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Hallucinations and unnerving dreams plague sleep-deprived Iditarod mushers

Lance Mackey arrives in Nikolai in the evening during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on March 5, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN)

NIKOLAI — A tree stump looked like a face, said Lance Mackey, and he imagined he heard people cheering and yelling “Go, Lance!” on the 75-mile stretch of remote trail between Rohn and here.

“And it’s just the wind blowing through the trees,” said Mackey, a four-time champion of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

After more than 48 hours racing on the trail and with little sleep, hallucinations started to set in.

“Last night, I was seeing little things that weren’t there, you know. Hearing things,” said Richie Beattie, an Iditarod rookie who lives in Two Rivers.

Mackey and Beattie said they’d hardly slept since the race started Sunday afternoon. They sat together at a cafeteria table Tuesday night at the school in Nikolai, a village about 263 miles into the race. Potato and bean soup as well as moose stew were on the menu. Food was served around the clock. The school, which has 14 students, was largely empty and quiet. A few teams’ dogs were curled up on piles of straw outside.

Richie Beattie sips coffee while preparing to leave Nikolai during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on March 5, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Rookie musher Blair Braverman has an energy drink before she leaves Nikolai during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on March 6, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN)

“It’s hypnotic -- you’re just staring at the dogs hour after hour down a headlight beam,” Beattie said.

“Yep, I call it the 1,000-mile stare,” Mackey said. “You barely blink.”

To stay awake, Mackey said, he tries to keep moving on the back of his sled and eats and drinks “nonstop.” He’ll pop hard candies into his mouth and drink juice. On stretches of flat trail, he’ll rest his head on his sled handlebars and close his eyes for 30 seconds or a minute at a time.

“You can feel every little ice crack or dip of snow,” he said. “So you never fall asleep.”

Beattie planned to get his headphones out for the first time on the way out of Nikolai. He’s partial to dubstep music and a duo named Truth.

“It gets you going, gets you moving,” he said.

That gets his dogs excited too.

Before Beattie left the checkpoint, he lay on the floor of the school multipurpose room to stretch. Then he took a cup of coffee outside and added instant coffee mix to make it extra strong. He sipped the coffee while he experienced one of his favorite things.

A dog from Kristin Bacon's team sleeps in Nikolai during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on March 6, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Jessica Klejka collects hot water during her stop in Nikolai in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on March 5, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN)

“To me, a pair of brand new thick winter socks is one of life’s greatest joys, so they’re making my feet really happy after being in the same socks I’ve been in since Sunday,” he said.

Beattie said he and his 14 dogs would head to the race checkpoint at Takotna, 66 miles away, and settle in for their mandatory 24-hour rest.

“Then I’ll sleep — big time,” he said.

(During the Iditarod, mushers must take a 24-hour break at a checkpoint, plus an 8-hour stop at a checkpoint on the Yukon River or in Shageluk and an 8-hour rest in White Mountain, 77 miles from Nome.)

Back in the school late Tuesday, Mackey had gone into a room reserved for mushers to sleep. On a large dry-erase board, he had written his wake-up time as 11 p.m.

Musher Emily Maxwell, in her second Iditarod, was getting ready to rest too. She’d slept maybe seven hours since the Willow start. She was tired. Sleep deprivation is a part of the race she struggles with, she said.

“I nod off on the sled a lot, but I’ll try to move around or sit down for a minute, stand up for a minute, do some squats,” she said.

Maxwell described the exhaustion she has felt during the Iditarod as a “full-body experience.” She also tends to get a little dehydrated on the trail, she said.

Iditarod musher Emily Maxwell talks about sleep deprivation on the Iditarod Trail while stopped at the Nikolai checkpoint on March 5, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN)

“Your whole body feels like a little bit trembly and kind of weak, you know, but obviously you have a lot of like stuff that you have to do,” she said.

During the race, she said, she gets obsessive about setting and checking her alarm. When she does sleep, sometimes she’ll have dreams about it not going off, and not waking up on time to resume her race to Nome.

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