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!