A couple of months ago we had some kids over at our house. One of the kids, a 6 year old who we’ll call Joey, wanted us to play a board game with him. We had been told by his mother that he was having issues with losing. He would often pout, cry, and stomp his feet on the soccer field if the other team scored a goal. So, as we played this game I wasn’t too surprised that when I got ahead of him in the game, he cheated. I called him on it and told him to recount his move. He cheated again. I told him that was cheating and after a little pouting he backed off and put the piece where it was supposed to go. We continued playing and my wife takes a commanding lead over Joey and me. You could see Joey’s enthusiasm for the game waning as she pulled farther and farther ahead. With his interest in the game gone, he declares that he doesn’t want to play anymore and wants to start a new game. I told him that’s not being a good sport; that it’s disrespectful to me and my wife to quit just because he’s losing. He started pouting and was about to get up from the table when I said, “If you quit I won’t play this game with you ever again.” He pushed me (not physically) to see what I would do as my wife cringed. She tried to convince him that I was serious. She also tried to explain to him about winning not being everything and that being a good sport includes being gracious when you lose. Well, none of this was making any difference in Joey’s decision to quit. So, he pulled all the pieces off the board. I got up and walked away and my wife started another game with him.

I’m not a parent so maybe I didn’t handle the situation the best way, but I was reminded of this incident yesterday as I got into a discussion on AJW’s blog. The topic was about the sub-100 mile ultra performance of the year and somehow morphed into this discussion about respecting your fellow competitors and the race and whether quitting because you’re not running up to your expectations is disrespectful of both. The comments from one of the top 100 mile runners in the country surprised me. He said, “i can certainly see pushing through a bad race out of regard and respect and appreciation for other people who have helped you get to where you’re at. but i think the idea of owing it to other people to finish is a bit dramatic… and a bit greedy and pretentious for those who feel that this is owed to them.”

With that I’m going to site one of my favorite sportsmanship/competition speeches.  I’ve referenced Jeff Johnson’s speech to the 2001 Borderclash runners before on this blog. If you don’t know, the Borderclash is an annual 5K race between the best high school cross country runners from the states of Washington and Oregon. Jeff begins his speech by asking “Why do you run?” and then continues:

So here’s another question for you: Why do you compete? Why do you race 3.1 miles? That’s gotta hurt. Why do you do it?

For most of you, I imagine that you race for the challenge, the danger, the ‘rush’ of putting yourself in a place where you must do your absolute best. Because the race requires it. To give your best is to honor your fellow competitors, your teammates, your coach, your school, your family, your community, and all the good people who have worked so hard to put on the race. To give your best in a race is a matter of honor, and duty, and you know that going in. You know, also, that the course will challenge you, that your competitors will challenge you, and that you will challenge yourself. You know, too, that there will come a critical moment in the race where you must make the decision to lay it on the line, to take your shot, or to fall back and regroup. And you hope you’ll be up to the challenge, but you’re never entirely sure, and it’s that uncertainty that calls to you, because it is there, at that moment, that moment of decision, that you offer yourself up to be measured: by the clock, by your legs and lungs, by your guts, and by your heart. And if you want to win the race, in that moment of decision, you’re going to have to go a little crazy.

You race, then, because races are a big deal. (In fact, speaking from the vantage point of both experience and hindsight, I dare say that at this time in your lives, the race may be the most important thing that you do. A girl on one of my high school teams came up to me on the day of her graduation and said, ” I learned more in cross country, than I learned in high school.” “I’m glad,” I said, “so did I”.

Races are a big deal. Races are the culmination of all the forces that have brought you here: desire, commitment, focus, sacrifice, suffering, self-discipline, hard work, responsibility. You race because you are invested in effort, and you are invested in success. Moreover, you are invested together.

Look around you. Go ahead. Do it. Look around.

Who are those people you see? Do you think they are your opponents? People who oppose your quest for excellence? Well, they aren’t. They are not your opponents. They are your fellow competitors. In fact, they are your co-conspirators, for to compete is to enter into a conspiracy. The conspiracy is revealed in the word itself: compete, which comes from two Latin roots, com (CUM) and petere (PET-ER-AH), which mean “to strive together”.

Al Oerter, the 4-time Olympic gold medallist in the discus, once said: “I’ve never competed against anyone in my life. I’ve always competed with people. To compete against people is a negative thing. To compete with people is a celebration, a celebration of human capability.”

