Coming to Terms with a DNF

At some point in an ultrarunner’s career there will be a DNF, Did Not Finish. They happen for many reasons. Regardless of the reason, in the moment, it feels like an absolutely legitimate reason. Then there is the next morning, where you’ve slept and eaten a real meal, at that time, your reason for pulling out of the race may feel like the wrong decision.

It’s hard not to beat yourself up over, what you see as, a less than adequate reason for the DNF. And maybe some self criticism is warranted, doubtful but maybe. The problem is it gets you no where. It doesn’t help you improve. It doesn’t make the DNF go away. It doesn’t make you feel like getting back out there.

I have three DNFs. All three of them were in the same year! The first was at the Speedgoat 50k. My dropping from the race wasn’t voluntary. I missed the cut off by five minutes. The second was at my first 100 miler, Pony Express 100. I went into the race injured. I had rolled my ankle 5 weeks before and then proceeded to run on it for a relay run for 50 miles. I couldn’t let my team down and knew when I chose to do the relay, I was putting my 100 at risk. At mile 75 of the 100, my knee was so painful I could barely walk. I decided it wasn’t worth risking a long time injury. My last DNF was at Buffalo Run 50 miler. I pulled out 12 miles from the finish with mild hypothermia. I had stayed in an aid station waiting for warm broth. During the time I was there my body temperature dropped, since I wasn’t moving. The next morning I went out and finished the last 12 miles.

It sucks to get a DNF. I remember each of these very vividly. I did beat myself up after each and everyone, especially the Buffalo Run 100. After sulking for a week, I decided I was done and I was going to learn from each of these experiences. I went back and asked myself several questions about each.

What when wrong?

What could have prevented the DNF?

What can I do to include these prevention strategies in my training in the future?

Ultimately, I decided two of the three could have been prevented. I realized my training for Speedgoat was not what it should have been to make the cut off times. For Buffalo, I learned to never stay in an aid station for more than what is absolutely necessary. I talk to my crew about this every time. I also learned how to better educate my crew and how to pick crew who will throw me back out into the cold, even if it’s a blizzard.

You can look at a DNF in two different ways and you’ll likely see both in each DNF you have beginning with the Did Not Finish and concluding Did Nothing Fatal.




DNF: Did Not Finish or Did Nothing Fatal

Salt Flats sixty-six percent dropout rate was high for an Ultramarathon, even a 100-mile event. The Angels Crest, Hardrock, Leadville, and Wasatch 100s, all have high dropout rates due to their massive climbs, and strict time cutoffs.
I have three DNF’s beside my name (if you decide to google it) for the ultramarathon distances. My first DNF was at Speedgoat 50k 2012, which is advertised to be the most difficult 50k in the lower 48 states. My second was at the Buffalo 50 mile run in 2013. The third, Pony Express 100 also 2013. A DNF comes with the territory of running Ultras. There are so many things that can go wrong when you are pushing your body and mind to their limits over 12, 24, or 36 hours.
Speedgoat 50k is held at Snow Bird Ski Resort in Salt Lake City, Utah. It takes place at the end of July. The weather in July is typically hot, 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the valleys. But, Speedgoat is not in the valley. It starts at 7500 feet above sea level, which isn’t that bad if you live here in Utah because the valley is about 5500 feet above sea level. Speedgoat doesn’t stay at 7500, of course, it climbs over 11,000 feet three times. The total ascent over the 31 miles (50k) is 11,600 feet. The decent is the same. There are strict cutoff times. In 2012, I missed the 21-mile cutoff by five minutes and was pulled from the race. I went back in 2013 and finished the race.
Buffalo 50 mile is not especially difficult, but it is held during the early spring on Antelope Island in northern Utah. The weather in 2013, was extremely unpleasant for running. The race director decided to give the 100-mile runners the option to drop to the 50 during the race because it was so cold. My hydration pack leaked soaking my base layer, and I ended up with hypothermia at mile 38. I decided to drop. I went out the following morning and finished the last 12 miles. In 2014, I finished the Buffalo 50 all in one go.
Pony Express 100, is run on the infamous Pony Express Route used during the American Civil war to transport mail overland using horses and riders. It is a mostly flat course and is challenging because you use the same muscle group over the whole race rather than switching to ascending and descending. Five weeks before the race, I rolled my ankle badly and rather than rest the injury, I chose to continue to run because I had a team race (Red Rock Relay), and I was not willing to let my team down since I was assigned 55 miles of the race. Needless to say, it was not fully healed when I ran Pony Express, and I dropped at 72 miles. I will finish Pony Express this year.
Now that I’m thinking about it, I also dropped out of a duathlon (bike and run) race to take over my son’s spot because he had heatstroke in the middle of the event, and I didn’t want his team to be disqualified. I finished the race, just on another team, so that is also recorded as a DNF.
The decision to drop out of a race is a difficult one and frequently compounded by not thinking entirely clear at the later stages of a race due to exhaustion, low blood sugar, and/or pain. I think many runners consider dropping at some point during a 100-mile event. It’s hard! Race directors do not want their race to be easy. They get great pleasure out constructing a challenging course.
DNF is not a failure. It’s a learning opportunity. The most important thing is to not let it close the door. Each time I have not finished a race, regardless of the reason, I go back the next year, and I finish. I won’t leave it undone.
So to all my fellow runners, who Did Nothing Fatal at Salt Flats 100, get back out there, dust yourselves off, and I’ll see you next year at the finish line.