Thursday, February 3, 2011

Who's afraid of a DNF?

Me. Over here - I am.

Well, maybe afraid isn't the right word... but I don't really enjoy them. I avoid them wherever possible. I find them highly distasteful.

Ok, fine, DNFs suck. And actually, it was that statement exactly that led to me writing this post.

I was told just yesterday that I worry too much about DNFs, and as this feedback came from a seasoned ultrarunning veteran whom I respect highly, it got my attention. And what exactly prompted the feedback? I told a fellow runner that "DNFs suck" and he should "do everything he could not to DNF"...  

I can see how this may give the impression that I hold DNFs in a negative light.

This fellow, my veteran associate, was arguing that I need to re-examine that attitude. And, I decided he's right.

Re-adjusting the attitude

Truth is, his comments did get me thinking, and I realized that I do fear DNFs... and I realized that's not entirely rational. It would be nice to be able to re-frame the concept of a DNF, because, let's face it - they are going to happen.

In fact, if we're not getting DNFs, then we may not be pushing hard enough.

Why? Because some DNFs happen when you dare to enter a race you are not sure you can finish. When you eye up a race, find it challenging, realize you're not even sure you can finish, and then, with a gleam in your eye, say "Aw hell - let's go for it anyway."

I wanna have that gleam in my eye.

I wanna look for the challenging races and decide to go for it, understanding that I might not finish, but damn sure I'll learn something in the process. In fact, this is what I already do... it's what all of us do. We're ultrarunners. It comes with the territory. Whenever we enter an ultra-event, triathlon, or endurance challenge of any kind, we're entering something we may not be able to finish... and along with that comes the possibility of a DNF.

But the probability of a DNF? Well, that part is negotiable. We can increase our odds of finishing by training harder. Training smarter. Understanding what we are getting ourselves into - in the distance, on the course itself - what are the unique challenges? Where have race participants gotten into trouble in the past?

That's where I like to do a little thing called...

Reducing surprises by researching your race

An example of how this works in practice:

Later this year I hope to run in the Plain 100. The Plain 100 is a self-supported 100 mile race in Plain, WA (actually more like 106 or 112 miles, no-one knows for sure... mysterious and alluring, right? Right).

The race caught my eye due to it's low finishing rate and reputation for being a "tough" ultra.

True to my "I'm afraid of a DNF" nature, I vowed a month ago that I shall finish this race, come hell or high water, and I set about doing my research to understand the challenges out there - what are the main reasons people DNF at Plain?

I started out by reading some race reports online; there were several on the race website itself, and more were found by conducting an online search. In either case, I was able to find reports from both finishers and DNFers, and I read reports from both groups with interest. What were some of the techniques the successful folks used? What critical mistakes did the DNFers make? I read the reports earnestly, and scribbled my notes.

In addition to this, I scanned the list of race finishers from previous years, looking for people I knew in the ultrarunning community. When I saw the name of a fellow I know, I e-mailed him, let him know I am intending on entering the race, and asked if he could offer any advice.

Mark's reply was prompt, good-natured, and full of sound advice (Mark would be Mark Swanson, another experienced and highly knowledgeable ultrarunner). Mark was kind enough to share with me how he prepared for the race, what he enjoyed most about it, what took him by surprise, and what he wished he had been better prepared for.

One tip in particular I thought was a great one - he noted that the only aid station was in the middle of the race, between 2 loops, and as this was also the Start/Finish area, it is also the spot where participants leave their cars. From what Mark described, when you finish the first loop and arrive back at your car, you must be fortified against the desire to drop out and stay with your car. As Mark told it, this point on the course can come as it is starting to get dark or may already be dark, so you will feel the pull, the irrepressibly strong desire, to stay with your car and not go back into the dark.

This made a lot of sense to me, and I was glad to have it called out so specifically. On the day or night, when you are tired and your defences are down, I can see being caught of guard by something like that, and it making the difference between finishing the race or deciding not to go on... and I was glad for the warning of this particular siren's call.

Research your race... but what else?

Regarding other ways to ensure a successful finish, these are also fairly common sense, and include the following -
  • Train consistently, covering distances and terrain that will best prepare you for the event you are entering
  • Bring the right equipment for your race - that includes hydration packs, type of trail shoe, weather-specific clothing, etc etc etc...
  • Don't eat, drink, or use anything that you haven't already tested in training
  • Review the course maps - you can never assume all trails will be clearly marked (and if you DO assume that and DNF due to getting lost, you have no-one to blame but yourself. I know this one firsthand).
For those of us who have run races before, this should all be familiar advice... but that doesn't mean we won't occasionally get too confident and forget to follow it (I've definitely been guilty of snagging something yummy-looking from an aid station regardless of if I've had it in training, just because I feel like it and nothing bad has happened yet... we'll see how that continues to go).

But, after all this talk about how to ensure success, at some point, the inevitable will happen. It might be due to injury, hypothermia, hyponatremia, or a number of other conditions or circumstances... but we will find ourselves having to pull out of the event we are in, without finishing. 

And in that event... wait, for it, we're going full circle... it again goes back to attitude. 

Re-framing the DNF

Right now I think of DNFs as scary stuff. Of something looming over me. A DNF means being depressed for weeks, not having closure, that you have to do another race quickly (and finish it) to wipe away the feeling of failure from the first.

This is not the case.

A DNF is the opportunity to grow. To learn - to be stronger and more determined.

On some courses, a DNF (or 2 or 3 or 5) may even be what's neccessary before success can be obtained, because without having that first-hand knowledge, the chances of a successful finish are significantly diminished (Barkely, I'm talking about you... I'd be honored to DNF in such a place).

Given all this... a DNF is not such a bad thing. I still won't go running towards it with open arms (and I don't think that's what my u-lister friend was suggesting) but perhaps I do need to put some of that DNF fear to one side.

I'll still do what I can to avoid them. I'll still train to finish strong, research the event and plan accordingly, then run steady and long, all day and all night, for as long as my legs will carry me... but if I DNF, well...

I shall nod graciously, and accept it from the course as my due... then go home, and start plotting my revenge.


  1. While I am afraid.....I also secretly courted my first one for years....the pressure of the only remaining motivation in a bad race "you've never quit before" was getting too much....I started thinking, one of these days I'll DNF and take all the pressure off....then I can go back to "just" racing.....then it the emergency room, but it happened. I can still see the lack of solid contact in my partners eyes when I start talking about a race being cool because it sounds so hard.....but I am also plotting my revenge! Nice blog!

  2. Ha! That's a great point... how getting a DNF releases the pressure of never having one. And yep, sometimes I think you need to be slapped around a bit by a course before you can really dominate it (or, just finish...)
    But if that's what it takes... I got time :)
    Thanks Chris!