There’s an old Kenny Rogers song you may know called “The Gambler.”

It’s a catchy tune about a man who meets an old gambler. That gambler, who I picture as a tired, weathered, and wise cowboy, can’t help but share some advice. The advice (and chorus) go something like this:

You’ve got to know when to hold’em. Know when to fold’em. Know when to walk away, and when know when to run.

Before you think I’ve lost it, of course this song is about life — maybe gambling, in a more literal sense — and not ultrarunning. But as I think back on my experience during last week’s Steep Canyon 50k, that tune keeps playing on repeat through my head.

The Sad Truth About My Race

I’ve read, and written, enough boring race reports to know this race isn’t suited for a play-by-play, so I’m going to keep the report part brief.

Here it goes:

I came in on race day under trained and under prepared. After weeks of travel, my long runs were non-existent and my mind in all the wrong places. I set aside the expectations of a good race, and took an approach to “just have fun.”

But here’s the thing: It’s really hard to have fun for 31 miles when you’re under trained and under prepared. Smiles, flowing trails, and eccentric ultra chatter will only take you so far. At some point you’re going to find yourself crawling up a hill, with several hours of running still left to tackle.

In many ways, I did a few things right. I had no stomach issues, stayed hydrated despite of the heat, and felt great about my gear choices.

But in one key area, I went wrong. All wrong.

My head never got in the game.

About an hour and a half into what turned out to be nearly a 6 and a half hour race, I began questioning my reasons for being out there:

“Why should I do this if I’m not having fun?”

“What am I gaining from continuing on, with no goal or achievement in mind?”

“Is it acceptable for me to quit, even when I know I can physically keep going?”

Those questions ran through my head for hours — especially that last one — and all come boiling up when I reached Katie, who was working an aid station around mile 22. She greeted me with a smile.

I greeted her with a whimper. “I just want to cry,” I said.

And sure enough, as soon as the words came out of my mouth, my eyes welled up and a few tears dripped down my salty cheeks.

The Good Reasons to Quit

For even the toughest of runners, there are good reasons to quit a race:

  1. When you’re causing lasting physical damage
  2. When you’re facing a serious health risk
  3. When you’re so dehydrated/sick/exhausted that it’s not physically possible to keep going
  4. When someone tells you that if you don’t quit now, all the finish line beer will be gone

Only kidding about that last one…kind of.

But what about the many other reasons that pop up during a race? The ones that aren’t as obvious?

  • When you’re so drained mentally that the task at hand seems insurmountable
  • When you’re race goes completely wrong, and your original goal is out of reach

And most related to my race:

  • When you’re just not having fun

Are those valid reasons to drop out of a race? Can you quit, without feeling guilty about that decision?

Dropout rates in ultramarathons are high. Steep Canyon had a 21% dropout rate, and that’s pretty low compared to many races.

What makes for a good ultrarunner is someone that not only has physical endurance, but mental endurance and perseverance as well. It’s a mental sport as much (if not more) than it is a physical sport.

Does that mean dropping for mental reasons is less acceptable than physical reasons? Or does that make strong mental runners better ultra runner?

My Reasons Not to Quit

Most of the race was spent mapping out a Pros and Cons list for quitting. I spent so much time debating with myself, I’m surprised CNN didn’t cover it.

On the Pros side of quitting I had:

  1. I can stop running
  2. I can start drinking beer and listening to live music
  3. I can stop eating gels, and eat real food instead
  4. I’m not having fun running, but I will have fun drinking beer and listening to live music

The Cons side looked like this:

  1. I’ve committed to this race, and I like to finish what I start
  2. People are following along, cheering for me from afar, and I don’t want to let them down

Every time I began to think that the correct answer to “Is it acceptable to quit?” was yes, those two Cons kept me pressing forward.

Goes to show you that the power of commitment and accountability is real, my friends. Believe in it.

The Better Approach to This Question

The better approach, and probably my biggest lesson from this experience, is to never let yourself get in this situation.

It’s completely avoidable.

Make the decision to commit fully, or back out before you get started.

