises in RAAM. But there is something very strange about pedalling into the darkness in total silence and hearing thumping dance music approaching steadily from nowhere. It’s probably something quite unique to racing in the USA with its vast open spaces that riders can have their own personal outdoor stereo systems attached to the front of follow vehicles with music selected appropriately to keep the rider awake.
Tales of travelling through Kansas are infamous. This is where you expect to experience problems – for me, days 5 to 7 (oh to be as fast as Christoph Strasser, almost back to creature comforts at this stage!). Here the road stretched for over 400 miles from Colorado to Missouri with what seems like less than 10 turns. It was so windy (as in blustery, not winding) that I didn’t get a chance to feel too drowsy. It was just a battle to keep going in a straight line (which actually I didn’t, I tacked my way back and forth across the endless arrow-like roads in order to get some kind of propulsion in the cross wind).
But at times, I felt like someone was riding with me. I’d glanced several times to my left after I thought something caught my eye and even moved a couple of times to let someone pass. Who was it? I wondered, could it be Dad – my father died suddenly just 4 weeks before the start of RAAM and whilst he hadn’t been on a bicycle in years, I was reminded of a story he told me about cycling to the newsagents to pick up the paper with the family cat on his shoulders. Perhaps he and the cat were there in spirit.
The most delusional incident occurred somewhere on the approach to the Mississippi. I cannot for the life of me fathom out where, and am hoping my crew can tell me. I was cycling in the dark through what struck me as a very busy city. I remember lots of signs overhead and huge trucks. The route had 3 or 4 lanes and we had to keep moving across to avoid slip roads and turn-offs. I distinctly remember Beth on the radio and I got the impression she was also driving. With each manoeuvre, she’d calmly tell me where she wanted me to go followed by “I’m right behind you”. There seemed to be many of these instructions and I always seemed to be drifting into the wrong lane and Beth would correct me. It was warm and there was a horrendous stench of squashed armadillo [my nose has been fine tuned to which road-kill is coming up next… and this wasn’t skunk]. This leads me to think I was in Missouri but I can’t track down which city bypass we were on.
After an age the strangest thing happened. It seemed like I lost a huge chunk of time and I found myself looking down on myself cycling along the same busy carriageway. This out of body experience was truly alarming but what was more sinister was the way in which I found myself being brought back into the moment. Erica was on the radio. She seemed to be saying something about how we needed to get off this road and the RV wasn’t far away, but I hadn’t really understood and in my head I thought they were keeping the location of the RV from me, and making me stay on the road. And it was the SAME road I’d been going round and round for hours. I kept asking why was I doing the same section again and they were denying it. I asked to speak to Beth to get someone on my side – she’d been driving before when we last did this bit. The radio was passed over to Beth and she flatly denied that we’d been here. “It’s similar Shu, but it’s not the same road”. I was overcome by fear and paranoia. Why were they lying to me? – it was quite obviously exactly the same road. I was nervous of everything; the trucks thundering past (in reality, probably only one or two, but I thought I was in some sort of computer game where you have to cross between), the animals I saw on the side of the road and worse my psychopathic crew.
Erica was back on the radio. “Shu, your mind is playing tricks on you, you have to trust us”. And with that statement, I was suddenly back in control of my mind. I could feel it was mine, but it couldn’t process what was going on around me. Nothing made sense and that made me angry. I couldn’t understand why I had been stopped waiting for the RV to get near (I doubt I had been stopped, but it was the only way I could rationalise the missing time I couldn’t account for). I was pulled off my bike pretty rapidly after this and put to sleep in the support car – I don’t think I made it as far as the RV.
I awoke very confused. Ele was there and she was telling me that I had to cycle again. I panicked and burst into tears. I couldn’t understand why she wanted me to cycle the SAME section again. She said something like, “everyone has to cycle it Shu”, and in my insane state I interpreted this as everyone in the crew. I was overcome with emotion that I was making everyone do the section again – it was like some penalty for not doing it properly the first time. I remember being told we have to get to the Mississippi and I cycled off into the unknown with these irrational thoughts that everyone had to swim across the Mississippi. It took a while for me to wake up, and that’s when all the events of the night came flooding back.
