By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning
The folklore of ultrarunning is riddled with tales of hallucinations, out of body experiences, paranormal activities, and even an alien sighting or two. Given enough time and sleep deprivation, ghouls and goblins, devil and demons, witches and wildlife alike will inevitably come to life, haunting even the heartiest of souls (looking at you, David Goggins). I’ve been there. Deep into the Tor Des Géants I swore some random Italian at an aid station was one of my lifelong friends. His look of bewilderment after I gave him a big giant bear hug was the only thing that snapped me back to the fact I was on a mountain ledge at 8,000 feet.
I’ve also witnessed it first-hand, like when an athlete I was pacing at the Badwater 135 was having a full blown conversation with the Michelin Man (or was it the Stay Puft Marshmallow man, I forget), complete with an origin story and advice on electrolytes. But do you ever wonder, why do all of these tales of the supernatural happen around the same time? Why do the Care Bears magically appear at 3 AM and not 3 PM? Why is it called the ‘Witching Hour’ not the witching ‘ambiguous period in the middle of the night’? The fact is, the vast majority of these silly stories and tall tales occur during a very narrow window of time, between 2 and 4 AM, and as it turns out, that’s no cosmic coincidence.
Given that our neighborhoods are likely to be void of trick-or-treaters this Halloween, I decided to provide your ghoulish fix another way and dig into some of the science behind one of ultrarunning most mythical events: The Witching Hour.
The Witching Hour
I know it’s hard to think that there was a time before ultrarunning was a legitimate sport, but bear with me here. Way back in the day, well before anti-chafe cream, the Hoka Metarocker, and the Great Low Carb Debates, there were those who thought the separation between the living and the dead was at its thinnest in the wee hours of the morning, sometime between 2 and 4 AM. Some blamed the celestial alignment; others said this was due to the fact Jesus was crucified in the early afternoon. But whatever your theory, it appeared your best chance at having a conversation with someone in the afterlife was in the wee hours of the morning.
As the theory goes, the supernatural’s proximity provides heightened powers for all manners of witches, wizards and the drawing for a Western States entry. Black magic, aviation by broomstick, and bubbly green potions ensue, all scaring the bejeezus out of people (seriously, have you seen people freak out when they get drawn into Western States?). Peak panic hit in the 1500’s when this late-night sorcery became so out of control that the Catholic church forbade all activity during the witching hour, which definitely would have put a crimp in some of early editions of Big’s Backyard Ultra.
Fast forward through your nearest interdimensional portal to present day, and ultrarunners across the world still experience the witching hour. Yeah, it’s fun to reminisce about that time you thought you saw a bear and it was really a rock (and why is it never the other way around?) but some of these imaginary interactions have real life consequences.
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A recent study in the journal Sleep Science looked at runners during the Fort Clinch 100 miler and tracked their pace and dropout rates during the race, as well as their sleeping habits. Not surprising to this author, nor the thousands of wiccans reading this article, the 100-mile runners had their slowest times, and saw the highest dropout rate at exact same time, at about 3:30 AM (which is denoted by Zeitgeber time 20 on the x-axis in the graph below). My guess is that wicked witch of the west sightings were also heightened during this time, but the research team was unable to confirm.
As the authors point out, this timeframe perfectly aligns with when their alertness and core body temperature both would theoretically be at their worst for performance (see that research here and here).
And thus, the proliferation of the fabled witching hour into ultrarunning takes hold. For any race that starts in the morning and lasts about 24 hours, at some point between the hours of 2-4 AM, a crappy constellation of physical and psychological ailments aligns to teleport you into the DNF dimension. You’ve been awake and running for about 20 hours, leaving you physically depleted. Your biological clock is quite literally telling you to go to sleep by reducing core body temperatures and elevating melatonin. And finally, your alertness levels leave you with the reaction time of a slug on Prozac. Oh, and add to that the fact the ghouls and goblins of afterlife are quite literally close enough to steal your gels and tie your shoelaces together, and it’s a wonder any ultrarunner makes it to sunrise.
What to do about the witching hour
Now that we all understand that the cosmos and our own internal physiology can perfectly explain why you thought your last ultramarathon was an elaborate scheme to protect then-president Barack Obama (seriously, go to the 8-minute mark of this video made by ultrarunner Nicademus Hollon), let’s get to some coping strategies.
- Sleep extension.
If you are going into an overnight ultra, extend your sleep by 1-2 hours for the 7-10 days leading up to the race. This will not only alleviate any sleep deficit you built up while agonizing over your dwindling supply of candy corns, but it can put ‘sleep in the bank’ for the witching hour. Although it’s contentious whether we can actually bank (or store) sleep, some extra rest before a big effort is usually a good thing.
- Make friends with Mr. Stay Puft.
Seriously, if you know that this extremely challenging time between 2 and 4 AM is coming up, sometimes that alleviates the shock and horror of whatever figment of your imagination comes to life. Personally, I have a few questions already lined up for when I get to see the marshmallow man. Like, “What is it like wanting to scorch your own fingers and sandwich them between graham crackers and chocolate?”
Being that the witching hour takes advantage of your natural drops in alertness, time a good dose of caffeine just before the gnomes and trolls are set to appear. You can get away with as little as 2-3 mg/Kg of bodyweight, which for a 70-kilogram (154-lb) person is two strong cups of coffee or one No-Doze (~200 mg). In some studies, dosages of >600 mg have been needed to reverse long periods of sleep deprivation.
- Learn black magic.
Hey, it’s paranormal stuff we’re talking about here. Might was well put all options on the table.