When we think of DNFs (Did Not Finish), we often think of devastation or failure. We get hung up on goals not achieved and expectations not met. We wallow. Sometimes we move on quickly, but other times we pick at ourselves like a scab, asking: “Could I have finished?” – “Am I not tough enough?” – “Could I have pushed through? Should I have pushed through?” We fixate on past shortcomings instead of turning these moments into opportunities for growth.
I tell my athletes after a bad race they’re allowed to be disappointed, angry, frustrated, or upset… but we set a time limit for that. Often, it’s a day, sometimes it’s a week. After that we move forward, we acknowledge what went well and we make notes for what we can change moving forward. We move forward because results do not define self-worth. While you’ve hopefully heard that before, I’d like to reiterate that for you here.
DNFs happen for many reasons. While I’ll acknowledge that finishing an ultra is hard, our sport (and some of its loudest voices) often puts ‘toughness’ on a pedestal, making a DNF feel like a moral failing. I’m not a coach who praises the “death before DNF” mentality, but I’ll also advise athletes, “You can drop if you’re hurt, but not if you’re hurting.” That might seem simplistic, but it gets to the heart of stepping off the start line of an ultra… you are setting out to explore your limits and at some point you’ll likely meet with discomfort, and when that happens you have a choice to make.
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Ultras have many physical challenges, some so extreme it’s hard or even impossible to practice them in training. People DNF for many physical reasons: injury, stomach problems, cramping, etc. We often chalk these up to the individual being underprepared for the race. However, runners (myself included) also DNF for psychological reasons. While the rationale for dropping might seem less clear, you could also say it stems from being underprepared. With that in mind, whether the reason for a DNF was physical or psychological or a combination of both, we can learn a lot from each of those experiences and grow as an ultra-endurance athlete in the process. This is the reason why you’ve likely heard someone say, “I learn more from my bad races than my good races.”
Learning from our DNFs is an active process. You don’t learn from a DNF just by experiencing it. So, the next time your race results in a DNF, follow up with this practice:
Debrief your race.
Be it solo or with your coach, get your feelings down on paper. It could be on a long lost blog, the notes app on your phone, or a training diary. Write it down! This can start as a descriptive play-by-play of the race and advance to an analysis of strengths and weaknesses. Even in the ‘worst race ever’ there was something you did well. Acknowledge that, too. Don’t focus on the DNF, focus on learning from the race experience you had. Highlight these in themes: pacing, sticking to plan, troubleshooting, nutrition, hydration, etc.
Don’t be complacent.
It’s easy to get hung up on “the one thing that went wrong” when it’s likely there was probably a 2nd and 3rd and 4th thing on that list. So ask yourself, “If my biggest problem was solved, what would the 2nd problem have been?” Dig deeper than “the one thing that went wrong” because you may find that it was really only the most memorable.
Reset your intentions.
A common misstep in racing is letting your ‘plan’ get the best of you. Going into a race obsessed solely on a result or finishing time (particularly as races grow longer in distance) can set you up for failure. What this looks like in real life is when you recognize you’re not going to make your arbitrary goal (say finishing in under 24 hours in your 100-mile race or missing your splits at the 50mile mark) and you unravel because that goal seems to be slipping through your fingertips. Instead, make a pace chart for you crew and then forget about the numbers yourself. Focus your in-race energy on taking care of the tasks at hand in the mile you’re in. The ultimate intention is to finish, and your preparation and ability to handle tasks within each mile will determine whether you achieve your secondary goals.
Racking up a DNF can feel like a ticket into a lonely club, but the truth is you’re not alone. All ultrarunners have good stories about times things didn’t pan out, and if they don’t it just means they haven’t been in the sport long enough. Share those stories, learn their lessons, and keep moving forward to your next finish line. Don’t live in dread of a DNF, but rather fear missing out on the opportunity to learn from one.