Posted On:
Tuesday, February 13, 2024
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Coach Tip Tuesday: Live to Climb Another Day

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A soaring view of Denali, the highest mountain in North America.

If answering honestly, when asked what they fear most, endurance athletes will say “failure.”  In the world of endurance sports, “failure” is often synonymous with “quitting.”  Studies have shown that losing (or failing) feels twice as bad to us as winning feels good to us.  In American culture, both failure and quitting have extremely negative connotations.  After so much time in endurance sports and working with so many endurance athletes, I’ve seen that failure and quitting are both necessary for breakthrough performances and high levels of achievement.

The Greatest Teacher, Failure Is

Jedi Master Yoda, the source of most wisdom in the far, far away galaxy of Star Wars (and honestly, a pretty darn good source of wisdom in our galaxy as well) said it best, “Pass on what you have learned.  Strength.  Mastery.  But weakness, folly, failure also.  Yes, failure most of all.  The greatest teacher, failure is.”

In the mountaineering world, failure is not only embraced as part of the sport, but it is planned for.  Mountaineers come up with “kill criteria”, which are the criteria that outlines under what circumstances the decision to quit must be made.  In advance of when any decision will need to be made, kill criteria establishes which signals that people might see in the future that signal that they need to quit or change course.  Basically, they are establishing a firm “unless” that will be in play during their attempt to accomplish their task or goal.  “I will continue toward my goal unless [insert kill criteria here].”

In the mountaineering world, a very clear example of this is when mountaineers seek to summit Mount Everest; if they do not reach the summit by 2:00 p.m. local time, they must turn around, no matter how achingly close they are to the summit itself.  This turnaround time kill criteria ensures that the mountaineers have enough time to safely descend to camp.  In other words, it ensures that they will live to climb another day, which is actually more important than summiting, no matter how glorious getting to the summit may look and feel.

Developing Kill Criteria is Essential

As Annie Duke outlines in her book Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away, kill criteria are extremely important because it’s very, very difficult for people to quit when things are sunny and it’s hard to choose quitting when there is still a chance of success.  Quitting on time feels like quitting too early.  People will generally only quit when it’s no longer a choice (aka when it’s the final option).  

“What if?” is a siren song that has beckoned people to injury and (in extreme cases) death over the years in endurance sports.  Developing kill criteria in advance gives valuable perspective and guidance for those moments when we can be blinded by encountering the question “What if?”  Alongside that, tunnel vision is something endurance athletes should be aware of; it’s very common for endurance athletes to get so narrowly focused on a specific goal or outcome that they end up overlooking other opportunities and/or priorities.  This combination of “What if?” and tunnel vision has led so many athletes to continue in workouts and races when it wasn’t actually prudent to do so.  Unfortunately for us, our culture celebrates people who make these unwise choices as being “tough” and “strong,” which only perpetuates how commonly this happens.

Good kill criteria combines two things: a state and a date.  A state is an objective, measurable condition of where you are at; a date is the timing component, aka when you would quit if the state exists.  Examples of kill criteria for endurance athletes could include (but are not limited to):

  • Experiencing pain that is causing changes in mechanics and form during a workout or race
  • Experiencing pain that exceeds a certain level (such as above a 6 on a scale of 1-10) during a workout or race
  • Being told by medical tent staff that you’re at your physical limitations in a race
  • Moving forward at a pace that is is slower than the cutoff pacing/timing of the race

Evaluating and Establishing the True Goal

Good kill criteria are established by working backward from the intended outcome (such as finishing a race or getting a specific finish time) and determining what would potentially lead to the failure of the goal.  More importantly, it’s important to work backward from the actual goal outcome, which may or may not be a finish or goal time.  While you think your goal might be finishing the race, your true goal might actually be to remain healthy beyond the event; therefore, anything that happens during the workout or event that challenges that ability to be healthy beyond that day would need to result in kill criteria that establish when to quit enroute to the event finish.

“Can I make it to the top…and can I then make it back down to the bottom?”  This is the question that mountaineers need to ask themselves when they are summiting a mountain.  It is this question that provides the framework for the kill criteria that is developed for these situations.  If the answer is “No”, then the mountaineer must turn around, which means that they do not meet their goal.  This question and decision process represents an incredibly significant acknowledgement that something is more important than the check in the box (the summit).

