The organizers themselves call it a “mind-bending test of extreme endurance and sensory deprivation” so they told you, you can’t say you didn’t know. Its name already says it all: it is called“The Tunnel” and is a 200-mile ultramarathon run through the longest pedestrian tunnel in the UK, the Combe Down in Bath. The path is flat and is partially in the dark, at least from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. The rest of the day is dimly lit.
Extreme, in every sense
The experience has everything extreme and it is no accident that it is called of sensory deprivation: not only sight but also hearing is deprived of many stimuli since one is not allowed to wear earphones or listen to anything other than one’s inner voice. You can’t even chat with other competitors since running side by side is prohibited (also because of the narrow width of the tunnel).
In what, then, does it consist beyond this apparatus of especially mentally extreme conditions? The tunnel is just over a mile long, and the race consists of doing it 100 times. Some who have run it say that, precisely, it is not running 200 miles but running 100 times two miles (i.e., back and forth). At the end of the tunnel is the organization’s headquarters and the buoy around which you turn to reverse direction. To call it “headquarters” is an understatement since it is a table with a few chairs where you can have some tea or hot noodles. There is not much more, not to say there is nothing. The facilities for competitors basically do not exist: there are no aid stations, there are not even toilets except for a chemical toilet. The race is officially totally self-sufficient, starting with the chair that you have to bring yourself if you want to rest, not to mention tents to rest in-you are totally on your own. Parking? There is no that either. Oh, and don’t think the route is all about you: the tunnel still remains open to locals, and a great many people cycle through it.
Think now to deal with it. As much as you have been deprived of everything and are voluntarily putting yourself in a totally uncomfortable condition you still have to abide by rules: as they said, you cannot run alongside anyone, you have to respect those who use the tunnel to get around, you have a time limit of 55 hours to complete the 200 miles (or the 100 double miles, if you prefer). It’s late March (the race takes place between March 31 to April 2) so it probably won’t even be cold but the only good news is that even if it rains you won’t get wet.
At the start you stand in single file and start one at a time. The purpose is to see how long it takes to run 200 miles in a tunnel, it is not-as the organizers say-a “SEE HOW FAR YOU CAN GET IN 55 HOURS EVENT” : if in 27 hours and 30 minutes-that is exactly half the time allotted-you have not run at least 100 miles you are out.
You’re running in there with your thoughts and your legs and that’s it. You see almost nothing, hear nothing but the footsteps of people running or walking. You can now begin the journey within yourself.
Know that you will be tempted to quit for at least 100 times, that is, every time you turn around. 100 tempting offers to end this madness, so many that there are those who get to the end and lose count and don’t know if they are done or if they still have a few more lap left.
Will it be boring? After all, you can’t talk or listen to anything for 55 hours, it must be an endless heartbreak. To appreciate it you certainly have to be a particular kind of person: very introspective, who likes to challenge himself to overcome physical and mental limitations, solitary, with a remarkable mental strength. As those who ran it say, “It’s like a giant meeting with you and your feet” moreover conducted in the absence of sunlight. “All human bodies are conditioned by daylight. In a standard race, when the sun rises you feel great. In the tunnel you have no reference – it’s always night.”
What does this deprivation of the senses entail for the 40 people running it (the number is limited due to objective space problems, including through a deliberately impenetrable candidate selection mechanism)? Some describe a state of grace, of total emptiness of mind, even crossing the pain threshold, so much that “if you run through excruciating pain it doesn’t hurt any more.” Others have hallucinations, especially in the second half of the race: some see monsters, some are convinced there are ladders everywhere, some see the asphalt under their feet turn into a glass floor, and some drag these visions even days after the race.
And finally, there are those who understood the meaning of this race and of life: “It all makes sense because it doesn’t make sense.”
We also trust those who have come to this enlightenment because we are unlikely to experience it. And talking about lighting in a dark race, of course, is not casual. You have to find the light within yourself, maybe that’s what those who run it are looking for, right?