On Quitting

AJW's TaproomOver the past few weeks, I had the privilege of attending two 100-mile races in the American West. First, as a participant, I ran the rain-soaked Bighorn Trail Run 100 Mile in Wyoming. Then, a week later, I attended the baking-hot Western States 100 in California as a volunteer and spectator. Both races, due to challenging conditions, had lower-than-average finishing rates which bucked the trend of the increasingly higher finishing rates we’ve seen over the past few years.

At Bighorn the finishing rate was a record-low 47%. For the first time in race history, more than half of the starters failed to finish. Of those DNFs, the majority were recorded at the Jaws aid station less than halfway through the race at mile 48. Due to steady rain, cold temperatures, and slick mud, most of the runners who quit cited those brutal conditions as their reason. Interestingly, of those runners who managed to venture back out into the quagmire after Jaws, over 80% went on to finish.

Observing the scene in Jaws for the 20 minutes I was in there, the droppers fell into two general categories. In the first category were those runners who, for whatever reason, were unprepared for the conditions and arrived in Jaws cold, wet, and suffering. The cases of hypothermia at this aid station were significantly higher than in past years and in most situations these runners simply could not warm up sufficiently to continue. In the second category were those runners who simply gave up immediately upon their arrival at Jaws. As I sat there, I saw at least 10 runners stumble into the tent, walk over to the table, rip their bib numbers off, and drop out. In these cases it appeared to me that these runners’ minds were made up long before they arrived.

In reflecting on the day, I found it interesting to think about the difference between the ‘physical’ drops and the ‘mental’ drops. Certainly, for those runners whose health and well-being were in danger, quitting seemed to be the only safe option. However, for those who gave up less than halfway through the race due to their lack of will to continue, I wonder how they feel about that decision now, two weeks later.

At Western States this past weekend, the conditions were dynamic and disparately challenging. Due to snow, mud, and debris over the first 25 miles of the course, times through that section were quite a bit slower than usual and the wear and tear that section dished out was substantial. At Red Star Ridge aid station (mile 16), 17 runners missed the 10 a.m. cutoff which became a harbinger for the rest of the day. I had the opportunity to spend several hours at Devil’s Thumb (mile 47) and the heat really took its toll there. Accomplished and experienced runners like Stephanie Violett and Thomas Lorblanchet took significant time to re-group here and both went on to finish. Others, however, like Brian Rusiecki, succumbed to the conditions and dropped here. In Brian’s case in particular, an unusual allergic reaction combined with the oppressive heat and above-average humidity impacted his breathing, which slowed him to a crawl coming out of Deadwood Canyon.

Further down the course, at the Rucky Chucky river crossing (mile 78), the carnage began to pile up. I spent about eight hours down there and saw runners dealing with all kinds of challenges. When Jim Walmsley arrived, it was clear that he was finished. Physically and emotionally spent, Jim dropped almost immediately and then spent a good amount of time talking with people and cheering on other runners. Oddly, when Chris Mocko arrived an hour or so later, his pacer announced to everyone there that Chris was dropping. He even signaled to the crew waiting on the other side of the river with a throat-slash gesture, apparently indicating that they were done. Chris, however, had other ideas and after re-grouping for an hour or so got back up, crossed the river, and made his way to Auburn for a sub-24-hour finish. Kaci Lickteig, the defending women’s champion, arrived a few minutes after Mocko and announced that she was dropping. Her crew was not accepting that, however, and as darkness fell and runner Stephanie Case came in to drag Kaci out of the chair, she too, ventured across the river and made it home to Auburn in just over 24 hours.

As the night wore on and the runners trickled in, I became increasingly impressed with their fortitude and resilience. Former top-10 women Maggie Guterl and Emily Harrison walked in and walked out determined to gut it out. Multiple-time finishers Gary Wang, Craig Thornley, and Scott Mills also soldiered through the night and eventually made their ways to Auburn. Indeed, as the hours passed, it appeared as though the attitude of just getting it done became more and more pervasive. Observing the above-average number of runners who rolled in during the Golden Hour, that magical period in the last hour before the final 30-hour cutoff, it became clear to me that folks who were physically decimated had successfully allowed their minds to take over to get them to the finish. Ultimately, the 67% finisher’s rate was the lowest since 2009 and every one of those finishers truly earned their buckles.

