It took two days for the effects of not getting a single second of sleep to begin to surface in 17-year-old Randy Gardner.
First, it was his sight and sense of touch. His eyes started struggling to focus and his hands weren’t as easily identifying objects.
But with all the bravado of a typical teenage boy, Randy would continue to stay awake for an additional nine days.
He was intent on smashing the world record for the longest time spent without sleep. And at 2am on January 8, 1964, he did exactly that, beating the current one by four hours. In total, he shunned sleep for 264.4 hours – or 11 days and 24 minutes. And he did it without any stimulants other than the odd can of Coca-Cola.
Randy shot to global fame, his experiment shedding rare light on what happens to our bodies when we stop sleeping.
And it all began because two teenage boys, who were a little bored during Christmas break, decided they wanted to win a local science competition.
Randy and his friend Bruce McCallister knew they had to do something really big to get the top prize in the Greater San Diego Science Fair. After all, this was a big city. That’s when they came up with their idea to test the effects of sleeplessness.
They flipped a coin and it was decided: Randy would be the guinea pig.
“We were idiots, you know young idiots,” Bruce McCallister told the BBC in January. “I stayed awake with him to monitor him… and after three nights of sleeplessness myself I woke up tipped against the wall writing notes on the wall itself.”
They enlisted a third friend, Joe Marciano, and he and Bruce began to operate in shifts so that Randy was never awake alone.
Their little team continued to swell. When Marciano joined, a sleep researcher from Stanford University, William Dement, caught wind of the experiment in a local newspaper and got involved – much to the relief of Randy’s parents who were terrified for their eldest son.
Randy’s early strategy was simply to stay away from any beds and to keep standing as much as possible. At first, it was easy.
But two days in, his sight began to blur slightly and by day three, nausea kicked in.
“I noticed that in the morning I was really nauseous, and that’s when I stumbled on eating citrus for some reason. Tangerines or oranges seemed to take the nausea away,” Randy told NPR in 2017.