Questions to help you decide if you should press on or consider calling it quits

Have you ever gotten halfway through something (a book, dinner, a marriage) and realized you didn’t have it in you to finish? Here’s what happened to me recently:

I signed up for an out-and-back  50K trail run at Baker Lake in Washington State. I’d wanted to do this particular run for years. It’s a beautiful trail which meanders around Baker Lake and offers a view of Mount Baker through every opening in the trees.

The morning of the race was unseasonable gorgeous. Dappled morning sunlight fell through the forest canopy. Since I’m quite a slow runner and expected the 31 miles to take me at least 7.5 hours, I took an early start option, beginning my race with a handful of other back of the packers a full  hour before the hardcore runners started.

Trail running is different from road running in that you’ve got to keep your gaze on the ground. Every root, rock, crack, or irregularity is a tumble waiting to happen, so I kept my eyes glued to the single track trail, even though I was yearning to watch the sun change Mt. Baker’s glacier topped volcanic body from blue to white to yellow. As the hours passed and I slowly made my way to the turnaround point (exactly half way at 15.5 miles), I reveled in how free my mind was from any kind of worry or rumination. There was only hopping and dodging and plodding forward over hills and through mostly dry streams. (As a side note, if you haven’t tried trail running, it’s very Zen! You have to keep your mind so focused on your feet that there’s no space in your thoughts for daydreaming or fretting over life’s troubles.)

For almost 12 miles I languished in the woods feeling about as happy as a gal can feel until the first of the fast fellows, the competitive ultrarunners who had started an hour after me, caught up. Their determination and stamina left me in awe; I even cheered for the first few who passed me. But soon I was stepping out of their way to let them go by, sometimes coming to a full stop because the trail was too narrow to let us both run on it simultaneously. My rhythm and concentration were completely disrupted. For two very long miles–which took me more than a half an hour–I scrambled to avoid runners coming from behind.

Then, at mile 14, I looked up from the careful study of my footfall to see a runner coming straight toward me from in front. The fast folks had already reached the halfway point and were turning around now and heading back the other direction.  To avoid a head-on collision, I stepped out of the way of the urgent runner coming at me. As I swerved to the right to let him pass, I caught my foot on a root.

Down the hill I toppled, sliding to a stop a few feet beyond the root that had thwarted me.  Quickly I took inventory of my joints and bones. Fortunately, I’d landed on my fleshy parts and was none the worse for the fall.

Still, when I stood up, I knew that the half-way point would be the end of the road for me that day. I’d had a wonderful, peaceful, long, interesting, and fulfilling trail run, but once I brushed myself off and ascertained that nothing was sprained or broken, I realized I’d gotten everything I needed from the experience. I had run the full length of a trail I’d wanted to traverse for a long time; I’d watched the colors of the fall morning illuminate a beautiful natural environment; and I’d spent nearly four hours in the woods on a clear, crisp day. I was ready to eat my boiled potatoes, stretch my muscles, and thumb a ride back to the start of the race to cheer on the guy who’d knocked me off the trail as he came across the finish line.

In general, I’m a big believer in finishing what I start. I’ve completed all of my educational degrees, published two books, and conquered over 25 marathons and countless other races (including two 50Ks). I’ve finished reading hundreds of books, cooking thousands of meals, and talking through more “issues” in my relationships than I care to remember. This was my first DNF (“Did Not Finish”).

To say that quitting is an option may not popular. Finishing what you start is typically considered a mark of good character, but finishing what you start no matter that there may be good reasons for quitting, may indicate compulsivity, a lack of flexibility.

How do you know if quitting is a good option for whatever you’re in the middle of? I’ll leave the decision to you, but here are a few questions to ask yourself that may help you make the call:

  1. Why did you start?  What did you hope you would gain?
  2. Have you gotten everything you need out of the experience before coming to the end of it?
  3. What are the consequences of finishing? What are the consequences of quitting? Is there any danger to either course of action?
  4. What is the story you’ll tell yourself and others about finishing? What will the story be if you quit?

Think it over. While your mother was right, and completing what you start is an excellent rule of thumb, it’s not always the only valid option in every situation. Life is complicated and requires flexibility.

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