I had a discussion with Tom Fisher at our recent 12 hour Mt. Bike race about digging holes. Tom was 10 and a half hours in to a 12 hour race and upon reaching the end of his thirteenth lap (and the nice warm lodge) had decided to quit. Now Tom is aspiring to be a pretty hard-core adventurer/endurance athlete. He's also only 18. I couldn't let him do it.
You see, Tom had a unique opportunity. He had spent the last 10 hours digging himself a pretty deep hole. His body was trashed - broken down from pushing through lap after lap after little sleep the night before. Mentally he felt like he had little to nothing left to give. He hadn't been finding any enjoyment in the race for hours, and by all accounts he deserved to be able to stop. But if he had, he'd have missed it. He'd have given up the opportunity that he'd worked so hard and suffered for so long to create - to see if he could dig just a little deeper.
Endurance undertakings always end in a hole. Some people only let themselves dig so deep - maybe so that they can still peek out of the top and feel confident that they will be able to climb out when all is said and done. But serious endurance undertakings are a bit harder to train for, because they usually involve, at least for me - going beyond this mental safety zone. Did Tom feel destroyed? Sure. But what if he'd been in the middle of nowhere? A jungle, the desert, or a frozen wasteland like on the Arrowhead trail that he completed last year? The option to stop because he feels destroyed is gone. If he doesn't have the mental fortitude so suck it up and soldier on he might really be at risk out there one day.
I, personally, am a suffer-o-phile through and through. For me the thought of stopping with an hour and a half left in a race doesn't even enter my consciousness unless i'm certain i'm risking irreparable injury. But I'm the odd man out, and at our event many competitors with less ambition in terms of future extreme endurance undertakings stopped early because riding was no longer fun. That's probably the right call for them and i'd never try to change their minds or shame them into continuing. But make no mistake about it - i've got no qualms doing just that with Tom, or any like him, who dream of ten day adventure races, 'too much fun' type expeditions, or other feats of extreme endurance.
It took nearly half a day for Tom to create his opportunity - to be able to decide to press on when 'all circuits' were off. And as often happens when that decision is made, the hour or so afterward - his last lap - was the best of the day.