There are myriad factors that impact a runner’s decision to forge on or stop. Having now observed two races in which over 200 people who, when they started, clearly intended to finish and ultimately did not, I can’t help but wonder what could have been done, to them or for them, to get them to that finish. It is often said of Western States that there are 369 stories out there and this year those stories were wide ranging and profound. And, from my point of view, it is my sincere hope that for those who failed to finish at Bighorn and Western States, for whatever reason, that they’ve taken away lessons and experiences–physical, emotional, and psychological–that will get them to the finish the next time.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Green Flash Brewing Company Soul Style IPAThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Scotty Mills’s hometown of San Diego, California. Green Flash Brewing Company makes a wonderfully fruity session IPA called Soul Style IPA. One of my runners from the area brought me a six-pack to Western States and it was delicious. I highly recommended it as a great, post-run summer treat.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you dropped from a race recently? If so, what was the reason, physical, mental, or maybe both? Are you content with your DNF now?
  • How about those of you who faced and made it through Bighorn or Western States’s adverse conditions? What was it like for you and why did you decide to continue on?
  • What have you learned by dropping from and/or muddling through an imperfect day of racing?

There are 32 comments

  1. Cody L Custis

    Last year, I knew I wouldn’t be able to make the Elkhorn 50 mile during the ascent to Casey Meadows. Just wasn’t feeling it that day, running a slight temperature on a day when things needed to be perfect. About 20 miles in is the last aid station before dropping down to the 50k. And, I made the decision coming up to that aid station to drop down.
    One of the things that the race director, Steve, always points out is that, above all, he doesn’t want to drag anyone out of the remote course. The disappointment of dropping wore off as I headed back, and the last 10 miles, while challenging, had a good feeling. Helped guide another entrant back to the proper course, got to see the leaders from the 50k fly by me. I was better to finish a smaller race than to be pulled off the course at Elkhorn.

    1. Deb

      My parents have always questioned my sanity around racing ultras, so their version of “mental aid” would be to try to get me to drop! hahaha.

    2. Annie

      I used “mental aid stations” three different times at Tahoe last year (I was having issues with altitude). Without those mental breaks, I never would have finished.

  2. Dom F

    For me, I’ve run some 15 mile trail runs with body armor on where I’ve wanted to quit within 2 miles. Constant thoughts running in my head of; ‘Wow, this was dumb’, or ‘You have body armor on…just take it off’. Even though I’ve completed the 2-3 trail races with the extra weight, it still doesn’t get any easier. However, what I’ve come to realize is that these ‘thoughts’ and ‘moods’ we think about are just that…’Thoughts’. If I give these ‘thoughts’ a vote, then I will quit…but if I decided to keep my mind busy thinking of other things that are positive, then I can essentially control my ‘thought complex’ and my mood. I’ll often start these races without music and when I’m really struggling, I will put on a podcast. By keeping my mind engaged in the now, I essentially reach a ‘Bushido’ state where the past and future don’t exist (because they really don’t). The only thing that matters is that very second.

      1. Dom F

        I usually run Memorial Day Trail Run Races/ Veteran’s Day Trail Races with it on. I like to put some hurt in for the boys overseas putting in the work and those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. A simply way for me to pay homage to the men.

  3. Jamie

    I’ve been thinking about this since I went back and forth on a decision to drop last weekend at a 40 mile race. My lack of recovery and training since my first 100 caught up to me and reduced me to a slow uncomfortable grind well before halfway. I came into each of the next two aid stations with my mind set that I would drop. I figured I was only setting my recovery back. But each time, I sat and took some time before ripping off my bib, unhappy with the idea of quitting when it actually came time. And each time, the decision to go back out seemed almost spontaneous, coming from somewhere outside my conscious mind. I suddenly found myself standing up and heading out, even while simultaneously questioning what the hell I was doing. I guess I just couldn’t stomach the idea of quitting when I wasn’t truly hurt, when others around me were pushing through as much or more discomfort, and when my family and so many volunteers had given up their time so I could be out there. It probably mattered that this was a local community race, both because I knew and already looked up to the people who were out there persevering, and because I couldn’t slink away anonymously. I needed to salvage some dignity by being tough, if I couldn’t be fast. It was a long day, and one of my worst results on paper, but I am pretty happy with it. I do believe that toughness is a constant practice, and I’ve decided going forward to do my best to honor the privilege to put on a bib with an honest and complete effort.

  4. Joe C.

    AJW, I look forward to every Friday to see your latest thoughts. I was especially interested to read your take on last weeks events. And per usual, the above is a thoughtful, compassionate essay focused on the betterment of our sport! Thanks, as always!

