A Leadville DNF: Believing In Not Yet

[Editor’s Note: This article was written by the Trail Sisters’s Liza Howard.]

“We’re not going to make the cutoff.”

Rick Yelverton and I were hiking down from Hope Pass at the Leadville Trail 100 Mile, and if you’d seen us, you’d have thought: Those two are moving! You’d have also wondered why my pack was roughly eight times the size of Rick’s pack. (In my defense, it was going to be 60 degrees Fahrenheit colder than it was when I left home in San Antonio, Texas, and, also, I’m from the Boy Scout/mom’s purse school of pacing. Always be prepared and keep it in a big bag on your person.)

Liza and Rick on Hope Pass

Liza muling and pacing Rick up Hope Pass at the 2017 Leadville Trail 100 Mile. Photo: Ricky Haro

Rick had cleared the 50-mile aid station at Winfield with just seconds to spare. People were yelling at him as he ran down the road into the station: “Don’t stop! Keep moving! Go! Go! Go!”

He hiked in one end of the turnaround tent and out the other without making eye contact with anyone. I hurried after him, ready to body block race officials with my large mom pack.  

Rick looked good. I handed him a tiny can of Coke. We had four hours to cover some 11 miles and climb and descend about 3,000 feet before the the next cutoff. We’d need to maintain a 20-minute pace. It was possible. He was hiking at a 14- and 15-minute pace now.

And then the altitude got Rick. He slowed to Everest pace. (Kilian has ruined this analogy, but you know what I mean.) Still, he moved forward relentlessly. His effort was monumental. I will pull up the memory of it the next time I’m struggling in a race. We got up and over the pass, stopping only to put on headlamps and ask for more Coke at the Hopeless Aid Station.

Rick had moved so well and so consistently that I was shocked when I checked the time and saw we had 40 minutes to make the cutoff. Twenty minutes later, we were still descending. I told Rick the time. He picked up his pace. We’d passed 15 runners on the ascent, and we flew past a handful of folks on the descent. It didn’t matter.

I frowned and told him we weren’t going to make it.

He was quiet for the briefest moment. He kept hiking at a fast pace. Then he said, “Okay.”

“I’m really sorry,” I said. I’m Rick’s coach, and I knew exactly how much effort he’d put into running this race. We both knew he could go another 40 miles. Maybe he’d finish in 33 hours. I turned over a litany of ultrarunning truths in my mind, wondering which one might not sound hackneyed 18 hours and innumerable tiny cans of Coke into a 100 miler.

Then Rick said, “It’s okay. This has been an excellent training run for next year. You know, a guy at the camp told me getting a Leadville belt buckle can take a few years. He’s right. It took me awhile to get going when I started doing Ironman races, too. Today was awesome.”

He was entirely sincere.

I smiled at the back of his head. No self-pity. No self-loathing. No catastrophizing. He’d given 100%, come up short, and immediately filed the experience under ‘not yet.’ He epitomized Carol Dweck’s growth mindset that Andy Jones-Wilkins wrote about in his Taproom column a few years ago. Check out that article for a wonderful summary of Dweck’s observations about the power of mindset.

Dr. Dweck calls Rick’s way of thinking about his performance at Leadville a “growth mindset.” People with this mindset believe effort is necessary for mastery. They see difficulties and failures as stepping stones. They wholeheartedly embrace learning opportunities. I had never seen a growth minder in action until I paced Rick at Leadville. To be honest, they sounded too good to be true. Embracing ‘learning opportunities.’ Right.

Chalk my cynicism up to having a full-blown “fixed mindset.” My knee-jerk interpretation of a bad race–say coming in second at Leadville a few years ago? “I’m not really talented.” “I’m not a good runner anymore.” “I shouldn’t have run this race.” “People are going to think I’m no good.” (Yes, like you, I realize these are not accurate or helpful thoughts. They are the ugly ones that hound me, though.)  

You can see the power of a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset and the cascade of effects that each can have for a runner.

When I failed to meet my Leadville goal, my confidence was shaken for months. I worried about whether my results were a bellwether of races to come. The worry consumed me and made my training tedious. Each bad long run seemed like further evidence of my decline. Nothing was fun. I avoided racing. My training suffered. My husband suffered. And this was after placing second with a PR.  

