We’re not designed to quit, us trail runners. If you’ve trained for an ultra then you’ve faced some serious demons on your journey. Runs that begin in the dark, and end many hours later. You’ve sacrificed social engagements for early nights, and you’ve worked hard on the mental preparation. You know that your body will want to quit long before your heart is ready, and that your mind will carry you through dark patches. You’ve planned your gear, your nutrition, and your post-race celebration; you’re not starting this thing just to give up.
So when is it ok to quit? When is the DNF your best choice? Where is the line?
We asked a few ultra-runners to take us through their DNF demons.
Mark Easter’s determination and “no quit” attitude came about as a result of years of bad choices. He chose running as his method to learn discipline, build health, strength, and endurance.
“I discovered that I had what science would label as an addictive personality and filling the gap with healthy challenges like sport kept me focused on making things right instead of all the wrong life choices. I have had a hectic last 5 weeks starting with a 100 Miler road race: Washie followed by Cathedral Peak Challenge and then the Mount Aux Sources Challenge. I can tell you that at all these events there was a time I wanted to quit but pushed through!
At Washie 100 I was so ill with motion sickness from the dark and night lights and nerves at my first 100 Miler, I was ready to quit in the first 15km! But a brilliant support crew and the support of my girlfriend, Alice got me to the finish line. 3 weeks after Washie and with two weeks of trail training thrown in I was doing the Cathedral Peak Challenge... my word, I thought that elevation and altitude was bad! But I had to convince myself I hadn’t taken on this challenge for nothing! I pushed through and finished. Then, two weeks after that I was lined up at the start of the 50km Mount Aux Sources Challenge! Again, after passing 2500above sea level, I was dizzy and ill... when I passed 3000m I got even worse and then I had to take on chain ladders! At times I had to fake that I was ok to pass rangers and checkpoints.
At the end of the day, it is down to knowing our bodies and our training. We need to know what we are getting into and what we are really capable of! Many times I was offered the opportunity to quit and bail, but I chose to soldier on. I’m a bit different! I come from a background of alchohol abuse and drug and gang involvement including jail time. I use trail running and road as my saving grace! Hence why I may be a bit harder on myself than others.”
Above: Mark Easter
Dan van Hemert has a similar view. “Personally, I have been to the bottom of the pit and exhausted all my options, played all the plans A-Whatever, and accepted my fate in the eyes of practicality. The only race I have quit is 20/22km into a 32km NumNum. The legs were not happy. To prevent further injury rather than to get injured is my point of cutting the race. To distinguish between race hurt and injury hurt is key.
If it’s fatigue and nothing injury-wise, then suck it up buttercup, as many others are in far worse positions and would crave to be outside on a trail, even if just walking it.
In hindsight, the setting of goals for the race and during the race evaluating them according to the effort, and race hurt, will allow for the right decisions to be made. But pain hurt is really the only reason to call it quits.
Having walked as a sweep of a 100miler, there is a different outlook from those back markers. The chaps who set out to meet cut-offs and just finish the event. That has affected my outlook on quitting of races and now it is purely based on finishing it injury free. Otherwise, slog it out to the best of your ability on the day, re-evaluate your race in a day or two and reset the motions to be better at next race day.”
Above: Dan van Hemert
Filippo Faralla says it’s a deeply personal choice. “Bailing a race is a personal thing. There is no "correct" point at which one should stop, even considering health and risk. The beauty of trail running is its freedom... freedom to run, freedom to participate, freedom to stop and most importantly freedom to continue even if it presents severe risk and/or serious and permanent injury. We should not judge anyone for bailing or continuing when others would have done differently, because it is a personal choice, in the same way, that participating is an equally personal decision. If we truly run for ourselves, rather than to impress, then surely deciding not to run (bailing) is an equally personal decision that has nothing to do with anyone else. It should matter only to ourselves and what is important to us. For example, a mother would have a very different set of criteria for bailing/continuing than a single person. Sometimes a runner will have no idea how to appropriately evaluate the risks of continuing, and their decision to bail or continue may appear overly conservative or risky. In these situations, race organisers have an independent person (usually a doctor) to make the decision. At the start of the infamous 2015 Skyrun, the majority of those who decided to start had no idea how severe the conditions would become. Had they known, most would have bailed at the start line. In the end, the majority of those who started bailed before the race was called off. There is a duty on each runner to know exactly what is required of them to complete an event. There would be far less bailing if this was the case.”
Above: Filippo Faralla
Leigh Allinson shared some of his decision-making processes. “This happened to me for the first time in an event last year. V3K is a mountain ultra-run taking in every peak above 3000ft in Snowdonia UK. Just 5 miles in and before heading along Crib Goch, a precarious ridge line with 1000ft drops either side I turned my foot over. I knew at the time it wasn’t going to be good yet the stubborn side of me said to carry on, yet as the event progressed every single foot placement was sore (despite downing some pain killers.)
Just before Tryfan, I made the decision to bypass that mountain peak and retire at the aid station at 19 miles. With a further 11 mountainous miles to go, I felt it would be wrong to allow myself to get into difficulty and require assistance from mountain rescue off the course. I was gutted yet I probably should have retired much earlier as recovery took a long time after that.
So that is a physical example, however, I also have a mental example.
Just 2 weeks ago I was participating in UTW, again in Snowdonia. At 20 miles I was done in, something wasn’t right and it took me a while to decide I needed to give myself 5 mins. I was ready to throw in the towel on an event that I’d been building up to for weeks and which meant so much to me. During that time I chatted to myself, ate food and put the world to rights whilst absorbing some wonderful views of south Snowdonia. I was in my own isolated world, the field was so strung out that no one passed in that time.
Once I decided to move I felt stronger and more determined than I’d ever been during an event, the last 30 miles flew by.
I guess what I’m saying is that if there’s obvious physical damage then stop, the lasting effects of carrying on may mess up the rest of your running year. If it’s mental/nutrition then give yourself time, 15 mins out of an ultra-event to regather and decide if you can continue is nothing when you’re covering 30-50+ miles on the trails.
I think as seasoned distance runners we all think it’s ok to grind it out yet we need to remember that we are still humans and do have breaking points that will cause us to fail occasionally.”
Above: Leigh Allinson