Think hard before signing up for a big commitment, discover your why, and plan for the highs and lows to come. Then work hard to prepare yourself, train smart, build accountability, and embrace the challenge.

Katie saw how discouraged I was at mile 22, looked at me and said, “If you feel like crying, then cry. If you feel terrible, accept it as the way you feel today. Don’t fight it.” Not your typical pump-up speech, but wise yoga-teacher-words…

And it was just what I needed to hear. Over the next few miles, I quit asking myself if it would be OK to quit, and accepted that things were just the way they were.

For me, this wasn’t a time to fold’em. It was my fault for coming in under prepared, and I would deal with the consequences. Once over, I was glad that I did.

But it still begs the question: When is it acceptable to quit?

What do you think?


The Logistical Stuff

In case you’re interested in the logistical details of my race, here they are:

  • Shoes: HOKA ONE ONE Speedgoats – I love these things, and so do my feet
  • Socks: DryMax Trail Run
  • Nutrition: I stuck to mostly HUMA energy gels (5) and half Tailwind/half water in the bottle. There were some grapes, and a few pretzels thrown in there as well.
  • Bottle: Amphipod Hydraform
  • Hat: A Rock Creek Runner special! The red, white, and blue had in the photo up top was our finisher’s award.
  • Pacing: I started out at a reasonable pace, but quickly slowed. I don’t blame that on going out too fast, but instead because I just didn’t have a steady pace in me.
  • Biggest Mistake: Not taking any salt tablets. I don’t know what I was thinking on such a hot day.

The first Steep Canyon 50k was beautifully run on a fun course. I loved the live music and festival atmosphere at the finish, and having the additional relay racers to keep things interesting.

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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3 thoughts on “When is it Acceptable to Quit?

  1. I can so relate because that was exactly what I felt during my race last Saturday – McKenzie River Trail 50K. No, I was not going to quit. 8 hour official time cut-off, I finished 7:59:58. Yes a few tears were shed out there along the way but they make it even harder to see the trail so “stop this”, 🙂 but I was not quitting. …..ultras, like life, make a person stronger. When work gets tough I think back to those miles running by myself, making forward progress and keep getting the work done. When life itself is challenging I can keep on keeping on because I know there is going to be a finish some time. And no matter what happens after running under the finishline banner there is still a reason for celebrating! And congratulations on your own 50K and thank you for sharing!

  2. Honest post Doug … it’s good to see that I’m not the only one that thinks a ton on the run and experiences similar feelings.

    With regard to your underlying question, outside of injury or illness I don’t think it’s ever OK to quit. You signed-up for and possibly understood what potential obstacles stood in your way, but you made the commitment. I think that’s the key ingredient … it was a conscious decision to sign-up and so you owe it to yourself to see it through to the end. I’ve found that you build a ton of character pushing through situations you either don’t want to or think you can’t. Quitting would have been the easy path – the path of least resistance – and that doesn’t help you, me, anyone become better.

    In my last 40-miler, I wanted to quit at 30 but used family motivation/inspiration to get me to 35. The last 5 were run on chicken noodle soup and gummy bears but that made all of the difference in the world. Sometimes you just need one little thing to keep you going. Finding it isn’t always easy, but when you do it’s amazing how well it works. It could be food, family, a mantra, whatever, but it seems to make tough situations a little more possible.

    And I agree with Katie, you do have to acknowledge how you feel. But acknowledging the feelings doesn’t necessarily change anything other than taking away their power to control you. Acknowledge that your tired, bored, etc. and move on.

    The mental game of running … it’s what keeps me coming back for more.

  3. Finishing a tough race, is just like finishing a tough workout. You can quit. Or you can get through it and then it is done and you can put a little check mark next to it. We can choose to learn every time we lace up those shoes and get out there. Some go well…some not so much. Sometimes when it doesn’t go as planned, it’s because we didn’t do what we should have…and sometimes that’s just the way it is. In the end, the miles count whether we enjoyed them or not. I try to enjoy most of my miles, but it’s ok if some aren’t fun.

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