When Quitting Is OK

Reflections On My Successful Failure

Many things make ultramarathon and long distance trail running stand out from other sports. One of the most unique aspects of ultramarathon and long distance trail running is that there is practically no separation between the professional and the amateur athletes within the sport itself. There are very few barriers to entry, and even the newest and least experienced runners can find themselves lined up next to the top echelon pros at the starting line. Another unique aspect of ultrarunning is that quitting is not viewed as a failure. In fact for many ultrarunners that first DNF (Did Not Finish) is somewhat of a rite of passage. When an ultrarunner says that he or she dropped out of race those comments are usually met with empathy, understanding, and concern for that runners well-being. Can you even imagine a pro basketball player taking a seat on the bench halfway through a game because it “wasn’t my day”?

I’ve quit plenty of races in my time as a trail runner. Ok, I’ve done it twice. To be fair I don’t race very often. My lifestyle just doesn’t give me a lot of free time or resources to train, travel, and race but once or twice a year. My first DNF experience was at a 68-mile trail race in northern Georgia in the spring of 2015. It was only my second ultramarathon race and the third trail race I had ever done. So I was not too disappointed in my failed attempt at that race. I made it 43 miles that day - farther than I ever imagined I’d be able to run on foot.

My second failed attempt at a race was just a few days ago at the Lovin The Hills 50K in Louisville, Kentucky. Before I dig into the race and what led to my decision to call it quits midway through the race I want to paint a picture of my lead up to the race. I had signed up for Lovin The Hills several months before the race when I met one of the organizers at a training run for our own Rough Trail 50K. I decided to sign up in a sort of “hell, why not?” kind of decision. It wasn’t a race that was on any kind of “must run” list for me, but I figured it was a Kentucky race and it would be good for me to get out just run instead of having to stress about organizing a race for once. It would also be a decent training run to assess my progress in my training toward my big spring trail running adventure (which I’ll get into in a future blog post!).

Those who know me, however, know that I am a complete baby about the cold. I like summer. I like the heat. I like the sun. I love the humidity. I love not having to wear a bunch of heavy gear. I love it! I despise the cold. I hate feeling constantly uncomfortable just standing still. I hate all the heavy gear. I hate losing feeling in my fingers and toes. I hate the whole ice beard thing. I hate it! So in mid-January - the time of year when I am usually OVER IT in terms of the weather - I decided not to run Lovin The Hills 50K. I just had no desire to spend several hours outdoors in the middle of February. No thanks. So I kept running but I did not do any sort of training for the race specifically. Then on Friday before the race I received numerous social media and text messages wishing me luck on tomorrow’s race. So, I felt compelled to run it.

The race was a mess thanks to the weather. Several days of rain had turned the trails into complete slop. Ankle deep mud and steady cold mist of rain made the relatively flat course pretty miserable. I started off close to the front of the crowd because I didn’t want to get stuck in a pack when we hit the muddy trail. I cruised through the woods. The mud made the crowd thin out pretty quickly, and the first few miles featured several spots where the trail was wide enough to make passing a pretty effortless affair. I was there to race despite my lack of training. I wanted to see how well I could do on this (usually) fast course. My fastest 50K ever (I’ve only done 4) is 5 hours 29 minutes during an epically hard bonk at Eastern Divide 50K in 2016. I wanted to see how close I could get to that 5 hour mark at Lovin The Hills.

One hour and 36 minutes into the race I had made it to the 10 mile point. “Not a bad pace,” I thought. But something else started to go on. I simply didn’t want to do it anymore. I wasn’t tired. I wasn’t injured. I wasn’t overly fatigued or otherwise physically compromised. I just didn’t want to be there. I wasn’t having any fun whatsoever. The mud was thick and made every single step an effort just to stay upright. The air was wet and cold. Very cold. In truth the temperatures on race day were near 50 degrees F, but for me that is COLD. Water seemed to just hang in the air. It wasn’t quite raining. It was more of a thick mist that seemed suspended in a cold haze all around me. My feet would hit the ground and slide left or right. When I lifted that foot for the next step it was an effort just to get it off the ground again.

I just wasn’t into it. I kept going down the trail wondering if I should drop at the next aid station or not. I went through excuse after excuse of what I would tell the aid station volunteers and what I would tell my wife when I got back to the car. Should I fake an injury? Should I tell them I’m sick? Should I say I’m having gut issues? I mean, my stomach was feeling a bit off, but I attribute that to eating a weird breakfast that morning. What should I tell everyone? Or should I just suck it up and slog it out?

NO! I decided, “Hell no!” I wasn’t about to trudge through another 15 miles of this race, hating every second of it along the way, if I didn’t want to. At about mile 14 I decided I was going to drop at the next aid station. BECAUSE I WANTED TO! I had some time to think about it, and I reminded myself that I was here voluntarily. There was nothing on the line if I finished, if I won, if I quit, or if I was dead last. All results would be the same. I would go home, have dinner, hang with my kids a little, read a book, go to bed, and go on with my weekend. So I asked myself, “If you are not enjoying yourself and no one is forcing this situation upon you, then why keep going?” When I couldn’t answer that question I knew it was time to call it a day.

At the mile 15 aid station I hitched a ride one of the volunteers back to the start line. I walked up to my wife sitting in the car as I snapped my fingers and sang the “I Quit” song from the cult classic movie “That Thing You Do”. I couldn’t have been happier with how the day was going. I got a great workout in. I saw some great friends at the race and had some laughs at the start line. I ate a huge cheeseburger for lunch and was home in time to enjoy the rest of the afternoon.

In reflecting on how the race went down for me that day I think it is important that we remind ourselves that running is a privilege. Ultrarunning, in particular, is something that very few people actually do. We are so fortunate to be able to get out into the woods or onto the road and run in a way that makes us feel happy and free. The moment it stops making us feel that way we need to reassess our motivations, our habits, and our routines so that we can find that happy place again. I quit because I wasn’t having fun and I was not particularly motivated to complete the race. I quit because I wanted to run later in the week without needing to have an incredibly long recovery period. I quit because it was the right thing for me to do at that particular moment.

I realize that we are all different. We all have different skill sets, motivations, and reasons for doing what we do. I am merely detailing what I went through in this particular instance in the hopes that this breakdown might help others deal with the challenging situations related to losing our motivation, having a bad day, or simply not enjoying ourselves.

To those who finished Lovin The Hills 50K: You are the real warriors. You are true strength. The conditions of that race created an environment that demanded the best of each of us. You pressed on through the dark places. Through the highs and the lows. Congratulations, and here’s to the next one!

Michael WhismanComment