Roundtable: Scratching from Ultra Distance Races - Part 1
4 November, 2023
Cover Image: Naomi Freireich, Taken by Dan King during GBDURO '21.
In this two-part roundtable, we open up the dialogue on scratching from ultra-distance races, a topic that is often shied away from. Scratching is a part of ultra racing that most racers will have to deal with at some point. It's often given a bad rep, and for this reason, racers will admit to pushing through pain, discomfort and misery all in the name of avoiding the dreaded 'DNF'. Why is this the case? There's often an interesting cocktail of psychological, mental and practical forces at play in keeping the pedal to the metal or rather, keeping the wheels inching forward. To be strong and resilient is celebrated; it is a personal choice to push through pain and discomfort in the name of victory, even if that victory is just to finish.
It can be difficult to know when to make the final call. The aim of this discussion is to better understand the logical reasoning behind scratching when battling with indecision. We also clarify that it is a personal decision and absolutely OK to scratch regardless of circumstances. We’ve put it to five well-known and respected members of our community to discuss their personal experiences and views on scratching.
In part one, we delve into past scratching experiences of our contributors and also raise the question of whether scratching carries a stigma. Following on from this, part two will dive into the psychological aspects of scratching, and the mental tools we can be armed with to become more resilient racers. Read on to learn more about altering the perception around scratching and why it can sometimes be the best decision one can make.
On the panel, Jenny Tough is a household name in the adventure world. Originally from Canada, she was the first person to run solo and unsupported across The Tien Shan mountains in Kyrgyzstan, and the Atlas Mountains in northern Africa, on her ‘Run the World Mountains’ mission to run across a mountain range on every continent. She has a wealth of experience exploring on two feet or wheels, sharing her experiences and love of mountains through storytelling. We also welcome Seb Breuer, former German and European MTB Marathon champion and winner of Badlands 2022. Seb's tenacity makes him no stranger to the sharp end of the race, but he has also had to deal with some challenging setbacks when things haven't gone to plan. Joining Jenny and Seb, RJ Sauer is a writer and director with strong race palmarès, including the Highland Trail 550, Atlas Mountain Race and the Iditarod to name a few. Best known for his story-telling, RJ has a unique way of capturing the essence of bikepacking and you can often find him out on an adventure with his son, Oliver, in tow.
Also on the panel, Naomi Freireich has a wealth of ultra-distance experience. With a background in 24-hour mountain bike racing (3 x UK 24hr MTB Champ and 1 x Euro 24h MTB Champ), she has taken to some of the most iconic off-road races in the UK. Naomi is also an advocate for mental health awareness and is open to communicating how she uses the bike to manage her depression. Last but not least, Dr Ian Walker joins the panel; a professor of environmental psychology and world-record-breaking ultra-distance cyclist. Ultra runner turned ultra cyclist, Ian won the North Cape 4000 in 2018 before going on to break the world record for cycling between the northernmost and southernmost points of Europe in 2019. We're grateful to have Ian's input in digging deeper into the psychological aspects of scratching.
Relating to a past experience, why have you made the decision to scratch and what thoughts came into play during the process of making this decision?
There are a myriad of reasons behind scratching. But how does a rider know when to draw the line, and what are the key factors which come into play be it physical, practical or emotional?
Jenny, adventurer and author of Solo and Tough Women: I’ve scratched in the past over injury (knee) and illness (heat exhaustion). In these occasions, it really appears that scratching is the only adult option - continuing will only worsen the condition and perhaps cost me months, or longer, of recovery. Additionally, both times I waited until the bike was hardly moving forward anyway. It’s really tempting to ignore your body as long as possible and delude yourself that you might feel better soon. I always follow the Mike Hall rule of “never scratch at night”, and spend a good night asleep before making the final call, in the vain hope that a few hours in a bed might be all I need to totally recover.
Above: Jenny Tough. Photo credit, Lian van Leeuwen.
Ian, psychologist and world-record breaking ultra distance cyclist: I've never scratched in a cycle race, but I dropped out of several ultramarathon running races. In one I was injured; in another, I was suffering from altitude sickness and couldn't keep any food down. In all cases, I knew deep down I could have kept moving, albeit slowly. Scratching was more a case of not seeing the point in suffering any longer, and there was a mixture of relief and guilt each time.
