DNF – A NEW PERSPECTIVE

DNF – A NEW PERSPECTIVE

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A DNF, or “Did not Finish” is the scarlet letter of the ultrarunning world. Many ultrarunners dread even thinking about the possibility of not finishing a race… Some people get sick to their stomach when thinking about a past DNF… They think that they failed. But I’m here to tell you that it shouldn’t be that way. I want to share my DNF experience with you, give you my perspective on it, and see if there might be a better way we can think about a DNF.

My DNF at the Run Rabbit Run 100 race back in 2016 is a perfect example to learn from since it involves multiple forms of tribulation. I am going to share with you my short race report that I wrote the day after failing to cross the finish line. Afterward, we will discuss the concept of a “preventable DNF” vs. an “unpreventable” one. We will also discuss the silver linings, as well as tips for mental prep, problem-solving, and establishing goals, all around the concept of a DNF.

Here’s the race report:

“Well, I picked a BEAST of a 100-miler for my debut and fell short of my goal. I completed 73 miles with 24,000ft of elevation change in approximately 20 hours.

The first 42 miles went smoothly, trying hard to reserve myself for the rest of the race, but in hindsight, STILL probably moving too fast. I picked up my first pacer, Chad, and we set off for a grueling climb up the Fish Creek Falls trail to Long Lake. The night started to set in as we climbed, the air instantaneously turning frigid. Having suffered in the heat for so long during the day, the temperature change was bitter-sweet. I felt like my energy was diminishing though, maybe I didn’t eat enough early in the race? Maybe I ate too much at the last aid station (a large bowl of mashed potatoes and vegetarian chili with tortilla chips)? Either way, I was fading. About half-way up the climb, we saw one of my favorite professional ultrarunners Sage Canaday run past us looking strong. We wished each other luck (we knew each other through our friend Aaron) and he disappeared into the full-moon lit forest. Not even a minute later, we found Sage again, hugging a tree and dry-heaving before he took off again ahead of us.

I had 2 “dark-spots” during this race, the first of which was about 3/4 up the Fish Creek Falls trail climb, about an hour after our encounter with Sage. I felt like I was getting too cold, too quickly. Some of my warmer clothes were in my drop-bag at the next aid-station, but were no help to me now. My energy kept fading simultaneously with the cold setting in. I got very sleepy, and felt as if I was going to uncontrollably fall asleep while hiking. Then I had my moment… I think I was hiking too fast for a particularly hard section for only a moment before I knew it, I could feel my heart beating strongly through my neck, then my legs started tingling and I lost control of their coordination. I quickly lowered myself to the ground and asked Chad for a minute to rest. I told Chad, “If I don’t come out of this somehow, there’s no way I can finish the remaining 55-60 miles of this race.” I knew I was going to feel like crap, but not this early. Chad encouraged me to continue, my right middle-finger was numb all the way through my second knuckle. I held my head in my hands for a minute before I activated a hand-warmer I had I found in my pack and stuffed it into my glove. I stood up and continued on, trudging along until we got to the Long Lake aid-station.

At Long Lake, I grabbed a chair and sat next to a fire in a circle of other runners having stumbled in off this crazy course. A circle of misery. I looked around and no one was doing well. The “healthy-runners” didn’t even stay for the fire, they grabbed some food, and off they went. But around the fire? A man to my right just finished puking and his wife who was also his pacer was trying to convince him not to drop out. To my left? A man convulsing uncontrollably, most likely due to encroaching hypothermia. And there I sat, once again holding my head in my hands, trying to eat a bowl of Ramen noodles. We stayed there for about 20 minutes, warming up and eating. I felt so much better I thought it was a miracle. I put on some warmer clothes then Chad and I ventured off into the wilderness again.

The next 20 miles were pretty uneventful power-hike/jogging through rolling hills followed by an 11 mile, 3500ft descent. Along this descent my knees started throbbing, increasing ultimately until I couldn’t even walk anymore. My knees (left hurt a bit more than the right) hurt so badly, I could barely breathe while hike-jogging downhill, even while using my trekking-poles for assistance to attenuate the damage, but nothing was working. I sat down at the bottom of the hill and my knees stiffened up. As a physical therapist, I started to worry about the integrity of my knee joints. I wondered, “Is it worth it? Live to run another day. Don’t destroy your knees and potentially sabotage your running career.” So I dropped out. This was extremely hard for me. I felt okay with it by telling people “I am in so much pain, that finishing this thing would only be possible if my life depended on it”, which was basically true.

It was a brutal course, and maybe I’ll return in the future to claim my redemption. But for right now, I’m embracing my failure as an essential part of my growth as a deserved ultra-runner.”

