The Art Of The Did Not Start: DNSes In Perspective

Running an ultramarathon is an undertaking that involves physical and mental exertion, the dedication of time at the expense of alternative options, and the actual costs of the race… and that’s just on race day itself. Then there are all of the related commitments before and after an ultra. On top of that, all of those outlays tend to increase as the distance of the ultra increases.

It’s after looking at all of those factors that I won’t start the Ultra-Trail Gobi Race later this month. It’s a decision that I didn’t take lightly and one I lingered over for a good six weeks after Hardrock. I kept biding my time, hoping everything would line up in the end. However, my mind, body, and wallet just weren’t ready for the race this year. With that in mind, here a couple reasons you might consider for not starting an upcoming ultra.

Injury

Running an ultra is inherently a taxing, repetitive act. While we’re surely able to get through a race with a niggly knee or a sore soleus, going into an ultra with acute pain is rarely a wise or, perhaps more important, enjoyable undertaking. With that in mind, consider whether running a planned ultra will lead to permanent or long-term ill consequences or whether you’ll be in more pain throughout the race than is worthwhile or intrinsic to the endeavor.

In my case, both Achilles and one ankle got real cranky starting with three days on the floor of the Outdoor Retailer show in early August. I’m in discomfort nearly every run, even short ones, as well as most other times. That’s not a pleasant way to head into a 250-mile venture.

Exhaustion

Just as there’s likely to be discomfort during an ultra, there’s also likely to be fatigue. That doesn’t mean you need to go into an ultra fatigue-free. For instance you might not skip pinning your bib on if you felt flat on your last long run or had a couple bad nights of sleep in the week before a race. Get over it and get out there! On the other hand, if you’ve felt drained on most of your runs for weeks or are dragging through every day, you should reflect whether your previous training or racing has led you to over training. Now, overtraining is too big a subject to dive into fully here, so check out some of iRunFar’s resources on overtraining. Consider whether you’re overtrained and whether your ultra will feel uncharacteristically like an unpleasant slog from the start.

Lack of Training

On the flip side, if you’ve not trained anywhere near what you think you should to complete the race in a manner you’d like, perhaps it’s better to focus on a goal further down the road. Surely folks can finish even quite long ultras on minimal training, particularly if they’ve got many years of fitness base, have experience running ultras, or have goals for the race that aren’t focused on peak performance. Heck, it can be a great deal of fun to run an ultra “off the couch.” The advice here is to consider whether the training you’ve actually put in realistically provides for a race outcome that will leave you satisfied.

In my case, I knew that I’d come out of Hardrock in great shape, but with limited ability to train between Hardrock and UTGR 2016. That in and of itself was fine, as I ran well enough at last year’s UTGR averaging 15 miles per week for the 11 weeks between the two races. However, I’d hoped to improve my performance and my experience at this year’s UTGR by logging more consistent training in during this year’s interim, but the 20 miles per week over the past seven weeks feels anything but that.

Lack of Stoke

Let’s face it, you’re likely to have down moments in an ultra. It’s in those moments that you can often tap into the excitement and energy you’ve built up about the event as you’ve approached race day. Sometimes, we eagerly enter an event and then our enthusiasm starts to wane as the race approaches. This waning can come from a shift in focus to another event, an inability to train as we’d hoped, or a couple friends deciding not race the event among many other reasons connected to the race.

On the other hand, life and its stresses can deflate our balloon. Maybe your work life has gotten out of control or your personal life’s been turned upside down. Such extrinsic factors can be far more powerful than issues associated with running.

Regardless of the reason, consider whether you’re excited enough about your race than you’ll be able to enjoy much of it and you leave yourself open to keeping a positive mindset.

Lack of Money

Sometimes actually getting to and running a race isn’t in the budget when the time comes around. That’s not fun, but it is life. Consider whether outfitting yourself for, getting to, and staying at the race will break the bank. If it will, think of a cheaper alternate adventure that might be just as satisfying.

