Blood, sweat and hallunications: The gruelling experiences of an ultra-marathon runner

Neither giant blisters nor hallucinating in the desert stopped Nick Hollon from finishing 45 extreme races 

Kashmira Gander
Thursday 05 January 2017 11:55

Aged just 26, Nick Hollon has a lead a life that will almost certainly make you feel guilty for finding any excuse to sack off the gym.

Hollon's parents divorced when he was 12, and running became an escape for the child growing up in San Diego, California. He first realised he had a knack for running for a really, really, really, long time aged 17, when a close friend was diagnosed with cancer and he ran 100miles around his school track to raise money for his treatment. Hollon admits he quite enjoyed being known as that crazy guy who can run for hours. “I liked the attention,” he says.

Over a decade later he can’t quite remember how many gruelling ultramarathons he has completed, but after a quick count he settles on a ball-park figure of 45.

Aged 19, Hollon became the youngest person to complete the Bad Water Ultramarathon, dubbed the world’s toughest foot race, which stretches for 135 miles across California’s Death Valley, where temperatures can hit 54*C. Extreme running quickly became a major part of Hollon’s identity.

The athlete is also one of 14 people to complete the Barkley Marathon, which has been running since 1986. The mind-boggling trail through the Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee challenges runners to cover a 100-mile trail five times, twice in total darkness, and twice counter-clockwise in 60 hours. There are no aid stations on the route, and runners must find books along the course as proof of completion.

Unsurprisingly, the intense routes have taken their toll on Hollon’s body. Asked whether he has bled, vomited or hallucinated during ultra-marathons, he casually answers “all of the above.”

He has run for 75 miles with blisters the size of dollar bills on his feet. During the Bad Water 135 his team mistakenly handed him an expired chocolate milk bottle causing him to vomit “all over the place.”

Around 36 hours into races, his hallucinations kick in, he adds. During the Silver State 508 ultra-cycling race in Reno, Nevada, lines in the road turned into Spongebob Squarepants and other Nickelodeon characters, before morphing and disappearing.

And during the Barkley Marathon, Hollon saw the yellow-hooded figure of the Gorton’s fisherman, a mascot for a US seafood brand.

“The trippy part was I could see his footprints in the ground as sure as day. It felt very real and lasted about 15 minutes.” Far from scary, he says his visualisations are “absolutely enjoyable.”

“There was a point in fifth loop of the Barkley where I entered a state of nirvana and euphoria. The pain in my legs disappeared. It was one of the most focused and present moments of my life. Running these far distances and pushing body to limit unlocks that state and other runners have similar experiences. It’s what keeps people coming back that nirvana like state of clarity keeps people coming back.”

Hollon's training is almost as gruelling as the races themselves. He usually wakes up between five and seven in the morning. In the weeks before a competition, he will run for between three to five hours a day. Off-season, he will practice yoga, try to fix the damage done to his body, and go mountain climbing on the weekends. As for his diet, Hollon cuts out simple carbohydrates such as white bread in favour of whole grown organic food and plenty of salads, chicken, fish. The occasional burrito or pizza are his weaknesses.

Incredibly, the closest Hollon has come to death is not during an ultra-marathon but in 2012 on a practice run in the residential southern Californian area of Palm Springs in 40*C heat.

"The irony of being in a suburban neighbourhood is that I was going into heat stroke but and I wanted to throw up but I didn’t want to knock on a strangers door and break the social norm. I ended up in the road seeing tunnel of light for a moment, and rolled over and puked up. I then stumbled into a synagogue dunked my head in a toilet to cooled myself off and came out like a drowned rat.”

And yet, Hollon shows no sign of ditching ultramarathons. To motivate himself, he breaks down challenges into palatable chunks. "A 100 mile race is a whopping distance. But broken down into 10 by 10 mile repeats and a small break in between doesn’t sound so bad. I set up markers. If six hours is too large, I’ll tell myself to run to the next aid station, or a tree up ahead, or the next step.”

Recently engaged and working as a personal trainer, running is happily no longer the most important part of his identity, says Hollon.

Looking to the future, Hollon knows he’ll one day have to stop running as his body ages. But that doesn’t mean he’s back down from physical challenges.

"I think endurance is hopefully there to stay for life but the specifics medium might change, from biking to rowing or swimming," he says. "I think that passion to push and endure and experience long distance is innately in me."

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