And so it is. The worthy competitor is essential to the race, not as an enemy, but as a co-conspirator. The race, you see, is a secret form of cooperation. The race is simply each of you seeking your absolute best with the help of each other.

Steve Prefontaine said: “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” What gift do you think he was talking about? The gift of your talent, surely. But perhaps also the gift of opportunity, and the gift of youth, perhaps even the gift of life itself.

In any case, you give your best to the race as a matter of honor. You can do no less, because your competitors are giving their best to you. Now, not all races justify all out, total effort. For some races, you have lesser goals – – to score points for your team, to qualify for a more important race later on – – or just to have fun.

I don’t live in a black and white world and I realize there could be lots of reasons to DNF in a race. I’m not at all suggesting that DNFs are immoral as was asked on the AJW thread by a different top 100-mile runner in the nation. I’ve have several myself in the marathon, 50K, and 50 mile distances. But, if you’re out there in a race with me, know that I feel a responsibility to honor the race, the volunteers, my fellow competitors, and maybe most importantly, myself – to give an honest effort. Do I project that onto others? Yeah, I probably do. Does that make me dramatic, greedy and pretentious? You tell me.

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  1. Thanks for the transcription – very motivating.

    As to the discussion at hand, here and across the way at AJW’s blog, I’m actually failing to understand why people are getting so upset (and emotional) about the whole situation. Anton DNF’ed – we’ve all done it (well, most have) – he just happens to have a bit more visibility than others in the sport. He may have been a bit unwise in sticking with the pre-race plan, despite the unexpectedly hot day, but he gave it a shot and came up short. Some would have walked the last 25 miles home, some wouldn’t – personal choice.

    In the post-race debriefing, slower runners who DNF’ed would have been given props for trying, and friends would likely have recanted the cliched ultra maxim that he/she Did Nothing Fatal and lived to fight another day. That would have been the end of it.

    As others have said, we all do this for different reasons, and we all make the decision to drop for different reasons. As Tony pointed out on AJW’s blog, he stumped up $300 to run Leadville – no comp, no sponsor to cover costs, etc. As far as I can make out, he was therefore beholden to nobody but himself.

    Listen, if you ran Leadville ’09 and finished, you beat one of the best in the sport. Tony came in last with the others that DNF’ed. It happens.

    And, in answer to the question posed: greedy and pretentious? Nah! Dramatic? Maybe.

    • @Nick Clark, Thanks for your thoughts. I can’t speak for anybody but myself, but when an elite ultrarunner starts throwing around references to Kant’s categorical imperative and the morality of DNFing, well, that brings me in. Then another comes in and says they owe nothing to anybody but themselves and their crew and these guys are the best in the sport right now? And maybe I was just a little extra sensitive since last weekend a crew from Eugene worked at an aid station at Oregon’s 100 in da Hood. We were open from noon Saturday until 7:00 am Sunday with a good three+ hours driving each way. It was a tiring weekend and I got zero running in. These elites suggest they owe nothing to anybody except themselves when they go to a race? Serious? OK, so they don’t care about their competitors, that’s just plain sad to me. But, not even the organizers of these races and all the volunteers that spend many hours to provide an opportunity for these elites to race? This sport is built upon volunteerism. As racers, the least we can do is respect their time and effort and put in an honest effort, no?

      • @Craig, Craig, who are these people, exactly, who “don’t care about their competitors” and don’t respect the “time and effort” of the volunteers, and aren’t putting in an “honest effort”? You’re throwing flames at a strawman you’ve built. That’s not playing fair. 🙂

        I have a six year old. Yes, they can have “losing issues” and they need to learn from them. It’s part of growing up. But I don’t agree that it’s an apt analogy for anybody I’ve every met at an ultra*.

        As for volunteering, I think it’s safe to say you’re extremely appreciated and most, if not all of us, and we’re extremely grateful for your efforts. But, by definition, nobody “owes” you anything. It wouldn’t be “volunteering” if they did. [I was working an aid station at Hood also, btw. Hard work, not much sleep… but I had a blast and that was reward eough for me]


        * I was trying to work in a joke along the lines of “maybe these young guns simply haven’t had the VAST experience in the art of losing that you’ve had!” 🙂

