I Dropped Out Of A Race On Purpose And All I Got Was An Enlightened Perspective On Wild Places And Competition

Spanish people love me. Well, at least Spanish runners do. I won a race there five years ago and despite doing very little of note since then, I can’t go to a race there without being mobbed by people wanting to take photos with me. It’s very uncomfortable, but yeah, a little fun too, and I like that it gives me an easy way to meet people in what is still a very foreign country for me. Still, I don’t feel that I merit such adulation in any way whatsoever, and I noticed that because my values are different from many Spanish runners (I don’t generally idolize runners, but they do) it’s easy to accidentally patronize them. Like, sometimes I think it’s almost cute that they think fast runners are so important, but the second I realized that I was thinking this way I was horrified. Telling someone they are wrong for thinking something is important is a dangerous road to go down. I needed to try to see things their way.

For example, last weekend I had a taste of the other side of a very European trait that we sometimes scoff at in the U.S. I was at a race in the north of Spain with my friend Depa, who is kind of like the hub of the wheel that is the Spanish trail running scene. He owns several running stores, publishes a magazine called Trail Run, and works as a speaker and organizer at lots of races. I had a strained hamstring, and told him I shouldn’t run the race for fear of making it worse. He agreed, but said I should start the race anyway and then drop out one kilometer down the road. “It is good for the publicity,” he said with his heavy Spanish accent, “and the people want to run with you.”

I was actually shocked at first. I hate dropping out of races. But I thought about what he said and decided he was right. Since Spanish runners seem to think I’m important, maybe I could help out the race by starting. But there was more to it than simply being in some photos. I think the idea is that by starting the race I would give the impression that I’m trying, that even if I’m injured I want to race so badly that I’ll at least give it a shot. Theoretically, this imparts a diehard passion for the sport and a kind of good-natured conviviality. It gives people a real connection with the runners they see in magazines.

Dropping out of a race is not nearly as big of a deal in Europe as it is in the U.S. In a general sense, I think this is rooted in the different ways that people on both continents view their mountains and wild places. Americans are scandalized when ‘elites’ drop out of races. It’s as if they are betraying, by dropping out, a profound code of conduct, like they’re disrespecting the race and the mountains themselves. At least in part, this must be related to the clear distinction we draw between wild places and human places. We have an idea that mountains are separate from cities and that there are different ways to conduct yourself in each. That’s why it’s such a profound mindset shift to actually run in wild places: because running implies being in a hurry, and hurry implies competition, and competition runs counter to many of the values that represent the commonly held ideal of wilderness. For an example of a more traditional attitude in opposition to mountain running, check out this 2015 editorial in High Country News about how running in the Grand Canyon is ruining everything important about wild places. That may be a little overblown, but at heart, I think people feel that if you’re going to run in wild places, you need to respect them enough to at least finish the race.

Europeans, however, seem to regard their mountain trails as extensions of their roads; they don’t draw such a distinct line between civilized and wild as we do. I expect this is rooted in transhumance and their multi-thousand-year recorded history. They’ve been moving between valleys and mountains, towns and pastures for so long that they consider the whole in a different way. In fact, they consider it as a whole, as a single entity rather than a juxtaposed collection of many. They certainly parcel out varying forms of national parks, but in many cases these include ancient villages and the people whose ancestors have lived there for generations. The human history is very different in Europe than in America, and this has a tremendous effect on how they see the land. To take one example, mountaintop roads and precipitous gondolas are much more common in the Alps than in Colorado. Obviously there’s Pikes Peak, but people had to build the infrastructure on that mountain from bottom to top in a single go, whereas many Alpine lifts are simply connecting one ancient village with another over the course of an old road. The infrastructure was already in place; they didn’t have to blaze a new path. In terms of running, it’s not as big of a mental step for them to start competing in the places they already live, and dropping out doesn’t seem like such a failure because it’s just a part of racing.

Attitudes in the U.S. are different. We have a more-or-less unspoken ‘death before DNF’ code that I think is based in our concept of wilderness: if you get yourself in, you gotta’ get yourself out. America, according to literary criticism, has always been defined by its ‘frontier,’ which is a black and white idealogical line between ‘civilized’ and ‘savage.’ In a literary sense, going into the mountains for us represents an engagement with a more pure world, a land of discipline and character and values, where you are expected to respect the landscapes you pass through both physically and almost spiritually too. Indeed, there’s even a certain implied sacredness in much literature about the wild places of the American West, like in the works of Terry Tempest Williams. Dropping out of races that are held in wild places implies a kind of superficiality that runs counter to the ideals of wilderness.

