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Connecting Ultrarunners Across The Globe

International 100+ UltraRunning Foundation

Want To Finish An Ultra?

The One Question You Must Ask,

And The One Test You Must Take

February 2015                                    By Claire Nana

It’s the ultimate measure of a runner. Many train years for it, hire coaches, collect an assortment of running shoes, GPS watches, foam rollers, stretch bands, toe socks and blister kits. And they ask questions: What is the best way to train? How many miles should you run weekly? What is the best type of shoes to wear? Should you cross train? Heat train? Altitude train?

And yet for all the training and preparation, crossing the 100 mile line seems to evade most. To be sure, the typical finish rate for a 100 mile race is less than 60%. And races of greater difficulty -- such as the 153 mile Spartathlon race from Athens to Sparta -- have much lower percentages.

Stepping back and looking at the numbers, naturally the question arises: What are we missing? What really separates the finishers from those who try multiple times -- and yet can’t seem to finish?

Running coaches would tell you it is miles -- the more you run the greater your chances of finishing. But these same people fail sometimes too. Taking at look at the running performances of three professional running coaches -- who have a presence on-line -- I found a total of 13 DNFs, and one coach had not one single 100 mile completion. And they all claim to run between 75 and 100 miles per week.

If miles is it, the odds are not good.

On the other hand, I found three competitors -- not professionals -- with zero total DNFs, and over thirty 100 mile races completed between them. And they run between 75 and 100 miles per week as well.

Perhaps the secret to finishing a 100 mile race is to run high mileage, but not be a professional runner? The stats don’t hold up here either. With the average finish rate at the Spartathlon -- a race with elite contenders -- at just over 40%, it’s hard to imagine that only 40% of the participants were running high mileage.

There has to be something else that separates those who succeed to finish from those who DNF.

There is one thing. And it can be measured. It’s called grit.

The grit measure is a test with high statistical consistency (between .73 and .83) that has been demonstrated as the one predictive factor of success in a wide variety of settings -- even when controlling for across culture, age, Socio Economic Status, talent and skill. (Duckworth & Quinn, 2009).

Considering Socio Economic Status, Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, high school rank, and the Big Five Personality Trait, Conscientiousness, it’s the one score that independently predicts the success of the U.S. Military West Point cadets (Duckworth, Peterson, Mathews, & Kelly, 2007). In assessing grit’s ability to predict the grade point average of Ivy League graduates, the ranking on the National Spelling Bee, and the retention at West Point, Mathews and Kelly (2007) found, “Grit nonetheless demonstrated incremental predictive validity of success measures over and beyond IQ and conscientiousness.”

In another study, Willingham (1985), notes, “Among more than 3,500 participants attending nine different colleges, follow-through (grit) was a better predictor than all other variables, including SAT scores and high school rank, of whether a student would achieve a leadership position in college. Follow through was also the single best predictor of significant accomplishment in science, art, sports, communications, organization, or some other endeavor,” (p. 213).

So how do we measure grit? Andrei Nana, ultra runner and founder of Nana Endurance Training -- and someone who specializes in grit -- explains, “It’s a short test, and it takes just a few minutes to complete.”

The scale is a 12 question -- in the case of the short grit test, 8 question -- test that lists statements such as, “I overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge,” and asks the tester to rate the degree to which the statements are like them. The rating range from “not like me at all,” to “very much like me,” with point values from one to five assigned to each answer. The results from each of the 12 questions are then added together and divided by 12. The higher the score -- from a total possible of 5 -- the grittier the person.

Nana continues, “For us, it’s the first measure, and it’s the one that matters most. If someone doesn’t have a high (grit) score, that is where we start -- with exercises to build their grit.”

Just what are these exercises to build grit?

According to Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, developing a “growth mindset” -- the kind that believes that intelligence is “incremental”, and success is based on hard work, learning, training and doggedness. For Dweck developing this mindset begins with how we respond to setbacks. In her words, “individuals with a "growth" theory are more likely to continue working hard despite setbacks.”

Dweck’s work is supported by Martin Seligman, well known as the father of positive psychology and the author of Learned Optimism, who began by studying learned helplessness, the opposite of grit. What Seligman discovered -- and what he now teaches -- is the way we explain events to ourselves (our attributions) defines how we respond to setbacks and failures. Those who see setbacks as long lasting, pervasive, and personal, tend to give up quickly. On the other hand, those who look at setbacks as temporary, not pervasive, and not personal, persevere in the face of difficult circumstances.

And for Nana, the grit score has huge implications for ultra running. He states, “If that one score isn’t high, the rest of the training program doesn’t matter, because what that tells me is that when the going gets tough -- and it will in a 100 mile race -- the person will not be equipped to handle it and will quit.”

And Nana should know, with over 22 completed races of 100 miles or more -- and two Spartathlon finishes -- he also founded of International 100 + Ultra Running Foundation, and the Icarus Florida UltraFest. Nana has made a habit out of studying race finishes. To be sure, he screens all requests to join his Ultra Running Facebook Group.

The entrance requirement? Completion of a 100 mile or 100 K race.

So back to that one question. Do you have grit?

And that one test? It’s the grit scale.

For more information on Nana Endurance Training, the International Ultrarunning Foundation, or Andrei Nana, visit:


Duckworth, A., Quinn, P. (2009). Development and Validation of the Short Grit Scale. Journal of Personality Assessment, 91 (2), 166-174, 2009.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Seligman, Martin. (1998). Learned Optimism. New York, NY: Pocket Books.

Willingham, W. W. (1985). Success in college: The role of personal qualities and academic ability. New York: College Entrance Examination Board.

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