I was standing behind the race barriers at the inaugural Ironman Coeur d'Alene when an extremely fit man grabbed the barrier supports about 10 feet away from me and began vomiting his entire stomach contents onto the ground. He was bent over making the worst retching noises I had heard since my college days.
About then, one of the race officials walked by and I motioned to him to come over and take a look at the man because I was certain the fellow in bright pink running shorts was not going to finish the race. I estimated the racer to be at least 60-years-young and I was convinced that his age added to the likelihood that his race day was over.
The race official spoke with the sick racer, asking if he needed to go to the medical tent. The racer said, "No, I just need to get this junk out of my stomach. Then I'll need to rest a bit. I'll get some fluid into me and then I will finish the race."
A volunteer got the racer a chair and told me she would stay with the fellow to be sure he didn't need medical attention. When I left them, I told myself, "That guy's day is over."
Later that night at the finish line, you can imagine how surprised I was to see pink-shorts-guy trotting down the finish chute and becoming an official Ironman. I don't recall the exact time, but I think he had somewhere around 30 minutes to spare. Apparently he made the right decision to re-group and continue the race. He said he slowed his pace to a walk and an occasional jog, while consuming sports drink, chicken broth and water. At the end of the race he said he felt "reasonably well...considering his earlier condition."
While this fellow pushed on and finished the race, I've seen plenty of other racers call it a day and end their race with similar symptoms. I believe these racers also made the right decision.
If you're ever faced with illness during a race, how do you know when to call it quits? Should you keep racing or DNF (did not finish)?
What happened leading up to your problem(s)?
If you begin to feel bad during your race, one of the first things to consider is what happened leading up to your problems? Did you feel bad in the few days or weeks prior to the race? Did you cut calories in the few days before the race? Did you eat or drink something the night before the event, or on race day, that didn't agree with you? Did you get behind on nutrition or hydration during the race? Did you push the pace too much? Were the conditions hot? Did you swallow a bunch of sea water?
The potential root cause, or causes, of feeling bad will influence whether you should end your race or not. If you've been feeling bad in the days leading up to the race, there's a chance you have a bug and you are probably better off ending your race. If you think you have food poisoning, it's another good reason to end your event.
If you got behind on nutrition, ate something during the race that didn't agree with you, pushed the pace too hard, or swallowed a bunch of sea water there is a good chance you can salvage the race. You may need to slow down or stop and rest for a bit; but that may be all you need to get yourself in good enough shape to continue.
If you stop or slow down, how do you feel?
Sometimes slowing your pace or stopping can make you feel better. And yes, sometimes vomiting can make you feel better.
If you stop or slow down and you don't feel any better—or perhaps you feel worse—it's a good indication you should end your race day.
If you can empty your stomach contents of what's not sitting well, then begin sipping on a sports drink to refuel and rehydrate—maybe you can continue to race.