Obviously this is totally generalized and now outdated within the sport of mountain running, but I’ve always been super influenced by the concept of what wilderness represents for people and the world. To a large degree, my purpose in becoming a mountain runner was to personally engage with the ideas I learned about from people like Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner, people who spent their whole lives trying to put the value of wild places into words that made sense to everyone. Competition has always been secondary for me, simply a fun way to challenge myself with my friends in beautiful places. My attitude aligned perfectly with the old style of ultrarunning where the ‘elites’ were just a bunch of people who liked to run and explore in the mountains so much that they accidentally got super fit and fast.

But this philosophical bent has hindered my ability to be competitive in past years. As I’ve grown up and had different experiences, my attitudes toward what I do in the mountains and why I do it have often run counter to each other. I have struggled to reconcile my romantic concepts of idyllic nature and strict adherence to values with the realities of life and competition. Running fast in wild places has sometimes seemed contrary to my thoughts about what wild places are supposed to be for. In trying to figure this out, my success has faltered. I have let nearly five years pass since being truly competitive. In the meantime, the sport’s momentum has grown unchecked. New runners have taken up mountain running by the thousands, and the ‘elites’ are becoming a lot more like the elites in other sports–people who ‘train’ and get massages and take themselves seriously. Despite my half-assed attempts to lead the way in this regard by incorporating intervals into my routine, I am at heart still part of the old school, still part of the bearded (well, in spirit) hippie contingent much more dedicated to the mountain part of ‘mountain running’ than the running part.

But as long as you don’t harm the landscape or the creatures that live in it, nobody should be able to tell you how to enjoy yourself in wild places. Racing is as valid as meditating, and dropping out of races is an inevitable part of racing. I want to continue running in the mountains, and it’s as intolerant to tell people how they are supposed to enjoy the mountains as it is to tell people what they are supposed to find important. In fact, they are the same thing. In terms of my recent ‘races’ in Spain, it still feels like a bit of a blasphemy to start something with no intention of finishing, but for maybe the first time I’m able to see the Euro perspective a little better. For them, it’s most important to be part of the sport and its community. And there is reason to believe that if people enjoy recreating in the mountains, they’ll want to protect them from harm. Ultimately, that’s what it all comes down to: I love to play in the mountains with my friends and I want to be able to do so for my whole life and give the same gift to the people who come after me. There are a lot of ways to do that. Dropping out is not always giving up.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What do you think are the origins of the ‘death before DNF’ philosophy that many trail and ultrarunners possess?
  • Have you felt or seen positive effects of your own trail running and racing on the places and people through which you run?
  • And how about negative effects? Have you recognized negative impacts of own running?
Dakota Jones in Spain 2017

Dakota Jones taking selfies with friends in Spain. Photo courtesy of Dakota.

There are 12 comments

  1. Rob

    Thanks for sharing your introspective journey as well as a better view of European trail running. I think there is a curiosity about the intensity of the eastern side of the pond and what fuels that. A global perspective of the sport is helpful.

  2. Ric Moxley

    As usual, Dakota, your ability to entertain us with wit while challenging us to think deeply about stuff at the same time is in fine form here. I get to nod and smile; good exercise for life. Thanks.

  3. KRB

    I think the issue is rooted more in the fear of failure that seems to be at the heart of America. It’s more than people just not liking to fail – in the U.S. it’s at the heart of whole story. The country was built by people who went out, took huge risks, and refused to fail. The myth of the American Dream – that if you just try hard enough and refuse to fail you will be a “success” and anyone who can’t make it has failed due to a lack of effort rather than some other factor – is in our DNA.

    I’ve traveled a bit in the EU and the attitudes about failure just seem to be different – sure people are competitive and they love a winner, but the stigma attached to failure like we have in the U.S. just does not seem to be there.

    Interesting topic for sure. Thanks for bringing it up.