Naomi, 3 x UK 24hr MTB Champ: I scratched on day 5 of GBDURO. I’d had a pretty tough day two days before. I’d peed myself because I’d left it too long and have HMD then my Garmin stopped working at a junction and I didn’t know whether to go left or right. It was an extreme low (see cover image). I managed to move past it but the knock-on effect physically meant that my saddle sore got progressively worse. The next day I got a bad tyre wall slash in thick fog and rain and couldn’t get the tubeless vale out to put in a tube. I ended up taking about an hour to fix it and got very cold. Still didn’t make me quit but the cold and wet riding made my saddle sore so bad that I ended up with a follicular cyst about the size of a large marble. Sitting became impossible. I tried sleeping to see how I felt in the morning but still couldn’t sit at all to ride.
There were so many what-ifs. Why hadn’t I stopped to do the loo earlier? Why hadn’t I just ridden a bit when my Garmin failed, to see if it would kick in? Why had I not been more careful over the bump where I punctured? Why hadn’t I kept going 5 more miles and slept in a room instead of my bivvy? I felt guilt for being happy that I had a reason to quit because everything hurt. Then overwhelming grief at my own feeling of failure.
Seb, former German and European MTB Marathon champion and winner of Badlands 2022: The last scratch in a long-distance race was last December in Chile at the Race Across Andes. A really great trip that I really wanted to do after my victory at Badlands. I had a long journey to Chile and was very well received. Unfortunately, I didn't feel well after arriving, physically not quite at the level I had hoped for. Apparently, I had caught an infection on the plane. The race started quickly, I rode my rhythm and caught up with the leader, my buddy Ulrich, after 200k. But already at this point, I didn't feel fit any more, unlike usual. Soon after, I had to let him go and was on my own. My condition kept going downhill, the heat was draining the last of my strength. My minimum goal was the next checkpoint. I managed that with several breaks, but then I realised that I was no longer at a "healthy" level physically and mentally and that I would do more damage if I continued. The scratching hurt even more than usual because I had flown halfway around the world for the race and of course, I had great expectations, after all, I wanted to take the "next step" after Badlands.
RJ, writer and director and experienced bikepacker: Interestingly enough, while absorbing my first-ever decision to scratch I was asked by a rookie rider leaving the checkpoint in last place ‘How did I know when to scratch?’ I responded that ‘it was my first time so I was still learning’. There is no way of truly knowing unless there is some sort of physical trauma that mandates the decision for us. But I knew I was at peace with the decision. My heart and soul were there in that moment. I wasn’t curious about what lay ahead and could not see myself at any of the points along the trail. I was empty. Another rider openly expressed their own, current, emotional discontent and made a poignant comment, ‘We always need to do one too many’. That might have been the case for me. The Tour Divide, which I had completed about 6 months earlier had sapped a lot out of me emotionally and there was nothing left in the well to draw from.
There were plenty of other races where my scratching made far more sense but I persevered, mainly because I always retained a sense of purpose and reward: I wanted to finish, I wanted to know the finish line, or what lay across the next valley and no part of me was ready to sacrifice that. Having a family and a young son has certainly impacted me emotionally when it comes to racing solo and it’s a double-edged sword. I want to make my son proud and be a good example of someone who sees things through. But I also want to be there for him. The draw to come home is greater and puts a strain on decision-making. So ultimately, I really need to ensure the commitment and sacrifice are worth it in the end.
Above: RJ Sauer, taken by his wife
Does scratching from a race carry a stigma? How might this potentially benefit or hinder the decision making process?
Ultra distance racing is a huge investment for a lot of participants, the vast majority of whom have to be very selective in terms of which races to participate in. This in itself is a strong case against scratching. Consider the reasons which go against scratching and to what extent they are influenced by the idea of a 'stigma' attached to scratching.
Ian: I suspect the negative feelings after a scratch are felt far more by the contestant than others. I also suspect that a lot of the time, the pressure is also nearly all social: "What will people think when they see I couldn't do this?" Or, perhaps more meaningfully, "What will the people who made sacrifices for me to enter this race think now that I couldn't finish?" Speaking for myself, both of these thoughts have kept me going at times I might have been tempted to give up.
