Question: You and a friend encounter a hungry bear in the forest. How fast do you have to run to not get caught by the bear?This joke has more to do with contesting than it might seem. Consider the IARU Radiosport contest that took place this weekend. I hadn't planned on entering the contest since I don't like being locked in the shack during summer weather. That is, until I saw that the weather would be bad and other plans I had made were cancelled. So what better way to spend a dreary, free day.
Answer: Faster than your friend.
Then conditions happened. Solar flux was already very low and geomagnetic activity increased to storm level. At my magnetic latitude that is bad news. Sure enough, some tuning around the bands the night before and the morning of the contest produced only a small quantity of weak and watery signals. Several of the super-stations had decent signals but were often 30 db or more below what was expected. That's a lot of ionospheric absorption.
This immediately brings up the question of whether to operate at all, either competitively or part time just for fun. But this question raises another: why should the conditions factor into the decision at all?
Let's revisit the joke, this time with variations. Image your name is Usain Bolt and you're at the Olympic final of the 100 meter sprint event. If your nearest competitor finishes in 10 seconds his average speed is 10 m/s, or 36 kph (23 mph). You need to run faster than that. Even if you want to do your best, say 9.5 seconds, there is really no point in having a time better than 9.99 seconds if gold is your objective. Look right and left, see that you're ahead and ease off the throttle.
Now imagine we're back in the woods facing that bear. The problem is the same although you might need to run a slower 6 m/s to "win" if your friend can only run 5.5 m/s. Now imagine your legs are tied together such that you and your friend can only hop away from the bear. Then add that neither of you are wearing shoes and the ground is paved with gravel (ouch!).
The competition remains the same. Run faster than your friend and you win. The absolute speed is not what's important even if it feels like a terrible handicap.
Contests are like that, with bad conditions as the handicap. Your rate, QSOs and multipliers may be low yet you can still win. All you need is to have higher totals than your competitors. After all, they have the same handicap. That is, if their locations and stations are similar. Otherwise the handicaps are not equal so you may indeed begin to worry.
Operating a contest in poor conditions may not be as enjoyable because of the reduced activity, weak signals and the higher bands not opening at all. However that has nothing to do with winning. Sure you won't break any records even if you do win, but a win is a win; you can achieve a gold medal with a poor score and being bored for most of the contest.
If your motivation to participate in a contest is the enjoyment of working lots of stations far away this may have been a contest to skip. On the other hand, if your motivation is simply to win the conditions are irrelevant; you must operate and do the best with the prevailing conditions. Certainly those aiming to qualify for WRTC 2018 were all active in the contest.
Since I'm more into the fun aspect of this contest I opted to just play around for a few hours here and there. I even called a few CQs on 10 meters just to see if there was some sporadic-E to enable a few QSOs (there wasn't). Eventually the ionosphere relented and everyone's rate returned to normal.
There is just one to run from a bear. There can be many reasons to operate a contest. When conditions are poor think about that.