  2. LB,
    As a non-elite runner, I have walked most of the last 30 miles in a 100, most of the last 50K of a 100K — heck, one year at Rouge River Fat Ass I walked most of the last 50K of a…50K. That day on the Rouge you told me that no matter how much it hurts that day, that I will later regret more if I quit, you encouraged me not to quit, I didn’t — to this day I carry that lesson with me. Ultrarunning is a selfish sport, I am trying think of a more selfish sport (maybe horse racing because of some of the abuse) — when we DNF then everyone supporting us comes up empty handed too, my family sacrifices for my running. There are reasons to DNF, both immediate medical and prevention of long term damage to our body. Because of the risk of injury it’s often unfair to judge a person reasons for a DNF. I know with States a lot of us get a little miffed that someone wasted an entry into States, didn’t prepare and they drop at Devil’s Thumb. I knew last year I wasn’t going to be in a position to train enough for States so I gave my entry away before the Lottery.

    The majority of elite runners walk it in and drop dozens of positions in the process. As much as us middle to the back of the pack runners marvel at the achievements of elite runners, I think we wonder what makes a select few think they are so special that they can’t humble themselves to walk it in and get passed by dozens of people, happens to rest of us all the time. As much as winning and running a course record may transform a person, losing and working through self destruction transforms us in other ways. That is why 30 hour finishers in 100’s are every bit the champion as those that can run it 15 hours, maybe twice the champion.

    • @Cougarbait, There definitely are good reasons to DNF. I was going to write a post about the Haggin Cup revisted (still may), and discuss taking care of ourselves in 100 milers again. There were a lot of runners in the medical tent after WS this year. Not a good trend. Taking care of yourself, and knowing when to drop is just as important as the other extreme of dropping because you’re not meeting your personal pre-race goal. Taking yourself to the point of needing to go to the hospital is not good for the race or the sport of ultrarunning in general. There is no one right answer, I know, but as a community it might be beneficial to discuss them.

  3. I guess many of us still carry our 6 year old selves around! The difference is that while we age, we experience losing/defeat many times and realize that wisdom is often gained through these otherwise adverse experience. Often this wisdom is imparted by a helpful volunteer, another racer, or a loving crew that has been waiting all night for their runners arrival. Sportsmanship aside, these tough lessons are often missed if we quit at the first sign of adversity.

    • @Sean, I have told many first-time 100 milers that if they quit when things get hard they’ll never know what it is like after the point that they quit. Very difficult if not impossible to get to the physical, mental, and emotional state of, say, the 70 mile point. The only way you learn is to go past that in the race. Each 100 miler I do I seem to always get something more or unique out of the experience. When I fail to get that I’ll stop running 100 milers and move onto something else.

  4. Intesting. I hesitate to jump in but…. Anton went out to get a record and failed. The gave it a great shot but blew-up doing. I can’t imagine anything more respective then giving it your best shot. Sometimes we win sometimes not. Remember Anton says that after leaving the Pipeline AS “Occasional attempts at running resulted in me either nearly falling down in a cramp-ridden mess or in a comedic, stilted, half-shuffle hop that Alex could walk just as fast.” from his blog.

    Now a slightly different (maybe?) animal but what about all those folks that do 24 hour races but stop when they meet there mileage goals. Are they being disrespectful to the race/volunteers/other competitors?

    FWIW, I don’t remember anyone being critical of Jurek when he dropped after 49 miles at Ultracentric last year because he basically didn’t have a shot at the American record, even though he was still on pace to do so. He (like Anton) was there to set a record and it wasn’t going to happen. They failed for different reasons but the goal for starting was the same and they went out pace wise to do just that.

    Josh W.

    • @Josh, I’m not sure anyone was not critical about Jurek’s drop at Ultracentric they just weren’t public about it. And, interesting that you mention him, as I note he just dropped at the North Coast 24 as well. Not sure why.

    • @Josh, Thanks for jumping in. The water’s not that hot. I have not singled out any runner’s DNF, including Anton’s. It was a commenter over at AJW’s blog that mentioned Anton’s Leadville that got this whole thing started. I do appreciate those that go for it and come up short. I was not at Leadville and did not see Anton or his crew’s attempts to get him to continue. I suppose only Anton knows why he stopped.

      • @Craig, I was at Leadville when Anton dropped but I was about an hour behind him so I didn’t see anything. However, my crew was there (and, most notably, my 9 year-old son Logan was there) and they reported that Anton spent 30 mins at the FH Aid Station talking to, among other people, Karl Meltzer and then on the way out of FH Anton fell down, on the pavement. Needless to say, they reported he could not and should not, continue. This is, I might add, quite different from the runner who simply takes his wrist band off, talks to his friend, and drives away in a car.

