Push Through Pain, or Pull the Plug?

It's OK to quit. The right choice could save your life.

Matthew Lee experiences a moment of doubt during the 2,490-mile Great Divide Race.

Sometimes it’s harder to quit than to keep going. Bike mechanic Tommy Tuite should know. In 2009, he was one of just two competitors in the off-road, self-supported Great Divide Race. Described by Outside as the “World’s Toughest Bike Race,” the course follows the Continental Divide for 2,490 miles from Canada down to Mexico.

Few enter. Fewer, still, finish in the allotted 25 days. Any slower than that, and the ride is technically considered “touring”—as if a 26-day Great Divide racer has simply been noodling along through the forest, snapping photos of striking plant life. Footage of the race’s challenges (and high attrition rate) can be seen in the 2010 documentary Ride the Divide, which was filmed during a largely similar race called the Tour Divide.

It took both Tuite and his competitor 23 days to complete the Great Divide Race, from the deep snowdrifts of Montana to the New Mexico desert. Despite having to use his shirtsleeve and iodine tablets to filter river water, not once did Tuite consider letting dehydration or inclement weather take him out of the game. That said, he understands why so many Continental Divide racers see no other choice. It’s not what’s in the race that takes people out of the race; it’s what comes next.

“It’s usually real life that gets people to drop out,” Tuite says. “It’s what they’ve left to go race, whether it’s job or family or the possibility of risking something more just to see how fast and how far they can ride their bike. They want the reward, but they don’t want to risk what they’re responsible for.”

For Tuite, a certain degree of suffering enriched his once-in-a-lifetime event. But then there are those who just don’t know when to call it quits, like mountain bike racer Craig Gordon, who rode through intense pain to win the 24-hour Solo World Championship in 2006. Gordon finished victorious, yes, but he also pushed his kidneys to the point of hospitalization, dialysis and a prolonged recovery.

If Kenny Rogers had been anywhere near that race course, he might have had a little wisdom for Gordon: You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away and know when to run your body into the ground. But in the incident that common sense—or your own inner Kenny Rogers—has abandoned you in the heat of battle, here are some general rules on when to party through the pain and when to save your fight for another day.

Keep Going: If you’re thirsty, tired and have darkish urine, keep pushing if there’s a source of water and electrolytes on the horizon. If you’re hardcore, that is. During the Great Divide Race, Tuite claims he was ready to iodine-filter his own urine if that’s what it took.
Quit: Signs of severe dehydration are low pulse and blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, inability to urinate and loss of up to 10 percent of body weight. If you experience these warning signals—or if you find blood in your urine, a sign of kidney strain—you should seek medical help immediately.

Keep Going: You’ve hit the wall. You’re slowing down, your energy is low, you’ve lost that early adrenaline-fueled joie de vivre. Drink water, take in calories where you can get them, and consider leaving the course if necessary to get more carbohydrates.
Quit: If you’re genuinely suffering from glycogen depletion, you’ll likely feel confused and irrational, which makes it harder to commit to quitting. But if you can’t pull your head out of a bonk-based mental cloud long enough to continue the trudge, take a rain check and report immediately to a stack of pancakes.

Keep Going: If you’ll lose more heat by stopping, go to your mental happy place and press on until exertion warms you.
Quit: If you’re severely confused, shaking uncontrollably and unable to maintain your body heat, resist the urge to simply burrow into a small, enclosed space on the course. This is hypothermia, and you need medical help fast. 

Keep Going: Muscle and joint soreness are fairly common during a long endurance event, so try stretching, slowing to a walk and drinking more water.
Quit: If you’re suffering any sort of bone break, fracture or serious muscular tear, you could make the condition worse by continuing. Like Tuite said, consider your life outside of the race.

Keep Going: If you can slow down, drink more water and eat salty foods. Then suck it up, bub, and continue on.
Quit: Stop if you’re vomiting, have a high body temperature or are severely disoriented. You could have heat stroke. Remember, this is supposed to be fun—living with a DNF is better than not making it through at all.