ultrarunner looking down

Beating the Urge to Quit in Ultrarunning and Ultraendurance Events

By Andy Jones-Wilkins, CTS Ultrarunning Coach

Anyone who has been running ultras for a while has, at one time or another, had to fight off the urge to quit. It is simply an inevitable fact of life that for most normal humans, after about 8 hours of running, hiking, crawling, limping, whining, and shuffling, the little voices in our heads begin to compete for attention and we are drawn to ask, “What the heck am I doing this for?” In these moments, thoughts of warm beds, comfortable clothes, and full stomachs begin to dominate the psyche and, if we’re not careful, we just end up quitting.

In my career as a runner I have faced the urge to quit multiple times and have relied on three specific mind tricks to get me away from that quitters’ funk:

Everyone else feels terrible, too

My first line of defense against the urge to quit, which is usually preceded by an intense bout of feeling sorry for myself, is to look around and accept the fact that everyone feels as bad, or worse, than I do. Even though my quads are screaming in agony, my macerated and blistered feet are burning in pain, and my stomach feels worse than a tequila hangover, this is totally normal for an ultra and absolutely no reason to quit. In fact, it would be rather embarrassing to quit for such basic reasons as trashed quads, beat up feet, and a queasy stomach. Get over it and move on!

Explaining why you quit to friends and family

Step two is to sit there in the aid station and imagine explaining to my family and friends why I am quitting. In these moments I find it particularly important to say the words out loud. “I just don’t feel like running anymore.” Or, “I am really tired.” Or, “Everything hurts.” These declarations don’t sound all that persuasive when said out loud. In effect, as valid reasons to quit they seem to lose their power once they’re out of your head and spoken out loud. Often when I’ve done this I realize the statements sound pathetic and I just get out of the chair and shuffle out of the aid station.

Letting all your hard work and training go to waste

My last resort when confronting the DNF demons is to simply step back and think about all the training I’ve done to prepare for this day; the early morning long runs, the lung-searing hill repeats, the intense track workouts and the painful tempo runs. Do I really want that all to go to waste simply because I’m feeling tired and sorry for myself? How much regret will I have to live with if I just give up? Usually, if the first two techniques fail (and sometimes they do), the good old “don’t let the training go to waste” technique does the trick.

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And there you have it, three tried and true ways to battle through and fight the urge to quit. Next time you find yourself in that all too familiar predicament, give these three a shot. They may just get you to the finish line.

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Comments 19

  1. One thing that gets me to DNF instead of staying in the fight is allowing my head to drift off into the arena of “i’d rather be with my family” than suffering selfishly. The guilt makes the DNF seem not only palatable, but the right thing to do. I have yet to solve this puzzle once I’ve allowed my mind to drift into that area.

  2. I have 2 race finishes and 2 DNF’s to my name so far. Both times I quit, I felt horrible for quitting at first, but later was glad that I did. Its one thing to endure the pain of exertion, but another thing to endure the pain of damage. I got my first DNF because my left foot hurt. I didn’t care if everyone else hurt too, I cared about my foot. I felt a little embarrassed for quitting at first. By the time I was given a ride back to the start, I couldn’t even put weight on that foot anymore without excruciating pain. It took 2 weeks for the mystery pain to dissipate, but had I forced myself further it could have been worse and lasted longer. Pride is no reason to torture the body, unless you are a vain idiot.

  3. I’ve had 2 DNFs due to not making the cut off time. I still completed the distance. My question is how do you bounce back from THAT situation?

  4. One of the tricks that has always worked for me is to pick a point to make a decision, i.e. ( “I will make the decision at the next aid station”). When I get to the point I say to myself I made it this far I will make the decision at the next aid station. I break the event into smaller digestible segments. It is easier for me to think about one or two hour segments then to think about the next 8 or more hours.

  5. Articles like this can be great, but sometimes quitting is the right thing to do.

    I think any responsible article on this subject should also mention the signs of when you should quit – to prevent injury or when you’re in danger of a serious medical problem.

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  7. Have tried all these and have found success. None of them worked, however, this last weekend on a 40 mile “fun run” with a group of friends. Somewhere around mile 30, I summoned an imaginary friend right on the spot. “He” was a version of me, the nice me, who is supportive and caring, on occasion. He said “John, you got this. You’re doing great to have gotten this far and you just have to kick it in for 10 more miles – That’s not that far. I’m proud of you, John, and I know you can do it”. As silly as this sounds, it worked for me and I think I’ll pull out this “John” next time I’m down in the dumps and looking for excuses to tap out.

  8. I DNF’d my first 100 attempt due to a quad cramp. I had a ton of time, and probably could have crawled to the finish, but I couldn’t get over the pain. I made my next attempt two years later, and swore that only arterial bleeding or compound fracture (neither very likely at Umstead) would stop me, and I finished that year and 2015 as well. It is a mental game, and you have to have a plan going in for how you will deal with the urge to quit.

  9. Had my first DNF last week and I never want that feeling of regret again. Mine was a true medical emergency – attacked by yellow jackets and I’m allergic- but I was so mad about not doing the 50k I ran 30 miles on my own the following weekend! I’ll try to remember that DNF feeling each time I want to quit.

  10. Great advice. As related – when asked how I am doing,specifically by other competitors, I tell them how much I hurt (true) and drop the hammer just a bit more. Pushed on by the fact that those around me are hurting and I can dig deeper. Adrenalin kicks it up a notch. And if I want to quit running, I can always stand there and do squats.

  11. Relax, take your time, talk to fellow runners, enjoy the scenery, listen to the birds

    I resign myself to going slow. The only thing that will stop me is doing any sort of PERMANENT damage to my body..
    The only thing I want out of an ultra that is permanent is… run bragging rights 🙂

  12. Helpful.

    Along the lines of exernalizing… Leverage pacers, crew, and friends on course who aren’t running to lift you. Communicate your doubt in the moment. Count on them to buttress you when you need them most. Even better, have a strategy session with them beforehand to discuss how they can help you if dnf demons creep up.

  13. As trite as it sounds, I always look for something positive that I can focus on. The surroundings, how lucky (fortunate) I am to have the opportunity to compete, having sponsors who believe in me, my fantastic crew, winning. During a 24 hour mountain bike solo, there are lots of reasons that your attitude can go negative. My training had prepared me for this! “If you think you can or cannot do a thing, you are correct.” —Henry Ford—

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