When Maya Warren found herself sleeping on a sidewalk in Malta — stray cats roaming around, her backpack serving as a poor pillow, a quarter-inch of foam as makeshift mattress — she knew she wasn't getting the best rest for what laid ahead. The coming days’ schedule included cliff-rappelling, swimming in the Mediterranean Sea, running up greased wooden poles and, um, shining a knight's armor. Soon thereafter, she would fly to Singapore and brave a tight-rope strung between two towers, 600 feet in the air.
But as one half of The Amazing Race season 25 champion Sweet Scientists team, Warren had no choice but be ready. When you’re racing for $1 million, you don’t worry about your sleep arrangements. Or how many diseased felines are rubbing against your feet.
“Adrenaline was on our side,” she told Van Winkle’s. “Once we got off the plane, we were running. We were going because we had to go.”
Warren’s teammate, Amy DeJong, had other stories from their weeks-long experience as contestants on CBS’ long-standing, award-winning adventure show. During a 30-hour pit stop in London, for example, DeJong slept the entire time. Which is understandable — by then, they’d been racing at a near-constant pace for four days. Pit stops, or breaks between stages in the race that can span 12 to 30 hours, are often the contestant’s only opportunity to sneak some shuteye.
As it turns out, sleep quickly became part of the Sweet Scientists’ winning strategy. Knowing that Warren, as DeJong described it, “barely needs to sleep,” they were able to gain an advantage over other teams. For instance, after all the other teams closed their eyes to catch a few hours on an overnight flight, Warren sneakily roamed around the cabin, asking the other passengers questions that would help their team once they were on the ground in a new country.
This may not be the best strategy for high-pressure, endurance-testing events like The Amazing Race, says Ian Adamson. As a seven-time Adventure Race World Champion and seasoned television producer, Adamson knows a thing or two about sleeping under pressure.
“The problem for most people is they start sleep-deprived,” he said. “People that haven't spent much time in front of the camera, they're going to be excited, which is what you want as a producer, to get them all jazzed up and stressed before they even start. But, as a contestant, you want to do the opposite: Calm yourself down and get as much sleep as you can, which is quite hard without practice.”
David O’Leary agrees. The two-time Amazing Race contestant, and winner of the 2014 All-Stars season, said, “I didn't sleep a lot because my mind never stopped — I was always thinking about what was coming.” There may be opportunities to nap on planes and during six-hour layovers in airports, he said, but it’s nearly impossible to dial down the stress and excitement when it’s time to sleep. The adrenaline fuels contestants past feelings of fatigue.
Producers, too, consider the impact of sleep on the contestants’ well-being. And maybe not always in the kindest manner. When DeJong and Warren competed in season 25, they expected to start leg one on the morning of a certain day. But then, essentially without warning, they were summoned to the starting line the night before. Already nervous, excited and sleepless, the Sweet Scientists raced for nearly 24 hours straight during that first leg.
As fans know, once the starting gun has fired, The Amazing Race does not slow down. For Warren and DeJong, that meant two more legs hopping across three time zones, on the run for 40 hours with just a few two-hour naps. It was during this time that DeJong took her 30-hour sleep.
Thereafter, she says, she felt fine. She may have even looked fine. But, Adamson says, racers can be so sleep-deprived that their body and mind are basically collapsing — yet they still feel wide awake. With their “eyes the size of dinner plates,” they’re hyped up on adrenaline and endorphins. In those times, the resounding advice is to get as much sleep as possible, whenever possible.
Any other advice from Race champions?
- Pack compression socks to ward off swollen ankles after a 17-hour flight;
- Bring an inflatable neck pillow so you can sleep anywhere;
- Pre-Race, observe how you and your partner behave when sleepy and hungry so you know what to expect of yourself and each other;
- Napping in unusual places is a learned skill, so practice ahead of time;
- When you have the opportunity to sleep in a real bed, prepare everything you’ll need the next morning before you go to sleep;
- Set three alarm clocks — not one, not two — three.
The most important advice comes from Adamson: Do not, under any circumstances, try to train your body for sleep deprivation.
“It does you absolutely no good,” he said. Not sleeping simply starts a contestant off already sleep-deprived in what’s probably the most important race of their life.
The Amazing Race’s 27th season starts on Friday, September 25, at 8 p.m. on CBS.