The Dreaded First Bail

Bail is like a ‘four-letter word’ to many runners. Don’t say it, don’t consider it, don’t even think of it! – BY SEAN FALCONER
The other day I was doing commentary at the Hout Bay Trail Challenge in Cape Town, which doubled up as the SA Ultra Distance Trail Champs, so it featured a 40km event as well as an ultra 65km. After handling the start down in Hout Bay Harbour, I drove up Suikerbossie Hill to the Suikerbossie Restaurant, which served as the first checkpoint, around 15km into the race, where I did a bit of vibe point commentary to give the runners a bit of a push up the mountain as they began ascending Table Mountain.
One of the backmarkers came through, checked in, had a drink and then was on his way again, but about 15 minutes later he came walking back into the restaurant parking lot, shaking his head and looking dejected. I asked him if he was OK, and he said his stomach was giving him problems and he was feeling nauseous, to such an extent that he didn’t think he could go on. He then asked if I knew if anybody was going back down to the Harbour that could give him a lift back to his car, and I said no problem, ride with me, as I was heading back in a short while once the last runners were through.
Once we began driving, he told me this was the first time he had ever bailed a race and he was feeling really dejected, because he had been told by fellow runners that once you bail the first time, you’ll be that much more likely to bail again the next time the going gets a bit tough. Quite frankly, the way he was speaking, he sounded like his running career had just come to an end! So I decided to tell him about my experience with bailing, to assure him that this was ‘just a bad day in the office,’ and that he would not in fact become a serial bailer.
My First Bail
I started running regularly in 1995, when I was 19, and it took about six months for me to hit my first wall in the Elsies River Half Marathon. I had run a 21km PB the weekend before, but this day my stomach packed up on me completely after about three kays. I limped my way to the 10km mark and then decided to call it quits… because the sweep vehicle went right past me, trailing behind a great-grandmaster, when I had pulled over at a water table.
I realised this was just pointless, so I turned around and walked back – thankfully the route was three out-and-back sections, so I only had to do another two kays – but the worst was when the runners coming home all streamed past me, with everybody telling me, “Almost there, just keep going.” I felt like such a loser!
The result of that was that I simply refused to even contemplate bailing again, and it took another five years before I bailed a second time. This time it was in the 2000 Tygerberg 30km, which climbs the infamous Big Momma hill behind Durbanville. I had run a comfortable half marathon in Moorreesburg the day before, but one of my shoes gave up the game near the finish, so the next day I took a different new pair to race in.
These shoes were obviously not quite right for my biomechanics, making me run with slightly more pressure on the outer side of my feet, and immediately after starting I could feel it. Two kays in and I was in pain. After five kays I was struggling. By the time I got to 10km I was limping so badly that my left foot was turned sideways! So when I saw somebody I knew at the bottom of Big Momma, out supporting fellow runners, I thumbed a lift.
Somewhere around 2005 or 2006 I remember bailing out of the Hermanus Half Marathon because my lower back was so sore that I simply couldn’t run. I got to about 13km before packing it in, and again that was only after walking for kay after kay in the hope that the problem would go away. Once again I felt like a loser, and it would be another six years before I bailed again, this time on day two of the Wild Coast Wild Run, because it felt like I had a hairline fracture in my shin.
Painful Experience
I actually broke my own rule that day by popping a painkiller before starting the day’s stage, because I was determined not to give up, but 23km in, at the entrance to the Dwesa-Cwebe Nature Reserve, I was told this was the last possible point to bail – otherwise I had no choice but to carry on for another 13 kays.
I realised I was probably going to do long-term damage if I continued, and it really sucked to pack it in, having done 44km the day before as well, but I didn’t think it was worth it to continue. And this is where it gets interesting…
Just behind me on that stage of the run was another hobbling running, a guy I had worked alongside in a previous job. His knee had seized up during the first day, and he was now limping on a heavily strapped leg – he couldn’t bend his knee, and was walking with a crutch made from a branch!
His wife was alongside him, trying to help, and she suggested he consider bailing with me at that last checkpoint, but he refused. His mates cheered him on as they headed up the beach, while I slunk off to the bakkie and began the long detour drive to the day’s finish point.
Once again I felt like a loser, made even worse when the hobbling hero actually made it all the way through the third and final day, to a standing ovation at the finish line! I wanted the ground to swallow me…
Three months later I was long since recovered from that shin problem and running regularly when I bumped into the hero in the shops, and he told me his sad story: Turns out he did so much damage to the knee by carrying on that he now needed surgery! Suddenly that bail didn’t seem quite so bad any more.
Lessons Learnt
So, that’s four bails in nearly 22 years of running, during which time I have completed hundreds and hundreds of races. If the theory held that once you start bailing, you will always bail, then I would have become a serial bailer way back in 1995 already.
But bailing a first time actually made me that much more determined not to bail again, and the next three bails were incredibly hard to do… and then only after I had walked quite a few kays trying to recover or feel better.
So, this was the message I tried to pass on to the dejected trail runner in the drive back down to Hout Bay Harbour. It’s a short drive, so I obviously gave him the summarised version, but hopefully he took heart from what I said… and then bounced back soon afterwards with another solid finish in his next race.
The point is, sometimes bailing is the wise choice, especially if it means you avoid doing serious or long-term damage that could keep you out of running for months or even years. But I can assure you, bailing never gets easier. In fact, it gets harder each time!