Discretion is the better part of valour.
Good luck to anyone trying to remind British triathlon star Chrissie Wellington of that proverb when she was aiming to win her 4th IRONMAN World Championship title in 2011. Having won on Ali’i Drive in ‘07, ‘08 and ‘09, she was in amazing shape during the build-up to the race, setting MDot and Iron-distance world best times earlier in the season, before disaster seemingly struck.
She came off her bike during one of her final training rides, exactly 2 weeks prior to Kona. The crash inflicted some serious injuries to the left-hand side of her body, including a horrible road rash on her leg and hip that became infected in the following days.
In this situation, the old proverb would suggest Chrissie shouldn't have even tried to take her place on the start line and accepted a 'DNS' (Did Not Start) next to her name for fear of causing more harm.
But then deciding whether to start a race is never as straightforward as an old proverb might suggest…
Is discretion really the better part of valour?
Despite her injuries, Chrissie travelled to Hawaii a week out from the World Champs to see if there was any chance she could make the start line. Upon arrival, she immediately suffered further setbacks.
She attempted a training swim on the Tuesday before the race but quit after just 1km; she was in so much pain she couldn’t climb out unaided and instead had to be pulled from the water by her husband. At another point during that week, her leg was so swollen she was admitted to hospital for tests to rule out a fracture or embolism.
With all of this drama playing out in relative privacy, Wellington stayed focused and intentionally downplayed her injuries to the media and her competitors, gritted her teeth and, with things marginally improving in the final 3 days, decided to roll the dice and start the race.
Perhaps predictably, as her injuries included some to her chest and ribs, Chrissie exited the swim leg a little further back than she had in previous years, returning to the swim-to-bike transition in 61 minutes. She also failed to make the front of the race to dominate the bike leg as she had done in previous years. Working through intense pain during the ride (you can see the extent of her road rash in this highlights reel of the race), she began the run in 5th place; several minutes down on the leader and with the fastest runner in the field - the defending champ from 2010, Miranda Carfrae - only 3 minutes behind.
Pushing through what she later described as the worst pain she’d ever known, Wellington proceeded to will her way to a course record marathon split of 2 hours 52 minutes, overhauling everyone in front of her to take an incredible victory and regain her IRONMAN World Title against all of the odds.
Renowned triathlon journalist TJ Murphy described the display as “... chilling to watch because you could see Wellington racing her way right to the hospital, paying literally no heed to her brain's internal governor – one that has been wired into the human body through millions of years of evolution.”
It’s still widely regarded as one of the most astonishing performances in the history of IRONMAN racing and, judging by the tweet she posted on the 10th anniversary of the occasion, something that even the eternally modest Wellington is immensely proud of.
How to decide whether to start a race or DNS
As endurance athletes we are primed to find stories like Chrissie’s mesmerising. Ignoring the naysayers and overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds to emerge victorious is inspirational stuff and certainly makes you appreciate what’s actually possible if you really want something badly enough.
But is there ever a time when making the decision not to start a race is actually acceptable?
I’d argue that there definitely is, but the challenge is in working out when having the letters DNS (Did Not Start) next to your name is the smart decision.
Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules about when you should say “f*ck it, let’s do it” or skip the race. It’s always destined to be a judgement call made in challenging circumstances and based on a totally unique and complex set of circumstances.
But the following questions are probably worth working through if you ever find yourself unsure whether it’s better to toe the start line or have a lie in...
- Have you missed a lot of training in the build-up?
This is an important consideration because, as Chrissie’s experience demonstrated, the final few days of training for an event often have very little impact on your actual race day performance.
You put ‘the hay in the barn’ over several previous months (and even years), so you have underlying fitness to fall back on if you choose to race after experiencing a recent problem that’s given you pause for thought.
On the other hand, if your base of fitness is lacking and you’re then adding in another problem that you need to navigate at the last minute, the odds of a successful outcome decrease further and it becomes more likely that a DNS could be the wiser decision.
- Is this race your main goal for the year?
Even if we don’t name them as such, most of us have some kind of priority system for ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ races in a given year. Clearly the threshold to make a decision not to start B and C races should be much lower than that for your main A race.
Even then, if you’re able to flip your A race onto another event of equal ‘value’ and significance, this should be something to consider when things are looking ‘touch and go’ for any reason.
Obviously, this isn’t possible if your A race is a championship or something especially unique, but in many cases there will be other viable alternatives that you can set your sights on in order to make a DNS decision marginally easier.
- Are you likely to make yourself really ill or significantly injure yourself by racing?
Evidence does suggest that trained endurance athletes can tolerate more pain than non-athletes and, whilst this is obviously advantageous to performance in the short term, it comes with long term risks if pushing through pain results in serious illness or injury.
Take the time to weigh up the likely worst case scenarios for your health that might result from pushing your body hard at a time when something isn’t quite right with it.
As a rule, racing with respiratory infections that are impacting your chest and/or breathing is definitely not sensible, whereas a light head cold affecting only your nose and sinuses MIGHT be something that can be worked through.
Likewise, knowing and feeling the difference between a slightly tight muscle that you might ‘run off’ and one that could tear itself to shreds if you apply maximum force through it for hours on end is something else to weigh up if the ailment is musculoskeletal.
Ultimately, it’s a judgement call on the severity of the issue and how bad the aftermath could be if you push through it regardless.
- What are the people around you saying?
There are many stories, Chrissie’s included, where heroes and heroines have ignored the advice of friends, family, doctors and coaches, and chosen to race when all around are screaming “don’t do it!”.
But these tales are frequently romanticised and generally the exceptions to the rule. This is what makes them unique and interesting stories in the first place.
In most normal circumstances (and if you have people you trust with your best interests at heart in your circle), listening to what others have to say is wise because they will have a more dispassionate view of the situation than you do. There’s a lot of emotion invested in racing and this doesn’t lend itself to making sound objective decisions around pulling out at the last minute.
- How badly do you really want it?
This really is a critical question to ask because if you’re going into a race carrying any ailments or niggles, these are going to make the whole experience even more testing than it would otherwise have been if you were fully fit.
Having won Kona in 2007, ’08 and ‘09, Chrissie Wellington had already sat out of the 2010 edition due to a viral illness so it’s likely that her motivation to come back in 2011 was extremely high indeed.
It’s not inconceivable that this is partly what drove her to take such a big risk and race in the first place, whilst also giving her the added motivation needed to push through incredible pain to get the result she desperately wanted. Searching your soul and asking yourself if you really, really want it enough is a good idea before you embark on something that’s likely to push your resolve to the limits.
Make peace with your decision
If you do ever decide that ‘discretion is the better part of valour’ and not starting a race you’ve committed to is the best course of action, then it’s a good idea to insulate yourself from too much introspection after the fact.
Be quick to make peace with the decision and move on. By opting out you’ve already avoided the 'sunk cost fallacy' but you also need to be mindful of the effects of hindsight bias and regret as these can cloud your judgement and cause unhelpful angst after the fact.
Remember that the decision you came to before the race was one that you made to the best of your ability in difficult circumstances and, most likely, with incomplete information. It’s far more productive to move forwards and get another goal in the diary.
And remember, you only have one body, but there will always be many, many more races.