Did not finish, also known as a DNF. Those three dreaded words (or letters) tend to conjure up feelings of failure for any athlete. To not finish a race means you failed. Or does it?
I experienced my first DNF at a 50k a couple of years ago. I expected it though. I entered the race despite being injured in the weeks leading up to it. It was a “girl’s weekend” race, so I figured I would go and run as many miles as I could to get in a good training run and see how my injury felt. I stopped at 18 miles and was really happy because I still felt good when I finished. I knew I was undertrained and finishing the race would put me at risk for another injury. Some might not enter a race if they know they will not finish, or because they entered might push too far and risk injury just to avoid the DNF and prove something. Prove what? To who? I was proud because I proved to myself that I could be smart, take care of my body, and have fun. I hung out with the race directors and other participants until my friend finished and celebrated her victory. It was a great experience. I don’t love seeing DNF next to my name in the race results, but that’s more because I know others don’t understand why it is a DNF. It doesn’t matter though, I know.
Then a few months later, injury-free and well trained, I drove up to the mountains for a 46-mile race. It was awful. The course was not well marked and had a lot of unrunnable sections. A lot of us got off course in the first few miles, which threw us off our mental game and the constant walk breaks for climbing or traversing loose rock beds prevented me from getting into a groove and mentally was wearing me out. The climbs were making my hip flexors and lower back hurt. By mile 40, my body hurt and mentally I was done. I dragged myself to the next aid station at a road crossing and called a friend for a ride to the finish line. That night, I was so mad at myself. Why didn’t I push myself those last 6 miles – well because I had already been struggling for miles and was in physical pain and had an even bigger race a few months later. You forget those things when you get into this negative headspace though. I felt like a failure and started doubting my abilities to run ultras. It was a long and very disappointing night for me.
The next day as I was driving home, something happened. I started asking myself why I failed? I was so confident going into that race and felt so well trained. I wasn’t mentally prepared for walking so much due to loose rocks and steep climbs. I was trained for the mileage, but not the elevation. I had great fitness, but not specific to that terrain. I knew the course for my big race had much more elevation and would have much longer sections that required walking. Instead of berating myself, I started using this run to figure out what I needed to do differently and devised a game plan to improve my training. By the time I got home, I was excited again. I knew what I had to change and I was confident that, with a few more months to go, I would be able to complete my next mountain race.
I believe it is time that we begin to rethink our DNFs. Instead of them being failures they should be a learning experience. Begin by asking yourself, “Why did I DNF?” and “What could I have done differently?” Then, use this as a chance to improve your training and succeed in future races.