After some big (and exciting) financial outlays in my personal life over the past year and looking at my long-term financial health, the costs of getting to UTGR as well as outfitting myself in a manner that would allow for the outcome and experience that I hoped to get out of the event just weren’t prudent to undertake. That said, running the race again is still a feasible goal that I can and will toward in the coming years… and with that comes the next point.

You’ve Not Invested Enough Into It

Some of the worst decisions I’ve made in my own ultrarunning have been when I’ve toed the line of a race without being invested in that particular event. When I’ve signed up for a race “to make use of my fitness” after a DNF or “to fill a hole in my calendar,” success has rarely followed. Personally, that’s increasingly the case as the race distance increases. For the experienced, jumping in and faking a 50k or a 50 mile might work. While I’ve made it through some 100 milers on relatively little training volume, I’ve either put in dedicated training or preparation or I’ve mentally invested the event as, say, a qualifying race for another race further down the road. The longer and more deeply you commit yourself to an event, the more likely you’re to trying get the most out of the event, the more likely you’re to get the most out of yourself, and the more likely you are to keep going when things get rough. Consider whether the time, effort, and, to a lesser degree, the money you’ve invested in a event suggest that you’ve committed to it in a manner that will allow you to reach your goals.

* The Fallacy of the Sunk Cost

Now, the above point against racing—that is, investing oneself in a race is a positive—doesn’t mean that the flip side is necessarily true. Just because you’ve invested a lot of effort and time and money into an event doesn’t mean you should run it. Even if you’ve put your heart and soul into an event, if you approach race day significantly injured, suffering from overtraining, or stressed out of your mind from everyday life, it can still be the right decision to pull the plug if you’ll be worse off for attempting the race. Sometimes it’s best to cut your losses.

Conclusion

This article isn’t necessarily meant to discourage you from starting your next ultra. Instead, it’s intended to remind you that you remain in control of whether or not you run an ultra from signup to start and that sometimes you should take a deeper look at whether or not you should start your next ultra. That decision doesn’t need to be deeply analytical either. Often, it’s best to go with you gut, whether that’s following continued self-doubt about an upcoming race with some deeper reflection or in making the final call on whether or not to pull the plug. Sometimes, all of the above factors might suggest “no,” but you’re heart and mind are screaming “yes!” and it’s time to go for it!

Call for Comments

  • What factors do you use in deciding not to start a race?
  • When have you felt satisfied in not toeing the line?
  • Are there times when you’ve decided not to race and later regretted it?

N.B. If you decide that you definitely won’t be running an ultra that you’ve entered, it’s always nice to let the race organization know that you won’t be coming. In some instances, the race will be able to let another runner take your place!

There are 15 comments

  1. Andrew

    This is a great article
    One factor you didn’t include is “life getting in the way” – I have not started a couple of races because other things in my life have taken precedent.

    I am considering entering Ronda Del Cims (july) and Tor Des Geants (Sept) for the same year. My worry is if I do I would face “lack of stoke” “lack of training” – at least between the two (does it matter), “Exhaustion”, “Lack of Money” and also quilt of the pressure this puts on my family

    Looking at this the sensible thing would be NO but if I had money and could get the time off work would enter in a shot!

  2. Jamie

    Thanks. This is timely for me. I’m just coming to terms with not running my planned hundred in a month, my big goal race for the year. I’ve been coping with a foot injury all year, and I’m undertrained as a result. If my foot weren’t still a concern, I’m confident I could finish on my training. I’d just have to adjust my goals for a slower finish. But the foot is still touchy, and I’m almost certain that I would extend my foot injury and have to trudge through the last 80 or so miles in significant acute pain. Going to cut my losses and make do with some shorter long runs this fall.

  3. sam bosworth

    The lack of stoke factor is especially powerful. There are always going to be reasons (for doing something or not doing it) that our mind can come with if we ask it to. To start and actually finish an (especially a 100) one has to have something that allows that stoke factor to not be overwhelmed by the suck. If you don’t have this DNS is much better than 30-50or 85 miserable miles and a DNF!

