Saturday 17 August 2013

To D(NF) or not to D(NF); that is the question

To many people, DNF is a four letter word. Clearly those people need to work on their 'rithmetic, but still I understand the point. To get a DNF (Did Not Finish) in a race is seen by many people as the worst possible way to end their attempt, beaten only by never making the start line in the first place (DNS). But is it really something to get so worked up about?

Now don't get me wrong; I am a stubborn little bastard. I will (and have) push myself through a lot of shit to get to the finishing line of a race. But I have also DNF'd (yes, DNF is a verb) from a number of races in the short time that I have been running for. For lots of people, not having a single DNF to their name is a badge of honour. Do I care that I can no longer say, "I have finished every race that I have ever started?" No, not really.

My philosophy is that I think ahead to what Future Me would think of Present Me when he looks back. Would Future Me think I was a pussy? Would he be pissed off, and wonder why I didn't just grit my teeth and man the fuck up? Or would he be glad I was sensible and didn't wreck myself and stop him from getting his run in?

Here are my DNFs to date:
  1. Thames Path 100 2012: My first Centurion Running 100 miler, and I was really looking forward to it; only to fall off my bloody bike on some ice the week before. I hit the start line following some pretty aggressive emergency physiotherapy, but my hip went out about 75 miles into the race. I was in fifth, but dropped out to avoid making things worse.
  2. Lakeland 100 2012: I entered this race not expecting to get into UTMB. Just my luck, I got offered a place in both. I very nearly didn't even bother turning up, figuring that I didn't want to risk not making the start line for one of the biggest events in the ultra running calendar. In the end, I decided to use it as a training run, planning to just run the first half. I was so paranoid through the whole race, and twisted my ankle 30 miles in. Rather than risk making things work, only to pull out at halfway anyway, I wimped out early. This race is one of the toughest in the UK, and needs to be run with complete focus. I'll return, maybe next year, to see the rest of the course.
  3. South Downs Way 100 2013: I injured myself at Transvulcania earlier this year, and started the SDW with my fingers crossed that my knee would last me to the finish line. It didn't. To be honest I probably shouldn't have started, but this was supposed to be my focus race for the year and I was reluctant to miss out on an opportunity to race for the prize money that was up for grabs (babies ain't cheap after all).
  4. North Downs Way 100 2013: This was only a month after SDW, and again my knee wasn't quite right. I had been rehabbing it with only small runs and lots of cycling, and one 20 mile run the week before as a test. I started the race expecting to pull out at some point anyway (even going so far as to stash clothes at various points along the route just in case), and stopped before things got bad.
So quite a bumper crop really. Three of these were related to pre-existing injuries, and I probably should never have started in the first place. But as I say, I'm stubborn. In all three cases things felt okay and I was willing to see what happened, but as soon as it became clear that things weren't as they should be I pulled. I was disappointed, of course, but in all cases I was happy that I made the right call. I care more about running day to day than I do about racing, so it's important to me not to destroy myself. And for Lakeland, my eye was on UTMB the whole time.

Here's the thing; I have nothing to prove to anybody but myself. I'd be lying if I said that there wasn't some level of ego involved (blogging isn't exactly the most inconspicuous of pursuits), but honestly I prefer to do these things for my own benefit. Generally speaking I won't risk my health or my ability to run for any race, although there are certain things that might make it more likely for me to slog through to the end.

Firstly I am fine with pain, discomfort, misery, etc. (ordinarily this would necessitate an obligatory "I am married after all, narf narf" comment, but then most people aren't married to my awesome wife!). But there is a difference between the inevitable pain associated with long distance running and an acute injury. The best thing that I ever did to assuage my wife's fears of my crazy passion was to show her that I know the difference by pulling out of the Thames Path last year. She trusts that I will make the sensible decision.

Of course I would be more likely to push through things if I were running a particular race distance for the first time - I would have crawled to complete my first 100 mile finish if I had to. But would I feel the same for my fifth? Or if I was running a particularly high profile race that I am unlikely to get the opportunity to run again. I had a 10K death march at the end of UTMB due to some chaffing on the boys. As it happens, I thoroughly enjoyed the walk; chatting to various people, soaking in the atmosphere, and basking in the sunshine. The only thing that could have improved things was if my balls didn't feel like they were wrapped in sandpaper.

[Edit] Let me be clear - I am not advocating pulling out of a race because things have gotten "a bit hurty" (to paraphrase James Adams). Pain and discomfort are inevitable. A lot of ultra running is mental (in both senses of the word I guess), so being able to push through the bad times is a real skill, and one which I am typically very good at (being an idiot helps not to worry about things too much - I like to call it running stupid). This is how I have finished some of the toughest races in the UK, such as the Viking Way and the Piece of String. But what I am saying is that I don't go in for the "finish or die" mentality. I don't need to prove my resilience to anybody just for the sake of it. If there is a good reason to stop, I will. That way I can come back to play another day. My point is that I don't stress about it. If it was the right thing to do, it was the right thing to do. And you'll know if it was the right thing to do a few weeks later when you look back on it all.

In general, I want to finish any race that I start. I moan a lot if I don't, so it's really for my wife's sanity that I do it. But if there is some reason that I feel like the best option is to pull out, I try not to let it get me down. I'm normally too focused on the next one anyway! I actually enjoy running after all - even the more horrific parts of races like the Piece of String. So when you're in a position where you have to make that decision whether to DNF or MTFU, give a thought to your future self and what they may have to say about the matter. My future self is a dick, so I have to be really sure that he won't be pissed at me...

How do you decide whether to push on or pull out? Answers on a postcards!


  1. If I can walk, I carry on, since I would rather get timed out than give up on my own accord. So if I can't walk, I DNF, as I did at this years North Downs Way

  2. My one and only one so far was this year on the Lakeland 100 - a race I wouldn't have entered had I recced the course first as it's jut not really my cup of tea. My reasons are here: I'm sure there will be many that will never understand them, or maybe even believe them, but that's not my issue really, I'm the one that has to look in the mirror and whilst I've thought about it a LOT since I still don't regret the decision which shows it was the right one.

    I've also since pulled out of The Spine as the criteria for me to take on a race since my epiphany on the L100 has changed. I'll spend some of that week either as a marshal or helping one of the many friends I have who are taking on the race instead.

    I feel I'm lucky, I've found what works for me so I don't have to keep chasing the meaning; I think there are many ultra runners following (subconsciously or consciously) the macho one-upmanship that is prevalent in endurance sports (otherwise, why does a deca-ironman exist). I've also "summited" my Everest when I completed the Dragon's back - I no longer have that need to prove to myself or anyone else that I can complete some of the toughest races on the planet. Doing things for the sake of it, so that you don't have to live with the "failure" or have to explain to others why you dropped out (everybody asks - especially when you've done all the hard stuff and are doing well) is not smart or heroic in my view; it' a Phyrrhic victory.


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