  5. I suspect that we’re really not as far apart on this point as it seems like you’re interpretation of my comments make us (mostly for my lack of depth and clarity in explaining my thoughts over on AJW’s blog). I think it is of the most importantance to honor and respect fellow competitors and/or events because you have truth and clarity in your mind and heart which create genuine respect for these people/events. I think that if you’re racing for the right reasons this will be there automatically. I think if finishing a race becomes less genuinely what you really want to do and more something you are doing because you feel like you owe it to others you are being untrue to yourself and in turn disrespecting the entire process of that event. On raceday I want to line up against a field of runners who put everything they have on the line because that is what they truly WANT to do, not because that is what they feel like they NEED to do to show their respect for others. I don’t want people to finish a race against me because they feel like they owe it to me to do so, but instead because they love the process (and see how much they can grow and learn from that process) so much so that finishing, regardless of how diffucult it might be is what they choose to be the best option for them. Sometimes the best way to respect others is to simply do the things you do in a way that is completely pure and honest to yourself, and not tainted by feelings of expectations and/or debts to others. if you are doing the things you are doing (and i think this applies to most anything we do in life) for true and wholesome reasons you will find yourself completing almost everything you attempt. and in doing so you will be honoring and respecting “the race” more than you ever could by actions based on feelings of owing things to “the race.” When i hear that someone drops from a race because they just didn’t feel like finishing something that is going worse than expected for them that doesn’t conjur up feelings of disrespect for that person in my mind, but rather I am sad for them because I see them as being in a place with their running that likely isn’t healthy and entirely true to who they are. This is a process that virtually every runner (and non runner) will go through at some point in time. Almost always we recover from this and come back as stronger people. But I really don’t think that it does anyone any good to try to ignore and/or mask this by being untrue to ourselves because we are so caught up in pleasing others. to do something for someone else because you feel like you owe it to them instead of because you genuinely want to do it for them really doesn’t provide true substance for anyone in the equation.

    anyhow, the point is i do believe that we all have a deep respect for the process of doing these races, but we do have different ways in which we feel this respect comes out on raceday. at the end of the day it is an individual sport and we are all going to see some of these things in different ways. but i do take comfort in the thought that if we sat down over a few beers and had a deeper discussion about this i think we might find ourselves a lot closer to being on the same page with all of this then this brief discussion might suggest.

    • @geoff roes 5 course records, 6 100 mile wins and you still read blogs? You, of all people, should probably not weigh in on discussions like this. If I recall correctly, it was just 18 months ago that you were extolling the importance of no crew/no pacer runs. Have you changed?

    • @geoff roes, I appreciate you taking the time to write this thoughtful comment. You’re probably right in that we aren’t as far away as it may have first appeared.

      On AJW’s blog you differentiated between “owing” a finish to those who helped you (or your teammates on a track or cross country team) but not to strangers. Curious how you reconcile this concept of doing races with truth and clarity and for the right reasons, with an obligation to those who help you? Maybe this is people pleasing as you said, but I have actually used my “obligation” to my crew and pacers to help motivate me in some pretty dark moments, AC 2006 for instance. I never felt like my motivation was unpure and I was damn glad they were there or I might have DNFed. Maybe, as AJW said, if you’re doing all your 100 milers without crew and pacers you haven’t experienced 100 milers in the same way most of us have (with crew and pacers).

  6. Maybe these won’t be the most applicable comments – but while consoling a runner this year on the field at the end of States I mentioned that – anybody can quit when things are tough that’s the easy part – the hard part is finishing. to finish is to triumph.(sans injury or medical, etc of course)
    – and I think that goes the same for your crew, family or friends.
    would you want them to quit on you for whatever reason during a race?
    you don’t have to come in first, “to all be in it to win it”
    (incredibly tacky rhyme i know – so feel free to use it anytime you want to).

    • @3BU, This reminds me of an incident a couple of years ago at Badwater. I wasn’t there, but I know the parties involved. The runner, who was expected to be near the front, got in a really bad way (what does one expect when they run in 120 degrees). He was moving way slower than expected. The crew (or at least one member of the crew) who was planning on the runner taking close to 24 hours, either threatened to quit or did quit because it was going to take too long. I’m sure there is a whole lot more to the story, but it does happen.

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