Elisabete Jacinto, the best Portuguese off-road racing driver and an excellent truck driver, tells iSleep about the several sleepless adventures on desert routes. “The stars are beautiful”, the driver says, “but to admire them is a bad sign, because it means that problems came up and we did not reach the camp.”
Which races have kept you up the night before?
Quite a few. I especially remember the first race I did abroad. It was the Baja Alta Alcarria, Spain, in 1994. The score of the first race was not brilliant and I was distressed. At night I could not sleep. I was particularly concerned about the odds of not performing well on the race. In the end I ended up doing well and in fact won the Ladies Cup.
Getting enough hours of sleep is essential before a race. How can a race driver achieve this in situations that are not ideal?
I would say that getting enough sleep is essential every day – I usually sleep nine hours! Because I live in such a hectic pace, I am always very tired at the end of the day. Races put us under terrible conditions. We sleep in tents exposed to the noise and the cold of the camp. There are nights when we sleep with so many clothes on that we cannot move. The mattress is too thin and if the floor is not flat, we feel discomforted by the bad position all night long. Some people are not able to sleep. However, after the intense effort of completing the legs, with the truck always rocking, I sleep deeply! To conclude: physical fatigue is one of the secrets to a good night’s sleep.
What was the worst night in a race in terms of sleeping badly or not being able to fall asleep?
I have had several bad nights. The most recent one was the last night at the Africa Race rally 2014. I was second in the truck category, but my opponent was very close to me. I was worried about the fact that my truck was not in a very good condition considering the difficulty of the leg I knew I was going to face the following day. I knew I had great chances of failing to maintain second place and it bothered me a lot. As soon as I lay down, I fell asleep. But I woke up in the middle of the night and could not go back to sleep. I tossed and turned in my sleeping bag. I tried to listen to music, but there were too many things bothering me, I could not turn my mind off… A few hours later I took my block and pen and put it all on paper. After that, I fell asleep. The next day things got complicated, and I did not even reach second place. I was third on that competition.
How does it feel to sleep under the desert stars? The dunes surely make up for the wish for a comfortable bed…
The desert sky is absolutely beautiful. There is no humidity, so we can see all the stars. It’s wonderful. However, if we find ourselves sleeping under the stars it means there is trouble. It means we had problems and we were not able to reach the camp. In these circumstances it is not the lack of a good bed, which we never have, that keeps us from falling asleep. I remember the first leg of Aïcha des Gazelles marathon (a female rally). At that time the days and nights were still hot in the desert. My co-driver and I decided to sleep outdoors and we did not assemble the tents. It was fantastic. We had the impression of breathing good air all night long and we had a good time admiring the stars before falling asleep.
In 2009, in the Argentina-Chile Dakar, did you have jet lag problems that reflected on the race?
We got there a few days earlier, so that problem did not really affect us.
In 2006, in the Dakar that started in Lisbon, your Renault Kerax had a breakdown right in the Mauritania desert, which forced you to spend two nights next to the vehicle. Tell us about that adventure. Did you manage to sleep?
I managed to sleep so deeply that I was surprised I was still there when I woke up the next day. We were waiting for the broom wagon, which took two days and two nights to get there. At that time my truck had a very bad suspension. My physical condition was also not as good as it is today and in the evening I felt intensely tired. Despite the terrible situation in which I found myself on that first night, I slept deeply…
Road accidents often occur at dawn due to the drowsiness of drivers. How can this nightmare be solved?
Driving all night is really not a good idea. One of our rules when we make long trips is to stop for the night, even though we are in a hurry to get home… I say this precisely because I am aware that a slight blink can make your eyes stay closed a little longer than supposed and that anything can happen in just one second. So during the day we drive many kilometres without stopping. We pause at mid-morning, then for lunch, then in the afternoon and then for dinner. This way we waste the least time possible, but we stop to sleep. We learned this lesson in one of the Morocco’s return trips in 1999, after a workout of several days. We drove all night. The next day, after lunch, the three of us fell asleep and we leaned on the front car. We were lucky that nothing happened… but that was enough for us to learn the lesson.
You are a geography teacher, with published textbooks. Does the desert experience make teaching easier?
Right now I am not teaching, but the fact that I practice a sport that is very attractive to students led them to be highly curious and for that reason they are more receptive. The fact that I cross the desert and that I am in contact with various aspects of nature naturally helps me to understand them better.
Have you had to deal with matters of different sleep habits in different countries? The Dutch tend to sleep with the curtains open in order to follow the light cycles, for instance…
It was not something I have thought about, but in my case I feel that I am becoming more sensitive to light cycles.
Have there been any situations in your life when sleep was a good adviser? To what extent did it help you?
I think I can say that the night is always a good adviser. It happens to me waking up at night when I have a problem and it is in those breaks of sleep that I end up making important decisions or taking the opportunity to mentally prepare some work that I must do the next day.
Do you fall asleep easily? Are you more of an “owl” or a “lark”?
I fall asleep easily, but I need to get a few minutes to relax before falling asleep. These minutes are very helpful to me, because I always end up thinking about things that I did not have time to consider during the day. I am very active, so during the day I always have trouble falling asleep. I am not really the type that takes naps.
What is the most amusing story involving sleep or lack of it in your racing career?
In 2003, I took part in the Dakar truck category for the first time. I had no experience and everything went wrong. I began to slow down a lot and had to drive through the night to reach the camp. Things got complicated and we started to stay up all night. My record was three days, with two nights in between, driving non-stop. Without any sleep. I remember the time when the co-driver asked me “Elizabeth, are you okay?”. “Yes,” I replied, “what about you?”. “I’m not. I cannot keep my eyes open!” From that moment on he slept all the time. With a fully hanging head, he had the ability to wake up at the right time to give driving directions. I was driving and did everything not to fall asleep. I remember that we followed by a paved road in the night and I was the only one who did not sleep. At one point we got scared when the co-driver suddenly grabbed my arm and shouted “Police Barrier!”. It took me some time to see the police barrier that was right in front of me and I had to brake hard. I guess I was not as awake as I thought.
“Driver”, male form [in Portuguese], remains the most used term to describe your work. Doesn’t it seem awkward to you?
There is much to be done in these matters of women and sports that go well beyond the issues of language. However, with so many spelling changes that have been made, some of them unreasonable, there does not seem to be the courage to introduce some female forms that are really lacking these days. Being referred to as driver [male form in Portuguese] seems to implicate that I am practicing the wrong modality, which is not the case. In fact, language allows the perpetuation of gender stereotypes, thus we will continue to alienate women of this modality as if it would only belong to men.