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Photo credit: Mauna to Mauna Ultra.

How to Judge Mid-Ultra Whether to Tough It Out or to Quit

21-Jun-17

By Sarah Lavender Smith

This guest post comes from California-based coach, ultrarunner and blogger Sarah Lavender Smith, who recently published the book The Trail Runner's Companion,

Sarah was voted RunUltra’s 2017 Overall Best Blogger for her blog, TheRunnersTrip.com. She recently placed 3rd female and 14th overall in the Mauna to Mauna Ultra, a new self-supported 250K stage race on Hawaii’s Big Island, which she describes below, followed by an excerpt from her book.

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Photo credit: Mauna to Mauna Ultra.

Partway through Stage 5 of the 250K (155-mile) inaugural self-supported Mauna to Mauna Ultra on Hawaii, which took place May 14 - 20, the skin on my arms began to prickle in the direct sun.

Dehydrated and carrying empty water bottles, I no longer produced sweat. My head throbbed and vision blurred, while my chafed back and shoulders—sore from running with a backpack that carried food and sleeping gear for the week—pleaded with me to reduce the load.

I struggled to spot the pink course-marking flags, knowing I must make it to the next checkpoint to refill water. Stopping and quitting then and there was not an option, because I might overheat to a dangerous level before anyone could reach me. Lightheaded but determined, I shuffled forward through prickly tall grass that obscured sharp, wobbly lava rocks underfoot.

In only a few miles, thanks to the extreme climate and challenging terrain, I had shifted from racing—pushing hard to maintain my third-place position among the women—to surviving, using all my strength and mental acuity just to keep moving carefully and to stave off heat exhaustion.

A similar shift happened two days earlier, during the event’s 48-mile long stage. Shivering from night-time cold on the high-altitude slopes of Mauna Kea, while feeling slightly dizzy from the thin air and a shortage of calories, I stopped worrying about my position relative to the other competitors and focused solely on moving one foot in front of the other to reach the next checkpoint.

I never seriously considered quitting, however, even though this event proved more challenging than any I’d run to date, thanks to conditions that included relentless rain, humidity, high heat, high altitude, treacherous footing and more than nearly 6800 metres of vertical ascent. The desire to finish proved stronger than any other feeling.

I asked myself: was I injured? No. Could I stay conscious and keep moving? Yes, and therefore I would.

 

Over the past dozen years, I have finished scores of ultras (50Ks to 100-milers, plus a few self-supported multiday stage races), and in the process earned just one DNF, at the 2015 Gorge Waterfalls 100K in the state of Oregon. I dropped out at the halfway point of that ultra for no better reason than having “a bad day” and really not wanting to be out there. Predictably, however, I regretted my decision later that evening, and I vowed never to repeat a DNF from mere ambivalence and mild discomfort.

Often, when ultrarunners drop out midway through an ultra, they justify their decision as the “smart” and “right” thing to do—and sometimes it is, but often it’s not. How should you make that judgment call when you entertain thoughts of dropping out from an ultra? I developed the following criteria for determining whether or not to DNF, which is published as a sidebar in my new book, The Trail Runner's companion.

Know When to Tough It Out and When to Quit

(Reprinted with the author’s permission from The Trail Runner's Companion: A Step-by-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing, from 5Ks to Ultras, published by Falcon)

Above all, finishing an ultramarathon requires desire and determination.

One common logic trap that leads to a DNF (“Did Not Finish”) goes like this: You are midway through an ultra-distance route, and you are tired and uncomfortable. The run stopped being fun several miles ago. You think to yourself, “I’m satisfied with what I’ve accomplished so far, and I’m glad I got to experience this event, but I will feel so much better if I call it a day now. It’s just not my day; I’ll save myself to run well at another race.” Suddenly, dropping out seems like a win-win situation that makes all the sense in the world.

After you quit and the relief of resting wears off, however, you’re almost guaranteed to experience regret. Eventually it’ll sink in that you failed the main test of the ultramarathon—the one that’s the essence of ultrarunning—which is persevering through fatigue and discomfort. Running an ultramarathon is supposed to be difficult and tiring at times. Pushing through those tough times ultimately is what makes the experience so rewarding.

Therefore, an ultrarunner should commit not to quit. But when is it OK—even smart—to quit? The answer can be a tough judgment call.

Some say DNF should also mean Did Nothing Fatal. In other words, you should quit only when it’s a true medical emergency.

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Joe Grant going through an aid station during the first half of the 2016 Hardrock 100, before he suffered a head injury and had to drop. Photo by Sarah Lavender Smith.

Joe Grant of Gold Hill, Colorado, was a top runner in the gruelling 2016 Hardrock 100-mile Endurance Run, but midway through the race, he whacked his forehead while passing through a stone tunnel. He tried to continue, but he recognized the symptoms of a concussion and wisely realized that running another 50 miles over high-altitude mountain passes would be neurologically dangerous. His Hardrock DNF certainly qualifies as necessary. Other examples include breaking a bone, urinating blood due to kidney malfunction, or becoming clinically hypothermic, heat-exhausted or hyponatremic.

With other physical problems, however, it’s less clear whether to quit or risk continued running. A painful rolled ankle, for example, can feel OK after a mile or more, especially if it’s wrapped for support. Episodes of nausea or diarrhoea, which lead to calorie depletion or dehydration, can clear up in the second half of an ultra.

To help determine whether you should quit before finishing a run, ask yourself the following questions. “Yes” means you should drop. If your answer is “maybe,” then factor in how important the race is to you to finish and how risky it would be to continue.

  • Are you risking life or limb, or might you need hospitalization (for example, from renal failure or severe altitude sickness) if you continue?
  • Is the problem significantly affecting your ability to bear weight on a foot and run symmetrically (are you limping?), and does it worsen when you continue?
  • Have you been unable to digest any calories or fluids for several hours due to upset stomach, and do you still face four or more hours until the finish line?
  • Are you in the midst of a less-important B- or C-level race, or on a long training run, leading up to your A-level goal race, and experiencing problems that likely will lead to injury?

Remember, feeling tired, bored or generally uncomfortable is not a good reason to quit. Pushing through fatigue, boredom and discomfort is essential for successful ultramarathoning.

 

Follow Sarah’s blog for more advice on trail running and endurance, and read this page for information and reviews on her book. Sarah also writes for Trail Runner magazine and co-hosts UltraRunnerPodcast.com.

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