Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Why 200 mile Athletes Do Not Quit

Koichi Takeshi is greeted enthusiastically at the finish of the 2015 Bigfoot 200. His 2nd Destination Trail
200miler, he has the notoriety of being the last finisher (making the final cut off time by just 4 seconds!) of
the inaugural Tahoe 200 (2014). Photo by Howie Stern. 
Here I attempt to answer the question that so many ask when they hear how high our finish rates are as well as going in depth into why I think some races have low finish rates. First I will explain why I think we have a high finish rate. Second, I will explain what I feel are the common causes of a low finish rate in ultra marathons.
200 mile runners bond during the year through social media and then
on their long journey during the race. When you feel connected, you
have more fun and are less likely to quit. Photo by Howie Stern
Are 200s harder than 100s? This is impossible to say for sure, but my experience is that 200s are harder. There are more variables and more things that can go wrong. Like any distance when compared in toughness to another distance - it really depends on the athlete's approach to the race, preparation and abilities in regards to said race, and less about the race itself, assuming the event is well organized. That being said, some races have obvious and gaping problems that will create artificially low finish rates despite athlete's preparations.

Why do Destination Trail​ 200 milers have such a high finish rate? We have a 77% finisher rate for Bigfoot 200 Endurance Run​ and an 85% finisher rate for the Tahoe 200 Mile Endurance Run​.

1. Commitment: Athletes who have committed to this distance commit overall more than any other distance of shorter length. Let me explain: In general, these athletes put more into training, train longer in general, invest more money into gear, entry fees, training races, travel expenses and even coaching, in some cases than 100 mile racers.
Koichi Takeishi, finisher of the Bigfoot 200 2015, traveled all the way from Japan!
2. Finishing a 200 is a Big Freaking Deal: Many of us have finished a 100, but how many have finished a 200? 200s are still at their inception. When someone signs up for one, it's so new and epic that there is extra reason to finish, to distinguish oneself, to not let down crew/family/friends who have also invested more time and funds into the event. You have more to lose if you quit the longer the race, and more to win, if you finish.
Geoff Quick coming down the final stretch of the Bigfoot 200, 2015 by Howie Stern
3. A Different Kind of Athlete, the Risk Taker: The kind of athlete who signs up for a 200 right now is unique even in the sport of ultra running. They are willing to put adventure ahead of competing in a more historical or commonplace ultra like Western States or another iconic race. Not to say that the runner who signs up for a 200 doesn't want to run one of these more established races, but they are willing to take a risk on a new adventure, rather than a tried and true one. So when things come up in the race as they always do, they don't easily quit, after all they have proven themselves to be bigger risk takers than other ultra runners by signing up in the first place.
Bull Dozier running the inaugural Tahoe 200 (2014). Dozier is in the running for the
world record this year for the most 200 mile events completed in one year.
Photo by Scott Rokis.
4. Good Race Organization & Markings: We have impeccable course markings (except for a few cases of vandalism), excellent aid & lots of real food, amazing volunteers, and great organization. I have an entire team of people that help me organize from Logistics,to Volunteers to Communication to Medical. Details are important to us. We design the race to get as many finishers as we can by having a 28+ page runner's manual, providing all the aid we promised and having good medical support. One more thing to add: when the course is all original, no multiple loops or major out-and -backs, runners (no matter how tired & sore) still want to see the rest of the course, it's that cool! When you are required to repeat parts of a course you've already done, it's much harder mentally to continue on.
Tina Ure holds a Bigfoot finisher glass after her 3rd place finish, 2015.
Photo by Howie Stern
5. Fair Cut off Times & Time to Sleep: When you have to rush to make cut off times, your will to finish will slowly dwindle away or you may miss a cut off time and have to drop out. The Tahoe 200 & Bigfoot 200 rarely have to cut runners off. We have sleep stations. Sleeping really rejuvenates your body and mind. Sleeping is not so much an option for most runners in a 100 mile race as there just isn't as much time and rarely, if ever are their accommodations to sleep in a 100.

Photo Howie Stern
6. Community Feel: 200 mile runners bond during the year through social media and at training races they do in preparation for the 200. Many of these athletes do multiple 200s and meet other people doing the same. During the event, many athletes end up teaming up and running large sections together (even the entire race in some cases!). This sense of community keeps runners going. When you have fun and support you are less likely to quit.
Bigfoot 200, 2015, Photo: Howie Stern
Now we have an idea of why some 200s have a higher than average finish rate. Why do some races have such low finish rates? I'm going to go over a few of the main factors I see in low finish rates in 100 mile and longer events:

1. Extreme Weather: Extreme hot, cold, wet, mud... any of these things can cause a low finish rate as they tend to be unexpected and difficult to train for. These factors can also make a race dangerous...fatally so. So quitting may be the best option.

