Hallucinations induced by sleep deprivation are part and parcel of Chris Cowley’s ultra-distance running experiences.
The Stonehaven athlete saw visions of Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse on his way to victory in the 160-mile race at the 2018 Hardmoors ultra series in northern England.
This year, he returned to the event, but stepped up in distance to tackle the longest challenge on the programme, the 200-mile race.
Cowley again emerged triumphant, completing the course from Hull to Helmsley in North Yorkshire in 51hours 18min 22sec.
There were no Walt Disney characters on show this time, but Cowley admits his mind still played some tricks on him along the way.
He said: “I didn’t sleep until I had been running for more than 24 hours, then I stopped for 20mins.
“Throughout the rest of the race, I had a few additional very short sleeps giving me less than an hour’s rest over the 51 hours.
“The best sleep I had was in full waterproofs, lying on some grass in the rain on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors.
“During the second night, I ran a very technical hilly section over part of the course known as The Three Sisters.
“One of my support crew, Jason Kelly, was with me, but both of us were extremely sleep deprived and barely spoke for two and a half hours.
“I began to hallucinate and almost fell multiple times on the rocky terrain, as my brain couldn’t focus on the trail.
“At times I was seeing a lot of faces in puddles and bushes and trees were transforming into things – but I can’t remember exactly what.
“At one point I was convinced I saw my dad wearing an orange baseball cap walking down a hill, but that was all in my head, too.”
It was a tough shift, but Cowley was delighted to have achieved his goal.
He said: “After winning the Hardmoors 160-mile race in 2018, I knew the eyes were on me to perform well in the 200-mile race.
“These two races are run on alternating years.
“I started the race running with the previous winner and stayed with him for the first few miles.
“He pulled away at a pace I thought was a little too quick for a 200-mile race, so I let him go.
“At 30 miles, I was really struggling with the heat and had a lot of discomfort in my hips, so I considered dropping out.
“However, Jason and the other members of my crew, Kelsey Padgett and Jason Millward, were brilliant and they, along with the race director, made me keep going.
“So, I stuffed some watermelon down my throat, along with a teaspoon of salt, drank some water and replaced my t-shirt with a vest.
“From about 65 miles, I began to gain time on the leader, whom I eventually passed close to mile 75. He dropped out later.
“I pulled away from the rest of the field and eventually had a lead of around three hours.
“I decided not to push too hard in the latter part of the race and deliberately backed off to save my legs in case there was a late challenge.
“The prize for winning the race is a sword, so I focused on earning this.
“Fortunately, the late challenge never came, which meant I finished with relatively fresh-feeling legs allowing a dramatic sprint finish for the last few hundred metres.
“It was great to finish and be awarded with my second Hardmoors sword, meaning I now hold both swords for the two longest races in the series.”