Don’t Push The Panic Button

AJW writes about not panicking when something goes wrong during an ultramarathon.

By on March 23, 2018 | Comments

AJW's TaproomI was 16 hours into my first attempt at the Western States 100 when the lights went out, literally. Halfway between the Green Gate and Auburn Lakes Trails aid stations at the 2001 Western States, I clipped my foot on a rock, slammed to the ground, and lost grip of my flashlight.

When I got to my feet and looked around, I saw nothing. It was pitch dark. After feeling around in the bushes for a few minutes I found my flashlight. Frantically turning it on and off, I quickly realized my worst fears. It was broken. I had nothing. Just darkness. At that moment, I completely lost it. The freak-out was on!

A couple minutes later, a runner and his pacer came upon me and I explained my plight. They politely offered to let me jump in with them, and so I did. But, alas, I couldn’t hang. My mind was wrecked and my body was quickly following. Finally, after about 80 minutes of stumbling along the dark trail, I made it to Auburn Lakes Trails. In a total funk, I sat down, completely and totally defeated and demoralized.

A nice volunteer eventually came over to me and asked me how I was doing. At first I was too embarrassed to admit that I’d broken my flashlight but eventually I succumbed, and, in tears, I asked if she had one I could borrow. After asking around, she found me a new light and within a few minutes I was up and out of there. The damage had been done, though. The panic button had been pushed and I had lost all emotional engagement in the race. I basically walked it in.

After five more hours, I arrived to Auburn, went around the track, crossed the finish, and was done. My crew asked if I had emphysema. The race director came over and asked if I was going to get sick. The volunteers offered to take me to the medical tent. The truth was, I was simply spent. Physically, emotionally, and psychologically, I had lost it and couldn’t get it back.

I’ve looked back on that day countless times in the 17 years since and each time I am reminded of one thing, the power of the mind. For me, my demise that day was simple and inexorable. When faced with the challenge of running in the dark, I panicked. And then, once the panic fully set in, I gave up. It was brutal.

The lesson in all this, of course, is that life throws us all kinds of challenges and the way we prepare for those challenges and subsequently address them gives us the strength to forge on. In the absence of that strength, we can be made small and defeatist and ultimately be beaten. But if we fight the urge to push that panic button, if we summon the strength to persist in the midst of apparent disasters–like broken flashlights 80 miles into a 100 miler–we can charge forward confidently to the other side and transcend even life’s toughest obstacles.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Taproom favorite Cigar City Brewing in Tampa, Florida. Recently, they released a new take on their classic Jai Lai IPA called White Oak Jai Lai IPA. Aged in oak barrels fashioned from Florida’s legendary white-oak trees, White Oak Jai Lai has an earthy taste that blends wonderfully with classic IPA hoppiness to produce a simply delicious beer.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • When something goes wrong during an ultramarathon, what do you do to to keep yourself from hitting the panic button? How do you stay calm and able to adapt?
  • Has there been a time when you threw in the towel too soon and failed to adapt to the changing circumstances? Can you share that story and what you learned?
Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.