Knowing When to Fold

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When life or health issues get in the way, one of the hardest choices runners must make is whether or not to run a race. Sometimes it’s for logistical reasons that are out of your control, such as starting a new job or the timing of a new baby. But when it’s due to injury or not being well-prepared, it’s tough to make the right call. This is something I talk to my runners about regularly. I’m currently going through this process; deciding not to race UTMB a few weeks out from race day.

Here’s a helpful guide to determine when it makes more sense to fold than to play a bad hand.

Have you trained enough so you are physically and mentally fit to race?

This is a big one. Many things can get in the way of adequate preparation, including a busy schedule, injuries or lack of motivation. When considering these factors, also bear in mind that years of running provides a strong, long-term endurance base, so this isn’t just about quantity and quality of training from the previous months (although that’s the most important element).

During my build up to UTMB, I had an annoying Achilles injury that allowed me to train, but not to the extent that’s required to reach my goals. I’m probably strong enough to finish the race, but not to compete against the best runners in the world.

Are you healthy?

This is often related to the amount of training in your build up, as mentioned above. Minor aches and pains are fine and part of the general training process, but it can be difficult to determine how to proceed when something goes wrong close to race day. Be smart and get the advice of a medical professional who works with athletes, especially runners, since WebMD (or similar self-diagnostic websites) can convince us we have a whole host of non-existent issues.

My situation required a visit to a physical therapist and massage therapist who initially worked on the Achilles and gave me the okay to train as long as I was cautious. After a few weeks of the injury not receding, we decided that 106 miles of mountains at full effort was a significant risk, but possible. Hence the need to consider other factors on this list.

How important is the race?

Is this a race you’ve wanted to run for years and one that you’ve thought about for months? Did you spend a lot of money on travel, registration and crew? A great example is a race like Badwater 135 in Death Valley with extreme heat, no aid stations and the need for a crew to follow each runner throughout the entire course. Runners often spend upwards of $5,000 on this race alone.

For my UTMB decision, it’s arguably the biggest and most competitive trail ultra in the world, which should make the race important to me. However, I’ve avoided the race in the past due to my preference for races with fewer rules (such as gear) and less trail congestion. It’s also understandably important to my sponsors, which adds some pressure, but that’s not something that will provide my “why” when the running gets tough. Instead, it’ll be fun to visit as a spectator, play in the mountains and support my friends. I also hope being in Chamonix fires me up to race UTMB in the future.

Is it difficult to get into the race?

With races like Hardrock 100, Western States 100 and many others, it can take years to get an entry. This is a factor that can override any of reasons above. However, weighing the risks of health and mental well-being is essential, too. Ask yourself how much suffering, pain or medical downtime you’re willing to risk (and make sure your family also buys into the answer).

ARE YOU GENUINELY EXCITED ABOUT THE RACE?

This is a key point that can override everything else. When running harder and longer ultras, especially 100-milers, I always recommend picking major events that inspire you. Otherwise it’s very difficult to push through tough sections and low points, and the overall experience will likely be less fulfilling. It’s a simple question and gets to the heart of why you’re running the race in the first place.

Despite UTMB being the race for a large proportion of runners, I’ve struggled to feel energized enough to justify the training and hardships the race will involve, partly due to my injury making every run less enjoyable. Plus, I know from experience that if I do too many races where I don’t care enough, then it will lead to burnout. This is the ultimate deciding factor, and I compared it with how I’ve felt heading into the Leadville Trail 100 at the same time of year – the difference was that I was super motivated for Leadville.

I hope this provides a framework for you to enjoy your racing for the long haul and helps you avoid future injuries. Happy trails!

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About Author

Ian Sharman is an ultrarunning coach with USATF and NASM certification. He is on the Altra Running Team and has represented England for ultrarunning. He only started running in 2005 but quickly got addicted to races and became a student of the sport, interested in all types of running terrain and style of event. In particular, Ian loves to explore the world through running and has raced in six continents with almost 200 marathon and ultra finishes. Some highlights include setting the record for the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning in 2013, during which he won the Leadville Trail 100. He also set the fastest North American 100-mile trail time at his Rocky Raccoon 100 course record of 12:44.

2 Comments

  1. Gil Jordan on

    Thank you, very helpful. I’ll be 74 nine days after the Marine Corps marathon Oct 27 in Washington D.C., in which I’m entered. It will be my 37th marathon (along with two ultras). I was beginning to feel uneasy about my steady, but lack-luster preparation. Your check list allowed me to make a thorough, rational assessment that ended up all positive. So now my unease and doubt are behind me, I’ll be able to approach the last three weeks of training and long runs with enthusiasm, and enjoy the whole process, instead of being hampered by any nagging doubts. Thanks again.

  2. I have come to realise that the answer to ‘ARE YOU GENUINELY EXCITED ABOUT THE RACE?’ is a critical factor in whether I DNF or not.

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