    Peter, I like the idea of a Mental Aid Station!

  5. Jim Kelley

    I raced Bighorn and I guess I fall into a third category of not making the time cutoff at Jaws – I missed by about 30 minutes. I started puking around mile 30 and I made the decision to take a break at the Spring Marsh aid station at mile 40. I figured if I took a nap for a bit I could re-set my stomach. I forget how much time I still had left to make it to Jaws but if I had known how tough the going was in the mud on that 10 mile ascent to Jaws I never would have stopped as long as I did at mile 40. Missing the cutoff never even entered my mind…..lesson learned.

  6. Jim Kelley

    I should have added in my Bighorn comment….I met AJW briefly at the athlete check-in while we were both asking questions at the info booth with the course map. I saw him and said “hey, you’re The Jizz” (from Mountain Outhouse fame). I really had no idea who AJW really was but now that I’ve read more and have viewed many videos with him on them – especially the WS100 ones – I wish I had taken more time to chat with him.

  7. Curt

    Your perspective on Bighorn is interesting to me. I was one of the jaws drops, and I’ve spent the last two weeks trying to decide if my decision was wise or mentally weakness. I’m not sure I’ll ever know.

    Before the race I had visions of running my fastest 100 yet, and I was approximately on pace when I arrived at Jaws. I was also experiencing hip pain that has lingered since The Bear 100 last fall. I suffered through weather in that race, but ultimately finished. By the time I finished the pain in my hip was almost unbearable, and it remained throughout the winter.

    As I dropped at Jaws I told myself it was the smart thing to do. I was saving my summer by not destroying my hip. However I know I could have suffered to the finish. I also know that mentally I just didn’t want to head back out into 50 miles of mud and rain.

    I’ve never dropped before, and handing in that bib was incredibly hard. It feels like a failure, but it also feels like a lesson for someone that needs it.

  8. Joel

    Guess I don’t understand why someone as fast as Wamsley doesn’t just sit there for 2-3 hours (or 5 for that matter) recover and finish the race. As someone trying to get into WS it’s frustrating to see capable people drop. Why quit that late in a race when there is PLENTY of time left. I don’t get it.

    1. Tara V

      I have thought the same thing. I wondered if runners at his level don’t want to finish in the middle of the pack for pride reasons?? Because it does seem that with a couple of hours to re-group they could finish. Kaci Lickteig is a good example. After winning last year, she stopped and almost dropped, but went on to finish much further back than she is typically capable of. I thought that was great! Obviously we can’t fully know what was going on, but I also wondered about the same thing!

        1. Tara V

          Good point. I probably should not be making comments when a) I’ve never run 100 miler and b) I know nothing about the person’s personal circumstances. :-)

  9. Annie

    I was one who finished Bighorn. I’ve run in a lot of mud this year (I’m from Oregon) but this mud was much different. As I climbed up toward Jaws I wondered how it was going to be coming down. I was also prepared for the weather with wool base layers (several to change into) and jackets. Never had any issues with cold. Surprisingly, coming down wasn’t so bad. Yep, I fell four times and was covered with mud, but when I got to Foot Bridge I changed out of my muddy clothes and just moved on. Made the cut off at Dry Creek by 12 minutes and finished just 16 minutes ahead of the cutoff. They were going to have to pry me from the course!

  10. Jimmy K

    I am 74 and have loved endurance events since my mid-20s. long distance canoeing & kayaking,road & mountain bike racing, triathlons( including 3 finishes at the Ironman World Championships in kona) and ,yes ultrarunning. In more than 50 years of endurance I have not had a DNF. I have always loved the mental challenge of pushing beyond what I feel I am capable of. After finishing Anne Trason’s Overlook run From Foresthills to Auburn I have had to give it up do to Bursitis and ongoing joint issue.during my last year of running I was always the oldest runner registered, but with the growth of the sport i expect that we will see the numbers in the older age groups increase.

  11. Jay

    I think this quote sums it up best for most mid or back of pack runners. “Strengh does not come from physical capacity, it comes from an indomitable will.” Also sometimes you have got to adjust your plan assuming you have one. Walmsley couldn’t or wouldn’t adjust which is why he blew up. Mother nature really doesn’t care about your plans. Cheers!