RJ: For the longest time and up until very recently, I was proud of the fact that I had finished all of the races that I had started, even when circumstances were stacked against me. It was always my main goal - to finish - and that taught me resiliency. That has evolved recently, based on a number of factors, including being a parent. Now, my real focus is getting to the start, from there anything can happen. There is always a personal disappointment with not finishing anything and that inescapable sense of emotional void. All that energy to get there and the hopes and dreams of completing a course and seeing the journey through. Scratching can leave a big hole. It’s easy to project other people's emotions or perspectives onto our own choices but the truth is people don’t care as much as we think whether we finish or whether we don’t. Those who know us best will understand and appreciate the circumstances and those who don’t know will forget and move on. Ultimately, these journeys are very personal and the goals and outcomes should be something we do for ourselves so it isn’t healthy to let other people play into our choices.
Above: RJ Sauer. Photo credit, Lian van Leeuwen.
The rhetoric of “going forward at all costs” feels a little archaic to me. Yes, building resiliency and the tools to cope with hardship, overcoming hurdles and testing our limits are worthwhile endeavours but there is such a thing as too much. Finishing an event only to do long-term damage to our health or emotional well-being isn’t strong, it’s short-sighted. In Alaska, I watched the same individual scratch from the same event twice, each for different reasons. The first time, with hindsight, it was an emotional mistake in a moment of uncertainty. The second time scratching was a necessity as there was a risk of irreversible physical damage to their health. What good is that? Risking irreversible damage just to say “I never gave up”? That feels more like arrogance than bravery. On the Tour Divide, I had a real moment where I was convinced I would scratch. It wasn’t weakness, it was human. I was tired, lonely, sore, hungry, frustrated, bored, hungry and thirsty. All of those play tricks on our minds. Thankfully, I reached out to people who knew the right things to say. They provided encouragement and empathy but never an easy out. They weren’t convinced I was really finished yet, and perhaps more accurately, feared the consequences of what this unfinished adventure would mean for me and for them - it likely meant going back.
Jenny: I definitely think it still carries a stigma, despite it being a very high statistical likelihood in almost every event. Unlike other sports, which might get to race weekly, ultra racers usually only get a few chances every year to race, so having to pull the plug can feel devastating as it will be months - or longer - before your next chance at redemption. We also have a very engaged online community who, sorry for saying, are filled with armchair experts leaving comments on every riders’ decisions. I’ve often overheard gossip about other rider’s scratches and been very surprised and saddened at how judgemental some folk can be over someone else’s ride. At the end of the day, there are so many things that can go wrong in an ultra - body, bike, mind, environment, etc - and given the length of the races, the likelihood of those things going wrong is incredibly high.
Naomi: I used to think it carried a stigma. But I think it very much hinges on how you feel about scratching yourself. Before HT550 I spoke to a great friend and experienced bikepacker about not having finished a race yet and she said if she finishes one in 4 she’s happy. Just that little bit of intel really helped me see that beginners and experienced riders alike have to scratch. I think that destigmatised it in my head. I think the people who race know much better the reality of scratching.
If we consider scratching as a failure we are less likely to enter events and push ourselves.
Seb: I think you just have to keep moving; even if it's very slow going, you have a chance to recover and take a little time instead of just stopping and scratching. But I have drawn a very clear line for myself, which I always follow. That is my health and the "real life" with my wife and my little dog Lena. I wouldn't jeopardise that for any race in the world and that's what I always try to keep in mind, despite all the ambition. We only have one life and one health. Certainly, finishing Across Andes would not have endangered my life (I suppose), but I want to come home happy and satisfied. That is simply no longer a given for me. In general, I always try to consider every possibility of continuing. BUT I am relatively inexperienced and fresh in the long-distance world. Riders like Ulrich, Sofiane or Justinas are still ahead of me with their skills to save themselves in tricky situations. I must and will learn that.
Should the race organiser play any part in the decision of a rider to scratch or not?
'Self-supported' implies that the rider should make all their own decisions, whilst the race organiser should hold the health and safety of all riders in their best interest. With this in mind, to what extent should organisers be involved in a riders' decision to scratch?