  4. Joel

    Anecdotally, I don’t think I see much open criticism of DNFs in general. I can’t really think of a single example.

    Personally, however I’m critical if a heavily favored runner chooses to DNF just because they are not competing well rather than have to own an “embarrassing” 15th place finish.

    I’m referring to someone who is physically in decent shape but just not winning the day and decides to quit. Of course, that’s still their own business.

    As for the average runner, I’d guess that European ultra runners are drawn from a wider cross-section of society whereas in the US it’s still a smaller cadre of hard-core people who would be extremely unhappy with a DNF. If the popularity of the sport continues to grow, you’ll see more US participants who are satisfied with just getting as far along as they can. Surely the early days of marathon running must have been competitive than today when almost anyone is willing to try it.

  5. Mike H

    Good topic. It’s interesting to think of the historical relationship with wilderness, and it’s interesting to note the different viewpoints towards DNFs (and even DNS’s).

    That said, I think there are larger cultural differences at play for DNF’s. “Our” (US) culture is geared toward quantified achievement, rather than the experiential. How much money do you make (as opposed to, do you have an enjoyable and stable job)? How big (square footage) is your house (as opposed to, do you live in an interesting and dynamic place, or somewhere your family has lived for generations)? We have a celebration of ‘hard work’ in which *not* taking vacations is celebrated; and, when we do, it is a whirlwind of ‘must-do’ activities and checklists. Quantity vs. quality of life.
    Closer to the subject, we see celebration of finishing (even when being aided/carried) races like road marathons and half marathons, in the general population. The most common metric shared is how far did you run / did you finish?

    And there is a comparative tilt towards individualism instead of collectivism. While it’d be nice to avoid politics, we can see on recent major issues and votes across the world how there can be differing viewpoints on what’s best for ‘me’ vs. what’s best for ‘us’, and how the two are perceived to be intertwined or are mutually exclusive.

    That’s not to say everyone and everything in those cultures can be easily dichotomized. And, neither approach is measurably better: it is inspiring to see no-DNF, gutsy “I-can-do-more-than-I-thought” performances, and it is beautiful to note, as you did, that experiential participation can elevate the whole group.
    Thanks for sharing those thoughts.

  6. Bryan Page

    “It’s only running!” Just kidding, your writing is getting better and better Dakota! Very interesting perspective on our mountain running culture. I love to read anything that makes me think.

  7. Justin Andrews

    Hey Dakota, thanks for penning this! It’s funny that you had that Spanish “race” request–you’ll remember when we met up in Eastern China a couple years ago that I live in Chengdu. So a few weeks my local friend who organized a 17/30/60k skyrace thought it’d be ‘good for the press and photographers” and race in general for me to go out with the leaders of the 60k (while I was signed up for the 30k) to lead them for a couple km and then drop out.

    Granted, I didn’t have a bib and most top runners there knew I wasn’t racing that event, but spectators didn’t know. So I obliged and took off with them for 3km. It’s a funny cultural thing that apparently Europe and Asia both have!

    I have seen that the boom in trail running in these remote places has brought more awareness of hiking and runnnig in the mtns as part of leisure (where traditionally these areas have only seen subsistence herding and farming on its landscapes) and the local people genuinely support the events.

    But I can see that–especially in mainland China’s–Leave No Trace culture hasn’t permeated very far yet. Most runners still litter during training and races and pristine areas have enough of a problem from the herders and farmers littering, so “we” aren’t helping that. And, then as you wrote, Dakota, there are so many beautiful areas in China that I can go to explore, but if I’m always focused on training and racing, I can indeed miss the greater and more worthwhile values of resting, relaxing, smelling the roses and enjoying the vistas as the sun sets. Thus, I try to schedule hikes and outings with non-running friends in my post-race recovery windows so I’m not tempted to run through these areas at all times!

  8. JJ

    I ran with a German during the Bear 100 last year for ten miles or so. He was cold and miserable (as we all were) and dropped at mile 42 as darkness set in. It was no biggie for him, but it would’ve been devastating to me even though it was my first 100. I think his attitude was “hey, I’m here in America on vacation, and this isn’t fun anymore”.
    Also interesting was his view regarding pacers, I guess in ‘Urp they don’t use them. He was kinda’ amused that we do, as it’s “your race to run”.

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