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Hallucinations and fear as lost ultramarathoner awaited rescue

A Vancouver ultramarathoner was partway into a 40-kilometre Vancouver Island run Friday when she realized that not only was she lost, her cellphone had no power.
Allison Tai became lost while running from Port Alberni to Qualicum Beach on Friday.

A Vancouver ultramarathoner was partway into a 40-kilometre Vancouver Island run Friday when she realized that not only was she lost, her cellphone had no power.

Allison Tai, who would be rescued from near the top of Mount Horne by helicopter hours later, planned to run from Port Alberni to Qualicum Beach. But the logging road identified on Google Maps turned out to be a maze of dead-end paths.

“That was really when I went, ‘Oh no, I’m out in the middle of the woods, I have no idea where I’m going and I have a dead cellphone,’ ” Tai said.

Tai, who holds a world record for fastest marathon while pushing a stroller, set out about 3 p.m. Aside from the map error, she did everything right, according to a search and rescue technician who picked her up. She told her husband her planned route, took photos along the way to track it and brought a fully charged cellphone (equipped with GPS), energy bar and flashlight.

When her phone suddenly died and she couldn’t access her planned GPS route, she followed ATV tracks. After about an hour, the tracks stopped abruptly.

“At that point, I realized I was way off route,” she said.

Her phone, thankfully, came back to life when she warmed it about an hour later and at 6:30 p.m., she received a call from Oceanside RCMP. She was about two hours late to meet her husband at the 17-kilometre mark.

Tai accepted the offer of help reluctantly.

“I just felt absolutely horrible,” she said.

It would be almost six more hours before a helicopter arrived. Tai ran laps to stay warm, setting off an alarm on her flashlight to scare away cougars.

She began hallucinating, catching glimpses of a raven bobbing its head, a man in a black hoodie, a hay bale, an old truck, headlights.

“There’s a weird fear that comes — it’s sort of reverse claustrophobia — just knowing that there’s nobody anywhere around,” she said. “It’s dark and your mind starts playing tricks on you. … You hear about it a lot with ultramarathoners, but I’d never experienced it like this.”

She expected an Arrowsmith ground search-and-rescue ATV, so she was surprised when a CH-149 Cormorant helicopter arrived at 12:10 a.m.

The crew, called via the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Victoria, located Tai using night-vision goggles. Master warrant officer Gavin Lee of the 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron based in Comox said Tai made it easier by signalling with her flashlight when she heard the Cormorant.

“This young woman knew exactly what to do to signal to us her location. She stayed in an open area and effectively used her headlamp as a signalling device,” Lee said.

Tai said she began to sob when the helicopter flew toward her. She was so exhausted she could no longer raise her arm.

A rescuer hoisted down about 46 metres to retrieve her and they flew to Qualicum airport, where her family met her. Tai said she can’t express the depth of her gratitude for her rescuers.

“They were such kindhearted, amazing, selfless people,” she said. “And they came out here because I made this stupid mistake. That’s hands-down the hardest part, knowing it affected them and their families.”

Other than feeling the effects of the cold, she was in good health and did not require medical attention.

Lee said rescue crews were happy to help Tai. “It’s nice to start your year off with a positive mission.”

For those planning to enter isolated areas alone, he recommended dressing appropriately, bringing the right equipment and telling a friend the planned route.

“If you tell people you’re going somewhere, let them know where you’re going and what time you plan to come back. And if you say you’re going from A to B, then go from A to B, not off-course to C,” he said.

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