It was my second year at the West Highland Way Race this year. Last year I had finished the race but went much more slowly than I had hoped to go, so I was back to try for a faster time. Unfortunately it wasn't to be--I dropped out at Beinglas (mile 40ish).
There isn't much of interest to say about my race, so I was struggling to think of anything worth writing a race report about. Basically I was sick (nausea/vomiting) the entire time, and my legs weren't at all recovered from Squaw Peak, and neither of those are very interesting to read about. But then I did think of something I wanted to write about: DNFs.
Most of my friends have likely heard me say this before and thus can skip this blog and move on to the next thing to look at on the internet. Now that I've got a blog, though, I can inflict this on the rest of the world...
The vast majority of ultrarunners have a "finish at all costs" mentality. I can understand this mentality and I certainly shared it at one point. But I think that for any runner to improve to his or her maximum ability, it's time for an attitude change.
The best way to explain this, I think, is to compare it to climbing. In the UK, where I learned to climb, there is a strong "onsight only" mentality. (As an explanation to nonclimbers, to "onsight" a route essentially means to climb it on your first try, from the ground up, without any falls. A "redpoint," on the other hand, is a route that you climb successfully, but after you have previously fallen off it and worked on it.) The idea among a lot of climbers in the UK, therefore, is that you should only do routes that you can onsight. To them, if you fail and fall off a route on that first try (the climbing equivalent of a DNF), it means you weren't ready for the route and shouldn't have gotten on it.
The thing is, although this mentality is widely shared by average climbers, it isn't held by the best climbers. Good climbers have figured out that to really improve, you have to temporarily fail, i.e. fall off. You have to risk failure by trying routes that are too hard for you--at the time--but then work on them, train, improve, and come back to try again for a successful ascent.
As runners, I think we can learn something important from the fact that it's the average, not the best, climbers that share the onsight-only mentality. It's time for us to figure out that sometimes it's good to drop out, and that being unwilling to drop out of any race will, in the end, hold you back.
There are two main reasons that I see for this:
1. Learning your limits--so that you can run at them, not below them.
Let's say that a DNF is due to trying to operate at more than 100% of your body's capacity. That means that if you are determined to finish no matter what, you have to give yourself a pretty safe margin of error. You can't go at 99%, because you know that if any tiny little thing goes wrong, you'll be out. So this means you're stuck at maybe 80%, or 90% if you're up for a gamble.
By being determined not to DNF, you've just given up any hope of achieving the remaining percentage. You're never going to learn what 99% feels like if you don't make it to the tipping point past 100%, because what feels like 99% during a race generally isn't. Depending on the race, that extra percentage between your failure-safe 80% and your true 99% could be a few minutes faster, or it could be a few miles longer that you're able to run without walking, or an extra hill you can actually run up even though you thought you needed to walk it...there are so many possibilities.
Obviously this doesn't mean I'm saying people should go all-out for a totally unrealistic goal and drop out when that doesn't work. What I'm saying is to go for the best possible goal that is compatible with the training you've done. Which brings me to...
2. Training benefits.
Ultrarunners are, in general, not great at putting any kind of scientific or logical backing into their training. The no-DNF mentality only adds to this. At the WHW race this year, my goal was to do it in under 24 hours (I had done 26:30 the year before). Because I had made a mistake with my training by doing Squaw Peak too close to the race and because I was sick, it became clear during the race that it wasn't possible for me to do it under 24 hours. At mile 40 I had two options: (A) I could slowly run/walk the rest of the way and finish in 26+ hours, or (B) I could drop out. Going for option A avoids a DNF but means a much longer recovery time--at least three weeks off serious training. Going for option B means I just had a nice long training run and I can start in with easy runs whenever I want. Option A might look appealing in the short term, or at least appealing aside from the prospect of enduring even more midge bites, but option B will make me a better runner a few months down the line.
In fact, the real mistake of my training leading up to the WHW was not dropping out of Squaw Peak. If I had stopped at mile 20 or 30 there, who knows how the WHW would have gone...? I might have had my 24 hour finish.
The training benefit part of this is especially true when there's an injury or a potential injury involved. Ultrarunners love to tell stories about so-and-so-person who finished a race even though his broken foot was hanging out of his shoe, etc. Yes...and how long until so-and-so was able to run well again? How long did it take him to start improving again after the race? How much more could he have improved if he had the benefit of that lost time spent on recovery? I tried (and failed) to run the Sawtooth 100 on a broken ankle once, which I fully admit was a stupid idea, but what would have been even stupider would have been not dropping out. Dropping out allowed me to rest up the ankle, recover in about three weeks, and be back running normally again a month later.
A few concrete examples of how an unwillingness to drop out can be a hindrance: I remember back 5 years ago when a friend first told me about the Arrowhead race. He was saying what an amazing race it sounded like. I thought that I might like to sign up and asked him if he had ever done it. He said no, he had never entered, that it was way too hard for him. He's a much better runner than me, so that worried me, but I signed up anyway. I didn't manage to finish it on three occasions, but then I did finish, and it was one of my favorite moments in all of my running. My friend has still never entered.
Another example, also involving Arrowhead: I mentioned once to a friend that I hate walking, so I was thinking that I'd like to try doing Arrowhead with mostly running. My friend, who has finished Arrowhead walking and is a veritable ultrarunning machine, said something along the lines of that not being a good idea because it would be too hard and it would lead to a DNF. But this was all in theory--he's never actually tried to run it, and so while he could theoretically do it faster next time using a run, he'll never know.
Me, I'd rather try and find out.