Let’s break this down. First, let’s talk about the concept of a “preventable DNF” vs. an “unpreventable DNF”. This concept is pretty self-explanatory… A preventable DNF is one where the circumstances that lead an individual to quit could have been otherwise avoided with preventative or anticipatory measures. For example, the first major problem I experienced during my race was extreme fatigue and lack of preparedness for the cold temperatures. Was this preventable? Yes. The fatigue was likely multifactorial, but some of it was probably related to my dropping body temperature. I could have easily placed my cold-weather gear in my pre-evening, mile 42 drop bag instead of assuming that I would be fine until I got to mile 55. It’s also likely that my nutrition was not on-pointe, thus another easily preventable factor. I do believe that I didn’t eat enough prior to mile 42, then ate way too much at once at mile 42 which lead to a disturbance in my energy substrates.

The major examples of “preventable DNFs” are usually relating to poor nutrition, hydration, pacing, lack of preparedness for weather conditions, and undertraining. As Chris Johnson has been known to say, “A professional is one who cuts the odds against them.” This goes the same for ultrarunners. We cannot afford to be underprepared and make preventable mistakes. Preventable DNF or not, we use these experiences to learn and motivate ourselves. Then ultimately, we need to move on.

At Run Rabbit Run, my second major issue… the one that ended up taking me out entirely, was the severe knee pain I experienced during miles 60 to 73. It’s hard to determine if this was a “preventable” issue since it could have been antagonized by an aggressive early pace… or just the fact that I was running farther than I ever had before, on rugged mountainous terrain… but we may never know, and for today’s discussion we will categorize it under “physical harm, injury, illness, or medical”.

If you happen to severely roll an ankle causing you to suspect a broken bone… maybe you start peeing blood… or impale yourself with a branch… Just stop. Please. A lot of times these situations are not preventable and they just happen. There is always a risk of something unfortunate happening during a race. Illness, injury, severe weather, etc. There may not have been anything you could have done about it, but it happened. These things, if they lead to a DNF, are what we call “unpreventable DNFs” and are usually less damaging to the ego. We still take what we learned and move on.

It was hard for me to accept the fact that I was quitting my race simply because of knee pain. But the pain was so severe that I could barely stand up again after sitting for only a few minutes. Ultramarathons are not worth sabotaging our health for. Injury and undue harm to the body is a very justified reason to DNF under most circumstances… 

When I decided to DNF, I still had approximately 15 hours to cover the remaining 33 miles of the race… Something VERY do-able even if I just walked the entire time. This was the part that was hardest for me to get over. I very likely could have just gotten up and gotten it done. But now thinking about it, quitting where I did… in the state that I was in… It took me over 2 months to get back to regular running over 20 miles per week. Imagine what state I would have been in at the finish… Imagine how much longer it may have taken running away from me. Not to mention how miserable that 15 hours would have been. NOT worth it if you ask me.

I’m happy with my decision to DNF that day. I went into the race thinking DNF wasn’t even an option, and that’s why this experience tore at me for so long. I hadn’t mentally prepped for the possibility of not finishing. This was a major mistake. I left Steamboat Springs the next morning, shameful, not sure what to tell my family and friends. I thought I was a failure. It took years for me to realize everything I gained that day. How I ran farther than I ever had before. How I got to experience an adventure with friends and like-minded runners. How I have never been more motivated to train smart, train hard, and set appropriate goals and expectations for myself. And how I will one day return to finish the race with more fulfillment than I can even imagine.

Here’s some general advice for you all for us to wrap this up with:

Never go into a race thinking DNF isn’t on the table.

DNF needs to always be an option. Failing to realize this can lead to undue physical harm and failing to realize that a DNF can result in a positive outcome.

Always be mentally prepared to deal with the possibility of a DNF. 

Think about it ahead of time. How will you try to negotiate with yourself? Or how will you negotiate with others? How will you try to convince yourself and others that your race is over? Or how will you try to convince them that it’s not? Will you be open to feedback from others? How will you take it afterward? Are you willing to learn from the experience? Or let it drown you?

Assess the Situation

When you run into a problem during a race, assess the situation. How severe is the issue? Can you keep moving while you decide how bad it is? Will slowing down help the situation? If you have made efforts to improve a certain situation and those solutions have failed, then it’s time to seriously consider a DNF.

Rely on Others to Help you Decide

Let’s face it. Your brain is likely not able to make fully competent decisions when you’re dealing with a possible DNF. Bring people you trust and believe in you to your races. Let them crew you, pace you, and just be there for you. Lean on them. Maybe you’re thinking about DNF’ing, but they think you’re situation isn’t really that bad. It could save you from an unjustified DNF that you would later regret. Or more commonly, they can help you make the smart decision to quit.

If you have to DNF, take the time to reflect.

Reflect on how it made you feel. Why did it make you feel that way? What did you accomplish? How will you better prepare yourself for next time? How will this experience help you shift your goals?

I am going to leave you with something I remember Kilian Jornet saying. I don’t remember exactly what he said and I can’t find the video it came from, but I’ll do my best:

Embrace not finishing. If you succeed at everything, you’ll have nothing left to work towards.”

AJ Cohen - Physical Therapist For Runners in Fort Collins CO
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AJ Cohen

Up And Running Physical Therapy

"We Help Runners And Active Adults In The Fort Collins Area Overcome Injury And Be Stronger Than Ever, Avoid Unnecessary Time Off, All Without Medications, Injections, Or Surgery."

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