  12. Pedro

    I dropped once five miles from the finish line of my first-ever 50 miler. It was night-dark, I had no headlamp, no water, was all alone, and the trail was hills with rocks and roots and the sky was jet black. And I was last and alone. It still haunts me to be so close and yet so far. I went back a half-mile, and convinced a stranger by a river to let me use their cell phone. But quitting meant I did not crack an ankle in the dark, was not splayed on the trail all night waiting to be rescued, and could live to run another day. Sometimes, it is the safest, smartest most honorable thing to do. Being bad-ass means being strong and self-controlled enough not to cross safety the line, even though you could.

  13. Aaron

    I find this post, and the finish-at-all-costs mentality, to be fairly obtuse. I get it. Stories of suffering are sexy in the ultra world and what better way to show everyone just how much more “grit” you have than to suffer to the very end of every single event you ever sign up for. Why don’t we all stand around in a circle afterward kicking each other in the junk to see who’s the toughest while we’re at it?
    Don’t get me wrong, if finishing is your goal then you should diligently prepare and do your very best to reach that goal. But I fail to see the value of this article passive-aggressively insinuating that the purest line of thinking happens to be AJW’s own brand of reckless “run yourself into the dirt or you kinda suck” mentality.
    I’m pretty sure Walmsley could have napped, recovered and walked it in, still ahead of half the field if he’d wanted to. But he wasn’t there to finish. He was there with every intention of setting a course record or blowing up trying. Who’s to say that his reason for being there, or his criteria for dropping, were any less meaningful than those that were there simply to finish? What exactly would he have proven by finishing, that he can walk for twenty miles? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that walking it in wouldn’t have brought much value, validation or meaningfulness to Jim’s day.
    I was at Bighorn this year. I dropped at Jaws. I’m pretty sure that I could have finished the last 52 miles in the 22 hours that I had left. But I had set a goal for myself and, on that particular day, I was not going to reach without damaging myself beyond what I was comfortable with. Finishing every race that I ever sign up for is not the criteria upon which my sense of fulfillment hangs.
    So, AJW, how do I feel about my decision two weeks later? Pretty smart actually. I have plenty of other races and life events to look forward to this year that I’ll be healthy and un-injured enough to enjoy. I have nothing to prove to you. I’ve finished Bighorn 100. 5 times. 4 of those times under 24 hours. And if I DNF’ed every race I entered what effing business is it of yours anyways?
    If your ego is so fragile that “giving up due to lack of will” is the only way you can perceive someone else’s decision not to wreck themselves (or DNF for whatever reason) then you should seriously reconsider your sense of priorities.

    1. ultraMB24

      I think you are the one being passive aggressive in you comment back at AJW. He’s just looking for reasons why people decide to stop and as you point out, your reason is because you have a time goal and/or damage goal and because those goals were going to be missed, you dropped. I’m sure he gets that. Just like you should get his view as well as others who just have a finish in the cut-off time goal. Some people are comfortable with putting their bodies through more damage than is good for them and it may take a year or more to recover from if they go those extra miles instead of dropping. But that is their call and their decision and they should not be faulted for it as you shouldn’t be faulted for dropping for your reasons. You say it yourself at the beginning, ” if finishing is your goal then you should diligently prepare and do your very best to reach that goal.” His business in you or others DNFing racing they enters is apparent. He is a commentator for an ultrarunning website. So this is on his and other people’s minds. You certainly don’t have anything to prove to anyone but yourself but you really come across as defensive in your post for your actions at races so maybe you have to think more deeply about your reasons for running and if you are happy about it, then not care what someone else writes and taking it out on them. Good luck on your future races.

    2. AJW

      Dear Aaron, Thanks for your comments and I am sorry if my column comes off as passive aggressive. That was not my intent at all. I was simply reflecting on the last two weekends and the 200 or so people who dropped. With respect to your question on how I feel about your DNF, I feel that if you think you made the right decision for you then it was the right decision. Sounds like you dropped because you realized that your goals were not going to be reached and you wanted to live to fight another day. If that’s ok with you it’s certainly ok with me. Good luck with training for whatever your next adventure might be!

    3. Cam MacRae

      Your drop sounds like an intelligent piece of racing given your goals. By way of contrast your ad hominem here reflects rather poorly upon you.

  14. Buzz

    What is the ethical thing to do when the trails are super muddy ? Here in Colorado they would be closed or at the very least people would discourage you from riding or running them. Is it a different situation in WY ?

  15. Joanna

    I was at Bighorn. I finished, but the mud made me miserable. At times I found myself wishing that I would allow myself to quit. I certainly don’t judge anyone who DNFd; I wanted to but I just couldn’t find a good reason to do it.

