by Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell

Last Man Standing. The concept was simple enough. Create an ultra in which everything was equal, and the only factor determining failure or success was the determination not to quit. The concept was simple, but the outcome turned out to be complex. The result was a thorough study of one of the touchiest subjects in any sport, and the very crux of ultrarunning: quitting.

The race was held on a 4.16667-mile trail loop. The trail was not exceptionally challenging; featuring neither difficult terrain nor extreme weather conditions. The only requirement was for runners to toe the line every hour, on the hour, and complete the loop in time to answer the bell for the next hour, a feat well within the capabilities of most ultramarathon runners. Failure to answer the bell resulted in elimination, so the winner would be the “last man standing.” To further simplify the demand, a road out-and-back course was substituted for the trail after dark.

Not surprisingly, the race attracted a field of exceptionally tough runners. There is an inherent appeal to a race in which simply not quitting assures that you will be in the lead. It seemed possible that the race might go on for days. After all, most runners would only be eliminated by “giving up,” and we all know that ultrarunners never give up. After eight years, the longest the race has lasted is 68 hours.* As it turns out, ultrarunners, even the toughest and most determined, will “give up.” (updated)

Quitting can come in many guises. We are all familiar with the standard “throwing in the towel,” when a runner simply walks off the course and declares that they have had enough. It is equally quitting, although considerably more acceptable, to slow down until the time limits do the dirty work for us. Sometimes the line is blurred. Running an ultra at our best effort is always a battle between the mind and the body, with the body willing to go to extremes in order to convince us to stop what we are doing to it. We stop with an “injury” that seems much worse when we are running than it does during the trip home, and are left to wonder if we really needed to quit. Quitting does not necessarily even mean a failure to finish. In the wee hours of the night, that 24-hour hundred can come to seem much less important than it did while we were planning the race. It seems entirely reasonable to slow down considerably and accept a slower time rather than continue to drive ourselves on. Ultrarunners can be, at one time or another, their own harshest critic… Or their own enabler.

Observing the action during the last man standing event, we saw quitting in all its various forms. Some of the runners had come with a target distance, and summarily stopped once that distance was reached. This brought to mind the races with “drop down” options, or any other time events. It is exceptionally difficult, during an ultramarathon, to continue past any option to quit honorably. Allowing yourself to consider, for even a moment, that the 100K will be counted as a finish during a 100-mile event almost ensures that option will be exercised. There can be no worse plan for an ultra, than to go in with the mindset that, “I will go to (pick any distance) and then decide about continuing.”

As the event continued, other participants found their way to the sidelines for a variety of physical ailments. Knee pain and stomach upsets are always favorites. Divining the difference between a serious issue and something transitory is always a challenge until we get to view the issue in hindsight. And hindsight is too late.

Many of the entrants eventually fell behind the time limits. It was not a matter of the time limit being unattainable. Four miles an hour was well within the runners’ capabilities. For those of us who have had to battle them, time limits are implacable foes. Time marches relentlessly on, whether we remain strong or falter. Time limits, however, are also the friend of weakness. Outright quitting is so unpalatable; it is considered the gravest violation of sports ethics. Getting timed out allows a certain retention of honor. In reality, other than cases where a runner simply cannot make the pace from the outset, getting timed out is just another form of quitting. This was demonstrated repeatedly at the last man standing event. Runners eventually lost concentration, and found themselves behind pace. Then the runner would either pick up the pace to remain within the time constraints, or concede and come in comfortably out of time. We all face the same decision in continuous ultras, to push on or give up.

There was another factor in quitting, that we often fail to fully appreciate. Knowing when the end will come. In the open ended format of the last man standing event, runners became discouraged not by the belief that they could not “go the distance,” but by the belief that someone else could go further. Quitting is really more about the abandonment of hope. As the number of runners gradually declined, those remaining became more and more determined not to show signs of weakness. The end came with less than 150 miles as a total. There is little doubt in my mind that; had we set the race for a distance of 150 miles, and based the finish on accumulated time, over half the entrants would have finished.

Had the race had a set distance of 150 miles, rather than short-circuiting the methods we use as ultrarunners to extend our perseverance, the four-miles-at-a-time breakdown would have dovetailed nicely with the most popular mental trick we use; setting aside the finish line, as too far away to contemplate, and focusing on intermediate goals. Ultrarunners commonly cope with the mental burden by running from aid station to aid station, or mile to mile, and under the most extreme distress some will refer to themselves as having run “from tree to tree.”

The unavoidable conclusion at the end of the event was that mental preparation is as important, if not more, than physical preparation to be successful at running ultramarathons. The old saying that we are stronger than we think we are, and capable of more than we realize, is the great underlying theme of the sport. The concept is easy enough to embrace while we are sitting at home; entering races or formulating race plans. It can be hard to remember when the difficulties of the moment push the finish line beyond our imagination. The popular trick of setting intermediate goals along the way, and running the race in small increments is effective as far as getting us to the finish line. However, it may not yield the results we desire, since it does not address the problem of maintaining the necessary tempo to achieve our real goals.

The ultimate goal is to achieve the ability to enter a steady state; running consistently at a predetermined pace, thinking of neither the start nor the finish. It is not that one must never think about the finish, it is just that finish is not the driver that keeps the steady state runner going. The steady state runner is simply performing a task.

It is not like this approach is totally unique. At our jobs, at school, even in our weekend chores at home, the steady state is the way most of us work. We all know when our workday ends. But, we do not start with enthusiasm and then quit halfway through the morning when that initial burst of energy wears off. We don’t mow the lawn focusing on surviving one round at a time. We don’t calculate our progress and realize that we are not going fast enough to finish by quitting time, throw up our hands in despair and just quit. We figure out how to go faster and pick up our output.

The only reason we do not approach running an ultra the same way we perform other tasks is that physical discomfort is involved. What we have to do is look at these sensations as simply information. My muscles are getting sore: insignificant, continue. I am developing a blister: significant, stop and treat. We can also stick with the term discomfort, rather than pain. We are all overaccustomed to life with no unpleasant sensations, and have come to believe that all discomfort should be avoided.

Of course, none of this addresses the original problem. How do you approach a race with no defined finish? I found myself trying to imagine how we would respond if we went to work, and found out that only one person was going to get paid that day: the person who was last to go home. I imagine most of us would quit much sooner than we would otherwise. Achieving the ability to maintain a steady state will make us better ultrarunners. But there is no escape from the need to know when the race will end.

This was originally published in Ultrarunning Magazine, Jan-Feb 2014 edition

Feature image: Howie Stern

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