For a mountaineer, turning around within sight or within reach of the summit fails to meet the goal that the athlete has poured thousands of hours of preparation and tens of thousands of dollars into.  It is an excruciatingly difficult choice to make.  I actually know someone who has made this choice; one of the athletes I’m currently working with made it to the Hillary Step on Mount Everest at 2:00 p.m., which was 200 feet short of the summit (the Hillary Step was destroyed in a 2015 earthquake).  The summit was literally in their sight and grasp, and they turned around.

Would You Quit?

Think about it.  If you were within sight of the finish line of a race and you were faced with a situation where you were causing an injury to yourself or you were facing a medical emergency, could you or would you choose to quit?  I can tell you from experience that the answer to this question is a resounding “No” for almost all endurance athletes, especially age-group athletes.

I’ve been at races where I watched athletes pass out within sight of the finish line.  I’ve also seen an athlete go into full cardiac arrest (this means that the athlete died) within sight of a finish line (and then been part of the team who attempted to revive them).  I’ve heard countless tales of how athletes were “tough” and “persevered” through pain just to see themselves across a finish line. Yes, I can say with a high degree of certainty that most endurance athletes would not choose to quit, even if it was the wisest choice.  As crazy as it may sound when it’s said out loud, given the choice between quitting and an injury or medical situation, age-group athletes almost always choose the injury or medical situation.

Here’s what is deceptive about this.  Age-group athletes don’t see or truly acknowledge that this - choosing injury or medical complications - is the choice that they are making.  They are not saying to themselves, “I have two choices: Finish (or attempt to finish) with an injury or medical complications.  Or, I can stop and abate the injury or medical complications.”  They are not saying to themselves, “In order to finish, I am going to be injured and unable to do what I love to do for at least 4-8 weeks after this, and this finish is worth that to me.”  Instead, athletes are framing the choice as “all or nothing” because anything other than crossing the finish line, no matter what condition they cross the finish line in, is a failure.

An Elite Advantage

Elite and professional endurance athletes tend to be better at this than age-group athletes.  They will withdraw from a race (either in advance or mid-race) if they see that it’s not their day or if the cost of the finish is going to be too high.  They are able to accurately assess the cost-benefit and realize when finishing could be done, but when it would come at too high of a cost.  

For them, it’s as much a business decision as it is a personal one; if they get injured and are unable to race and perform, they will not get paid.  That being said, money is not their only motivating factor; the reason that they rose to the professional level in endurance sports in the first place is that they acquired a certain amount of wisdom and maturity that enabled them to rise that far.  In other words, the fact that they learn when it’s appropriate and best to quit is what enables them to reach higher levels of performance.  Age-group athletes can learn a lot from these behaviors.

In endurance sports, it’s not life and death like it is in mountaineering.  That being said, we often demonize bailing on or failing a workout, quitting a race that we’ve started, or changing our goals.  Here’s the reality: Endurance sports is actually more like the example set forth by the mountaineers.  There are so many moments when we need to put our egos aside and say, “No matter how much I might wish this was different, it’s just not my day today,” such as:

  • If there’s a logical reason for quitting.
  • If there’s a potential for an injury.
  • If you’re under the weather and doing the workout or race is going to dig you into a hole that will set you further back more than it will propel you forward toward your long-term goals.

The Bottom Line

Like everything, there’s balance here.  This isn’t a blanket blessing for quitting in all circumstances, because the answer isn’t always to quit.  That being said, endurance athletes can certainly learn from mountaineers about how to make the wise decision in the moment.  And sometimes, that wise decision is to quit.

We really need to reframe our thinking about quitting and failure as a culture, but until that larger change happens, change is left up to us as individuals.  If you can accept the truth that failing and quitting are a part of being an endurance athlete, your long-term strategy and effectiveness at achieving the goals you set for yourself will be significantly enhanced.  Embrace this, see failure and quitting for the great teachers that they are, and allow them to help propel you to great success.


Coach Laura Henry

Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.

She can be reached at

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