  16. Mary Jane

    Thanks for a thoughtful piece. I DNF’d the Bighorn 50 after what I thought was a great training cycle because I missed the cutoff at 18.5 miles. I’d fallen so many times in the mud using my wrist as a kickstand that it was swollen around my watchband and painful to move. How I feel two weeks later? I know I gave it the best I had, so I’m okay with it – and resolved to go back next year. I made some new friends. It was a beautiful course – even through the mud and rain. And just seeing the 100 milers on the course was inspiring. Whether or not they finished, people were digging deep.
    I have to echo Buzz’ comments though – the trail was trashed. That’s a discussion worth having, I think – maybe a separate piece.

  17. Buzz

    Quitting is a pretty loaded word with a strong negative connotation. People have different goals and motivations for a race and IMO it’s silly to judge if yours is not the same as mine. This blog entry suggests that doing the best that the conditions allow along with finishing the race are the most accepted ones. There are others, like hitting a certain time/PR/CR, or only racing if the conditions allow for a right mix of type 1 and 2 fun, not just a full on sufferfest, or only racing if it’s not putting too much stress on the trails.

  18. RB

    I have never DNFed voluntarily in an ultra but I was once pulled off the course by a hawkeyed medic at Comrades 2.5 miles from the finish line (diagnosed as hyperthermia with root cause being Salmonella poisoning). I was pissed at that moment coz I could have walked it in and finished comfortably within the cutoff but I am glad I listened to the medic and accepted a ride to the medical tent. One guy with me refused to listen and continued. He collapsed and passed out less than 100 yards from the finish line and got a DNF plus a trip to the ICU. Sometimes it’s a delicate decision to make in a situation where even our rudimentary decision making skills are hampered and in such cases “Mind over matter” is not always a good thing.

  19. emg

    I DNFed at Western States this year. After years of training and entering the lottery, I finally got in. I got a coach and trained hard, arriving on race day healthy, as physically prepared as I’ve ever been, and ready to run a great race. Instead I managed to register my first ever drop in an ultra. I could make a case that the conditions were brutal and I was dealing with a lot of physical issues, but the fact is that I simply wasn’t mentally tough enough to deal with the adversity and I gave up.

    I tried to follow all the advice I’d heard and be patient, especially early on in the snow and mud. However, it was disheartening to reach the early aid stations and find myself already tired from the conditions as well as fighting cutoffs at such an early stage. I had a minor freak out during this section and spent several miles trying to calm myself down and just get into a rhythm.

    The early conditions also soaked my feet, and I didn’t get a chance to change shoes/socks until Duncan Canyon at mile 24. I spent the rest of the day dealing with destroyed feet and blisters, which compounded my cutoff problems: whenever I made up any time, I would promptly lose it at the next aid station having my feet treated. Like some others, I dealt with stomach issues and had a severe low point at Devil’s Thumb. Somehow, I managed to get back on my feet and keep going, but it was here that my mind first said, “You’re not going to make it.” I was getting occasional race updates from my crew where they told me about the generally slow times and both of the early race leaders dropping out. Instead of encouraging me, this information further helped me rationalize that it was ok to quit.

    I was still running out of Foresthill, but that quickly turned into a hike. I was barely on 30-hour pace and slowing down drastically with a long way to go. The 10 miles or so leading to Rucky Chucky were miserable and I made up my mind to drop at the river. My crew made a valiant effort to keep me going, but I couldn’t bear the thought of continuing. In my mind, I wasn’t going to keep making the cutoffs at my current pace, and it was better to drop there than at some more remote aid station.

    It’s easy to second-guess that decision now. Despite the legitimate physical issues I was feeling, I’m convinced that my mental attitude exacerbated them, creating a downward spiral of pain and self-pity. Even though my rationale for quitting seemed reasonable at the time, it’s entirely possible that as the sun came up and the finish line felt closer, I might have found a reserve I didn’t know I had.

    I’m not trying to be dramatic, gain sympathy, or even justify my decision to quit by writing all this. I’m simply trying to be honest about my own experience and what was going through my mind at the time. Obviously, I knew going in that it would be a tough race; I know that ultra running requires mental toughness, especially in a 100-miler. Western States 2017 really laid bare for me how weak my mental game is and has forced me to rethink my approach to training and racing. I’m particularly disappointed that I choked when it mattered most, in a race that I and so many others work so hard to be a part of and that it will be years before I get a shot at redeeming myself. In any case, I hope to learn from this experience and come back stronger next time.

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