Naomi: The races are self-supported. It’s hard for an organiser to be involved in any decision-making as a result. However, if a rider comes into a checkpoint dangerously unable to continue I do think there is a responsibility that lies with the organiser to consider the risk to the individual and the burden they may place on emergency services. Ultimately though, the challenge of self-supported races is the mental capacity to continue, so I don’t feel a race organiser should encourage or discourage someone who is otherwise able to continue.
Seb: Everyone, whether in real life or in the race, has to make the really important decisions themselves. After my victory at Badlands (I cycled 43 hours without sleep) I was often criticised that it was too much and dangerous. At the same time, the same people criticise me when I scratch a race for health reasons. That doesn't fit together. That's why I make my own decisions and stand by them even though scratching always hurts, of course. But only you can make that decision.
Jenny: It’s a huge topic to how much each organiser should ensure the safety of their riders, but if you’ve been given a place in an event it’s because you’re an adult and should be capable of making smart decisions. Riders continuing beyond the point of safety not only risk themselves but also the integrity of our entire unsupported riding community. I don’t think anyone but the rider should decide whether they continue, but I say that with a huge caveat that riders shouldn’t abuse that by riding through obvious safety barriers. In other words, don’t try to be a hero!
Ian: When I crewed aid stations on ultramarathons I talked a lot of people into not giving up. I believe in every case they were glad I did - and quite a few people have explicitly said this to me later. They were having a low patch - which will always happen in an ultra-distance event - and sometimes another person's encouragement can help you get through one of these. If that other person is a race official, that seems okay to me, as long as stopping remains an option. The main thing is that the racer knows they have a choice, and aren't in some way going to be abandoned by the organiser if they scratch.
RJ: I think as long as the race organizer clearly presents the parameters of their event, the course and the expectations to each rider, then they have little to no responsibility for the participants and we shouldn’t expect them to insert themselves. If a race is “unsupported” then it's unsupported. No rider should expect or assume anything from the organizer. But, if there are designated checkpoints with promised resources or drop bags then that should be honoured by the organiser as this information and expectation clearly plays into the planning or strategy for a rider along the course. Still, regardless of all of this, I feel it's essential that participants always be prepared to manage and care for themselves. In many ways, that is the whole spirit, wonder and fulfilment of these sorts of events - self-reliance.
I think the rare times a race organizer could insert themselves into a decision to scratch is if they truly felt someone was putting themselves or others at risk. This isn’t a battle to the death and our personal choices should certainly not negatively impact others or the environments we are passing through. We are guests, and need to respect that.
Above: Photo by RJ Sauer.
In conclusion, our panel reports that the main reason for them scratching at some point has been due to injury or illness. It's possible to push through injury to a certain extent, however as Seb mentioned, the realisation of no longer being at a 'healthy' level physically and the risk of further damage is a price too high to pay. Jenny reminds us of the Mike Hall rule of 'never scratch at night', and get a good night's sleep before making the final call. RJ also makes an important point about purpose and reward, and the importance of having this in order to stay emotionally invested in the race. With no curiosity or excitement as to what lies ahead, the inherent purpose of a race is vastly undermined.
It seems that scratching does carry a stigma, however, that is largely determined by our perception of scratching. For instance, Naomi makes a great point that if we consider scratching as a failure we are less likely to enter events and push ourselves. Therefore, shifting the perception from 'failure' to 'experience' is key in terms of debunking the stigma. As Jenny mentions, there are so many things that can go wrong in an ultra - body, bike, mind, environment, etc - and given the length of the races, the likelihood of those things going wrong is incredibly high. Something that is out of our control cannot be deemed a failure and at the end of the day, the blunt truth is that people don’t care as much as we think whether we finish or whether we don’t.
Our panel were in general agreeance that the race organiser should have minimal interference in a rider's decision to scratch. The big caveat is that riders shouldn't abuse this freedom by riding through obvious safety barriers; when the safety of a rider is seen to be at risk, the organiser should step in and make a responsible decision.
In Part 2 of this roundtable, we explore how less experienced racers could be better equipped and prepared to make sensible decisions when faced with the potential of scratching. Let's not forget that scratching is applicable to all levels of experience, and so we'll also dive into the psychological aspects of scratching. Specifically, mental resilience is a trainable trait, and we pose questions to Ian regarding resiliency and how it can be strengthened.