Rick, on the other hand, has already made plans to come back to Leadville. We’ve talked about what we’ll add to his training. He’s excited to get running again. His family is excited for him. I have no doubt he’ll be walking around wearing a ridiculously large buckle this time next year.

Liza and Rick at the 2017 Leadville Trail 100 Mile start

Rick and Liza at the 4 a.m. 2017 Leadville Trail 100 Mile start. (I’m thinking about coffee.) Photo: Kate Yelverton

So the real question is, how does a runner develop a growth mindset if they’re not a magical unicorn like Rick already? Here are a few ideas:

  • Recognize when you’re evaluating your racing and training from a fixed mindset and choose growth instead:
    • You struggle to keep up with friends or to run a certain pace.
      • Fixed Mindset: I’m out of shape and I’m not a good runner right now.  
      • Growth Mindset: All runners have bad workouts from time to time.  
    • You DNF at your goal race.
      • Fixed Mindset: I failed.  
      • Growth Mindset: I didn’t finish yet. (Dweck thinks “yet” is very powerful word. I love it too. I have not put together a good performance at Marathon des Sables yet. I have not figured out my asthma issues yet. I have not cleaned the bathroom yet.)
  • Answer the questions: Why do I run? What do I want from running? How do I want running to change me? Write the answers down and refer to them before you race and before hard training. They’re effective touchstones that can shove you toward growth. (If it turns out your answers really are, I run because it makes me feel important and special, work on finding other motives. A need for validation is an impossible place to excel from.)
  • Be realistic about how your timeline and how much effort will be necessary. If you have young kids, or you work, or you’re in school, or you do all three and juggle a slew of other responsibilities and rarely get eight hours of sleep a night and can only run on roads at sea level, take all that into account when creating your plan for the year and when you think about the next three years.    
  • Write a race report. It’ll help you identify a fixed mindset and give you a place to practice celebrating learning.  
  • Seek out opportunities to learn through failure. Treat failures like a baby learning to walk does. Fall down. Get up. Fall down. Get up. Cry, laugh. Fall down. Get up. Again and again and again until you’re a little terror pulling down things from tabletops, I mean, until you’ve achieved your goal. Then set a new goal.
  • Figure out how to have fun training. Hard work does not preclude fun. If you’re having fun, you’ll value the process. And if you can value the learning more than the results, you’ll likely reach your running potential more quickly than you would otherwise. (Also, you’ll be having fun.)

Call for Comments (from Liza)

  • Do you know someone who has a growth mindset? Tell me how you think it impacts their running (and definitely hang out with them more.)  
  • How do you think  you can move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset in running?
  • Are you a growth minder? If so, can you share your rainbow wisdom? 

There are 28 comments

  1. Marty Meltzer

    Wonderfully said Liza. Hit home and touched a nerve. From zero training to MDS finisher in 2015. I strive to do a non-staged ultra. All the best to you and your family.

  2. Cheryl Anderson

    Amazing writing! I am going to strive to be better at this mindset. I am not a successful mountain runner “yet”!

  3. Quigley

    Thanks, Liza. I think that having fun training and having fun racing should be right at the top of your list. I like your optimism that Rick will go sub-24 next year! I ended up with a DNF at my first Leadville dance, as I ended up at Everest pace on my first go up Hope Pass and missed the cut at Winfield. Once you’ve gone over Winfield twice you are almost finished. I only finished in around 28.5 hours the next year, but I think that sub-24 is feasible for just about anyone who enters. I have mixed feelings about the 30 hour cutoff at Leadville, especially as if it was upped to even 32 or 34 hours the finishing rate would be much higher. I have finished two 100 mile events by death marching into a 30+ hour finishing time, and I think that there is some mercy and motivation in the 30 hours time limit. But, sub-24 would be a lot more fun. Good luck to Rick on breaking 24. I hope to be there myself in the next couple years.

    1. Liza

      I wonder how the finishing rate would be affected if they fiddled with the Winfield and Twin Lakes cutoffs, but kept the 30 hour cutoff. Amen about the mercy and motivation of a 30 hour limit. :)

      1. Erin Good

        I spoke to a man at the New Balance party in Leadville in 2015, and he was an amazing historian / statistician. I cannot recall his name, but I remember he was discussing the DNF rates and stated that of the people who DNF due to cut-offs, that majority DNF at Twin Lakes inbound. Likewise, as long as people can get through Twin Lakes inbound they have something like 98% chance of finishing. He even shared a theory that if the race were to move the Twin Lakes inbound cutoff by X number of minutes later, it would boost the finishing rate by . This story would be way better if I could remember things, but at the time it really hit home the importance of making it through Twin Lakes.