One thing I had not expected at all from RAAM was déjà vu. I’d been fixated about hallucinations and the distress they’d caused me previously. But actually I didn’t really suffer from any (bar a funny story I’ll reveal in a moment). But déjà vu was something else. It was overpowering. I had 10 miles of a road which repeated itself over each rise. The same road-kill on the right, the same sign on the left, the same sign on the right, then over a hill. The same road-kill on the right, the same sign on the left, the same sign on the right, then over a hill. The same road-kill…. End-less roads that I’d seen before. On numerous occasions I saw the same cross roads I’d already been over. I strained to find differences and couldn’t, but yet the crew seemed oblivious and happy that we were on the right route. Whereas, I was slowly going mad.
More frightening is that I look at Google Streetmap now, cross referencing my route from Strava, and I don’t recognise any of the towns I passed through. How can this be? There are whole stretches I’ve clicked my little yellow marker along and I can’t find reminders.
So, my little hallucination! Ironically, not long before I crashed just outside Effingham. A sign that I should have been alerted to perhaps, had I not been obsessed with déjà vu taking control of my brain. The follow vehicle was in leap frog mode and I’d watched it pass me several times on this long straight road (weren’t they all?) and several times already I’d mistakenly tried to turn off the road at various sidings and driveways, even though I could plainly see the vehicle ahead of me and my Garmin tracing a perfectly straight line. Who knows why. But on this one occasion, I saw Erica and Phil ahead of me on the verge some way off. They both jumped down and hid in the long grass, I presumed to jump out at me, perhaps in fancy dress. As I approached – nothing. As I passed where I thought they’d hidden – nothing. I unclipped and stopped dead. I turned around and was really surprised that they hadn’t jumped out by now. Very confused, I turned back and saw the follow vehicle ahead. Erica was just climbing out. Phil was several miles away with the RV!
You’ll know by now that I crashed out of RAAM and broke my collarbone. It was a momentary lapse in eyelid function. Whilst it was warm, I wasn’t tired. It was just like when your eyes close on the train, just before your stop (or worse at the wheel whilst driving). I’d left the road edge a few times on this stretch as I fought to keep my eyelids from closing on me. Unfortunately on this occasion, the road had been resurfaced with the most exquisite new tarmac (that normally I would be pleased to see), but unbeknown to me, on jolting awake to find myself veering into the verge, surprised me with its precipitous unfinished edge, and as I tried to automatically remount the road I flipped the bike and landed heavily on my left elbow – the force of which instantaneously snapped my left clavicle (and cracked a second helmet of the race).
I said this was a road trip. In fact the mind alteration continued several weeks past the end of the race with a combination of strong medication and the loss of cognitive function. There is emerging evidence in scientific studies that sleep deprivation not only causes a slowing of response times (as we were measuring during the race) but that some higher cognitive functions (such as memory and perception) remain degraded after alertness is restored. Any racer taking part in RAAM should expect some problems with sleep/wake cycles after the race – waking up thinking they are still racing for instance, or taking time to adjust to normal daily routine. But don’t underestimate the effects on the brain – I’ve struggled to process simple information and make decisions. I usually have great memory function but that has been affected, particularly my short term memory. I came off my medication as soon as I could, since that was making me very spaced out too. I’d rather be sore with a broken collarbone than be absent minded!
Could I attempt RAAM again? That’s the question. Primarily I need to work out how to cope with déjà vu knowing that I will have definitely seen it before! And I need to investigate solutions to prevent the involuntary shutting of my eyes. I don’t think it’s as simple as a revised sleep strategy as this worked just fine for my muscles, but something more complex to refresh a tired brain. Perhaps being faster and sleeping more is the only answer, but it’s going to take some time and experimentation to prove and ultimately improve.