2. Poor Course Markings: You all know the feeling of getting off course, running a couple extra miles (or more!) and your spirit is crushed. Sure, you're running an ultra, but you didn't expect to get off course. If you are afraid markings are going to be bad later on too, you might just quit fearing that you will continue to get lost.

3. Bad Race Organization: Serious danger can arise when a race does not provide what they said they would provide, whether it is a lack of aid stations, missing water stations, certain kind of course markings, or if the distance of the race is longer than advertised. This is unfortunately more common that one might expect. All Race Directors make mistakes, and sometimes trucks break down and aid stations cannot be delivered or other hard to control circumstances, however emergencies should happen few and far between and race's should have controls in place so that major problems are minimized.

4. Race Courses with a multi-loop layout or many out and backs: It's easier to keep going in a race when you're excited about what is coming up, when the adventure of new terrain is there. HURT 100 is a very well organized event. They have a low finish rate I'd attribute to the brutal nature of the five 20 mile loop set up. It's mentally really tough to keep doing these loops when you know how hard they are and you have already experienced them.

5. Lack of Qualification Standards: I see nothing wrong with this necessarily, but when runners have fewer experiences that match what they are coming up to in a race, they may be less prepared. This is debatable, as I see many runners who even finish my 200s that wouldn't be traditionally qualified. The difference is that I still require the "non-traditionally qualified applicants" to send me an essay explaining why they feel that they are qualified. This task in itself I'm sure weeds out many folks who aren't totally committed to the race, so it serves its purpose.

6. Tough Cut Off Times: Speaks for itself. Some races have cut off times more geared for the faster runners. These races will have lower finish rates, inevitably.

* Note on DNFing, quitting, and missing cut offs: There is a time to continue on and finish and suck it up. There is a time to quit. Either way, I respect each runner's decision to DNF. We must all follow our heart and make the best decision we can. A DNF does not mean we failed. It is a unique experience and deserves to be recognized as such. I have DNF'd my fair share of times... for good reasons and for poor ones. No judgement here. Read my humorous write up on 10 Reasons to DNF an Ultra Marathon if you need a laugh.

Comments: Please add what you thing helps or hinders finish rates in 100s and 200s. Do you know of any resources that document finish rates of various ultra distance events? Please comment and let me know what you think!
The ecstasy of the finish, celebrating with family and crew, Tahoe 200, 2014.
Photo Scott Rokis
Last finisher in the BF200 this year was escorted through the finish by Bigfoot himself.
Photo Howie Stern
Photo: Howie Stern

Buckles are all handmade and each one is unique. Photo: Howie Stern
Photo: Howie Stern

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  1. Great read. Very on point. I'd add that the family and friend support that comes with a 200 is (in my experience) a huge factor in finishing. I've done a few solo 100s, but I could not imagine that extra 100 without having the love and support of family and friends around me.

  2. 200 miles have been contested for many years, usually in multiday races. I completed my first "200 miler" in 1983. What is new is the set distance 200 miles, and the placing them on trails.
    You talk about sleep, yet I have seen 200 miles done on no sleep, and have personally taken naps in many (most of my 100 milers, including sub 24 hour performances. (I thought the advent of 30 hour (and longer) cutoffs for 100s was to give time for naps. The "drawback" is that it lessened the significance of "100 miles in a day" that was a barometer of performance in the early days. 200 miles has no such benchmark with finishing "we all get participation awards" being the primary (only) task.

    1. Back in the day when 100s were created I'm sure some people thought that the "drawback" of 100s is that it lessened the significance of "running fast like in a marathon" or whatever sentimental BS people thought was important. 200 miles does have a benchmark and is most certainly not about "we all get participation awards". Like any race it's not about how good you make make yourself feel in comparison to others, but rather it's about what kind of a journey you have along the way, the people you meet, the things you learned that you didn't even know that you needed to learn. No need to make finishing sound trivial or commonplace. Just because we have high finish rates does not mean that these races are easy.

  3. You guys are incredible! I've yet to go ultra (I have a 50km on my 2016 list) but 200 miles sounds so extreme!


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