  4. Scotty Kummer

    As someone that has failed miserably at every distance from 160 miles to the marathon this piece really touched me. It’s also a great reminder of the things we can learn by pacing and crewing, because this attitude is one we all need more of. Bravo to you both.

  5. Anthony Rodale

    Hey Liza!!!! Nice piece. I had one of these moments at the Trans Atlas Marathon this year. Still trying to finish my story and photo essay for FitWild. I used my MDS strategy which did not work for me on the TAM course. I could have done much better. Also the design of the TAM and Challenge allowed me to keep running through the whole race and not have to drop out. Its an awesome design. I also learned I should not stop and take photos, run the race:) I was having so much fun chatting in Berber and French and forgot where the time went!!!! Hahaha. I am going back for another TAM in the future!!!

  6. Jeremy Warren

    Great piece. I think this quote is apt:

    “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett

    1. John Vanderpot

      My favorite from Beckett, same idea: Difficult things take a long time, the impossible a little longer…

      Or something like that,

      JV

  7. Richard Senelly

    My family and I have spent a bunch of time in Colorado’s San Juans. Since the creation of the Hardrock 100 in 1992, these spectacular mountains are its home. Having trekked some of Hardrock’s trails even before the first race, I couldn’t resist it. So, in 1992, one year after a pretty good year at the WS 100 and a win at the Hilo to Waimea 100K, I entered the first Hardrock 100. I then DNF’d three times in a row. Was I daunted? Was my enthusiasm dampened? No… I absolutely love this environment and the people who work or run this event… I kept at it, though my wife was keeping track of the price per mile… and even though I lived at sea level. It took me four tries to get the all-time slowest finish in the counter-clockwise direction (47:59:35). I relished every try. I succeeded in my enjoyment of each and every mile. I vividly remember my only finish… folks drove out a few miles to see if I could do it. My family and lots of other people lined the the last mile. It was epic (and slow).

    1. Andy

      The greatest of glory in the DFL. I’ve always liked the award given at the VT100 for the last finisher under the 30-hr cutoff — the lucky runner who got to enjoy the beautiful VT countryside for the longest!!

      Great piece, Liza, with lots of good stuff from positive/cognitive psychology to help us re-frame runs, races, life, etc. After all, it’s all just a beautiful day out on the trails, right?

  8. Erin Good

    I love this! Thank you for sharing this experience. I have not finished Leadville yet. I also have not brushed my hair yet. Both are still on my list :)

  9. Dale Hawkins

    I often fall into a dark place where a race starts going South. To the point, I am convinced that not only am I going to drop, but I am going to try to get a refund on my next race (I almost always have a next race for which I am registered), and I may just give up on this running thing altogether. But often, mostly through a mix of stubbornness and self beratement, I can usually push myself to the finish.

    However, I like this different way of looking at the problem. I will try taking a kinder approach on myself next time: “I haven’t fixed yet (but I will finish)”

    Thank you for this optimistic point of view.

  10. Kylie

    I’m a school teacher and growth mindset is a major part of how I try to influence students to think about their learning…I’d honestly never thought about applying it to my own running. Thanks for helping me make that connection (all the way down here in Australia).

  11. Samuel Bosworth

    ive dnf western twice in a 11 year otherwise generally sucessful ultrarunning career. Great attitude on taking a few years (or 11 plus) to finish a race!

  12. Terry

    Thanks for this article, it home for me to in just a slightly different way. I DNF’d the Leadville 100 MTB race a few weeks ago, missing the Twin Lakes inbound cutoff by a few minutes. I had significant gut issues at the top of Columbine Mine at 12,600 (high point and turn around for the MTB race).

    I knew descending with a small group, that we would not make the cut off. I began to beat myself up mentally about how I let my family down, my friends down and that I had no business being in the race.

    On my drive home to AZ, I began to see some of the positive attributes of the experience as I reflected on the race. I began listing what I learned and what went right and realized that it was still a good experience. I felt much better about myself and know I will be a better rider and trail runner because of that mindset.

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