Friday, November 5, 2010

Thoughts on Quitting During the Colorado Trail Race

Going into the CTR (see this post), I gave myself 50% odds of completing it successfully, which is about the historic percentage of riders who have succeeded. There are many things that can lead to unqualified failure, such as a bike-destroying crash or broken bones. But many people have quit the CTR in past years for less obvious reasons. In the months leading up to the race, I put a lot of thought into my reasons for attempting it, in hopes that such clarity would help motivate me when faced with the seemingly inevitable desire to bail that so many riders seem to experience.

In the end, I didn’t quit. But I did think about it a number of times, and in different ways. Some were fairly obvious, while others walloped me out of left field. Being the analytical geek that I am, I decided to write down the experiences, including what happened and how I overcame them. As I learn more about racing, I’m sure that I’ll be learning more about the psychology of quitting, but here are my initial thoughts.

Expected reason for quitting #1: This race is too hard for me

Before the race, I was concerned that I would I discover somewhere along the ride that I wasn’t strong enough to make it to Durango. I imagined that such a realization would hit me on one of the grueling climbs, when I was most exhausted. There I’d be: Nothing but a weeping lactic-acid stain on the trail discovered by some amused hiker.

Oddly, this never happened. The day that I climbed over the Ten Mile range was, as I wrote in my log, “soul crushing.” Yet I never considered bailing then—or during any of the other hard spots. The physical struggles always seemed to give me purpose, and to enhance my motivation. Several times, it helped to recall my wife's parting words: "You're a bad-ass, and you can do this." Bad-ass or not, it helped to have someone else believing in me!

I also need to give credit to David Goldberg, an accomplished ultra-distance athlete, for helping me avoid this one. A couple of days before the race, Dave told me, with the greatest intensity and seriousness, to eat all the time. I did, and I never bonked once. I also wore a heart-rate monitor, and kept my heart rate at a manageable level throughout the race.

Expected reason for quitting #2: I’m not having any fun

I’ve read about this one in many ultra-racing blogs. Often relatively early in long races, some people just quit, seemingly without any significant reasons. They often stated that they weren't having any fun, and that the whole endeavor seemed rather pointless and stupid.

This one was the most insidious of all, largely because it’s very logical and rational. It first hit me as I was riding though the Coney/Cataract section, which is a stunningly beautiful part of Colorado. The massively ragged San Juan peaks are surrounded by delicate tundra and crisscrossed by burbling mountain streams. The sun was out, and I was warm and toasty—and I started thinking about how much fun it would be to share such a special place with my wife and son. Rushing through such beauty, often alone and sometimes in the dark, for so many days on end, suddenly seeming idiotic and selfish. Wouldn’t it be more fun to take the time to smell the proverbial roses and share the experience with those who I most love? It’s a fair question, and it led me down a dangerous path: If this isn’t fun anymore, and I’m supposed to be having fun, then maybe I should quit and go backpacking with my family.

I fought this one off by reminding myself that the CTR was mostly fun—but that over the course of a week, there will undoubtedly be times when something else would be more fun. Rather than dwell on the moment, it became important to look at the complete experience and to acknowledge that my family would still be there when I finished the CTR, and that we could enjoy the mountains together when I returned. Indeed, the struggle through Cataract motivated me to take an early-fall trip to Canyonlands National Park with my family.

Expected reason for quitting #3: My body is falling apart

There’s no doubt that the CTR took a toll on my body. By day six, little cuts on my hands and feet started getting infected. My left heel was starting to really hurt on hike-a-bike sections. My throat and tongue were so raw that it hurt to swallow and eat. Especially on descents, my neck and back cramped and burned. And my butt—well, my butt hurt in so many ways that I don’t want to talk about it! It was pretty clear that my body couldn’t go on forever.

I didn’t overcome this one lightly. Instead, I sat down and took stock of all my physical issues. I figured that nothing was presenting an immediate threat to my health or ability to keep moving, but that the infections might develop into something more serious if I didn’t sort them out soon. So I took some extra time in Silverton to grab a hot & soapy shower—and then to rip open every infection, scrub it out with soap and alcohol, and then pack it with antibiotic ointment. I also stopped in a Laundromat and washed my clothes with bleach. Fortunately, this seemed to work. In short, I had to remind myself that unless I was in danger of death of permanent injury, there was no reason to stop. Taking time every day to evaluate and/or treat emerging ailments helped me determine what needed attention, and what could be safely ignored.

Unexpected reason for quitting #1: What if I quit?

This one seemed to rear its little head more often than I ever imagined. It was never terribly serious, but it was incredibly irritating. Every hour or so, regardless of whether I was flying down some fantastic singletrack or slogging through mud in the rain, a little voice would ask, “What if I quit?” The answer was usually, “What the hell for? Everything is fine. Go away.” And it would go away—until it popped back up again just down the trail, for absolutely no reason.

I’m still not sure how to completely resolve this one. It’s like playing whack-a-mole: I just kept whacking away and focusing on something else.

Unexpected Reason for Quitting #2: Laziness

On about day three, I found myself lying in a warm aspen grove, eating a bagel with Nutella, and thinking that I didn’t want to get back on my bike. Nothing hurt and I wasn’t having an existential crisis. I wasn’t even really thinking or feeling much. I was simply zoned out and extremely comfortable and unmotivated. While it’s kind of amusing to imagine being overwhelmed with pure laziness in the middle of a bike race, that’s what happened.

Fortunately, my inertia was overcome when another rider caught up to me. We chatted for a bit, and with his encouragement I begrudgingly got back on my bike—and wobbled along for a good hour before the fog lifted and my motivation returned. (Thanks Andy Farish!) I was hit by similar episodes of laziness several times in the race, and they always evaporated once I started rolling again. The trick was to not worry about it or get worked up, just to start moving before I started to sprout roots.


I expect that next year’s race(s) will reveal more on this topic, as different races and different objectives will reveal different pressures. But at least I can add some “unexpected” reasons for wanting to quit to the “expected” column—and thereby have better plans for dealing with them. Hopefully I'll never quit a race for a reason that I later regret!


  1. Well, you proved me right: you are a bad-ass and you could do it! I'm glad those words helped!

  2. Howdy from Banff. Awesome Post. I can totally relate. As a newbie Ultra-runner, you could re-title this list: Reasons to Quit Running 100 Miles. #1 is top of the list and almost took me out of my last adventure. Then you eat a Lara bar and it's all good again!

    Congrats on the ride! Now that's an adventure.

  3. Thanks Leslie, glad that you enjoyed it. Lara bars are the best!

  4. I thought I had all the issues worked out and then one popped out of nowhere. I had prepared everything except my son. For 2011 I have now prepared body, equipment and ALL FAMILY members. See you in 2011 with all boxes checked.

  5. Hi Jeff! I remember you struggling with that situation, and I think that you made the right call. To those of use with kids, we are parents first. I'm looking forward to seeing you out there in 2011!