  4. Sean

    Good article, buddy. I’m sorry you won’t be making the trip back to the Gobi this year, but clearly, you’ve put a lot of thought into your decision (and article). Great read, my friend.

  5. Mathieu Van Vyve

    Great article on a topic not often discussed. Sorry to hear you’re injured, I wish you a prompt and complete recovery! Life is long…

  6. Ian

    Thanks for this article.

    It pretty much sums up my running this year and it is great to hear from a much more accomplished runner that my decisions and choices have not been vain or cowardly.

    Cheers,

    Ian

    1. lori Enlow

      Timely for me as I backed out of the Tor Des Geants this year for a combination of life stressors and family needs. It’s nice to hear some of my own reflections in your articLe and a nice reminder that I made the right choice.

  7. Paul

    Sorry to hear that you’re not going back to the desert, Bryon. I was looking forward to the race report.

    I racked up five consecutive ultra DNSs — three because of injury, one because of lack of training due to injury, and one because a death in the family a few days before the race devastated me. But it was extra satisfying when I finally registered for, started and finished a tough 50K this spring. I’m hoping that was the start of five consecutive ultra finishes.

  8. Will

    Lack of stoke is a big one for me, especially for the big, tough races. For several years I racked up way to many DNFs. There are a million reasons to quit an ultra, but you need to have that killer instinct and “finish no matter what” mentality or get past that. Like you said, for 50Ks or easy 50 milers I don’t worry as much. But for the really tough stuff, I need to have the fire in my belly and hearts on fire drive to go for it. I’ve only had one DNF in the past 4 or so years as a result, and it was only when I forgot this mantra. Start building that fire for the adventures next year!

  9. Burke

    That was a very nice article. I don’t race very often, and the reason for that is the race has to offer something more than a belt buckle. I love belt buckles, but that isn’t enough to motivate me to spend the time, money, and effort needed to get the result I desire. The criteria varies, but if the area is steeped in history, that is a big plus. If I have read about the region and find it interesting, that is another big factor. And cost is also a factor, along with being point to point or out and back. I just don’t have the mindset to run multiple loops anymore. I do enjoy watching, crewing, and pacing at multi loop races, though.

  10. Just me

    Now how to convince race directors that having us all rush to sign up for an event up to a year in advance can be a detriment to ourselves and the sport. Prefer to see them open races closer to the time of the event or have a much more lenient refund/transfer policy. Some are already great about this, but not all. It gets hard to plan a race calendar a year out- physical preparation can be the least of it.

  11. Luke

    Timely article once again. Guessing my broken toes, chaotic ongoing dissolution of a 12 year marriage, a 10 day lapse since my last run, and a recent solo week long drinking binge in Portugal are probably not the proper ingredients for my first planned ultra next weekend.

    But I reeeeeeeally want to. What could possibly go wrong?

  12. Kdiggity

    Timely indeed. Experiencing my first ever DNS – I’m supposed to be roughly 8 miles into my first ultra as I write this. After 8 months of slow buildup, dedicated training/PT, a glute that suddenly wouldn’t stay turned on – and who knows what else – aggravated my IT band…to the point where I could barely run a mile a week ago. Despite a gradual downscaling of my race approach/mindset, and repeated last-ditch attempts to rectify via PT, it all happened too late in the game. Decided to pull the plug. Though I had some pretty low moments thinking about it, I feel good thinking about running being a long term commitment. This won’t be my last DNS. I’ll someday encounter a DNF(s). It’s all part of the running experience – failure and mistakes are a natural part of any commitment. Also: need a serious break – mentally & physically – and time to focus on numerous other things I put on the back burner. When I finally do get to run my first 50k, it’ll be all the more sweet. Thanks again for the positive reinforcement!

  13. Nummer32

    Good and gutsy article about a do or don’t deciwion making process I think every runner goes through. Good luck on your next quest! Good to see you can put the decision behind you and move on to the next (hopefully more enjoyable) ultra.

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