11 Lessons Learned on Failing to Finish
I remember one particular morning run this past September. It was one of those runs when everything comes together. I was focused just enough, my legs felt strong, there were no weird aches or pains, I had enough sleep, and the endorphins kicked in at mile 2. I spent the run visualizing exactly how I would cross the finish line at Javalina Jundred. It was embarrassingly detailed; Central to my visualization was the feeling of justification, redemption, and clarity regarding the past 10 months of training and life.
Failing to Finish: My DNF
Fast forward 6 weeks later to the middle of the Arizona desert at 3 A.M. I was bent over a cactus on the verge of vomiting, trying to rein in the spinning; cuss words and sobs twisting out of my mouth.
10 hours previously, I had suffered from severe heat stroke at mile 22; blacking out and spending time in the medic tent. Once my hearing and vision had returned, I’d gotten back on the course for 62 more miles. I was sure that I had turned the race around. By mile 83, the heat stroke finally caught back up with me. I couldn’t eat or keep fluids down. Things started spinning, and attempts to run were both comical and worrying. I couldn’t make out the dark trail, even with a headlamp.
So there I was bent over a cactus, thinking about how hilarious it would be if I fell over; my entire face filled with cactus needles. (Perhaps indicating my rather questionable mental state.) My brain raged against my body. I tried to reason with my pacer, Kris, who was immune to my silly attempts to find a way forward.
Somewhere among the cactus needles, the decision was made to DNF (Did Not Finish). I don’t remember shuffling back to the medic tent, but Kris told me I couldn’t walk straight, and several times veered dangerously close to face planting into cacti. There were tears. It was embarrassing. The failure crushed me. I didn’t know how to process what had just happened.
See, for the past eight months by personal life had been a mess. Each time my stomach dropped out in heartache, I would focus more. Each time the emotional burden was too much, I ran further. Each time the pain was too much, I re-focused. Each time the demons of anger nipped at my heels, I shook them off by thinking through my race plan. As I had done in the past, I turned my personal issues into fuel and focus for training smart and hard.
But this time around, I had quickly equated a fast 100-mile finish with justifying and legitimizing the personal issues. I had thought “If I can just do well at the 100 miler, then somehow the pain of my personal life would be worth it.”
When I DNF’ed, things imploded. The DNF felt like I had failed – not only in my personal life, but in my athletic endeavors as well. I felt raw and exposed as being a fraud. The narrative I had planned for my racing and personal life had become connected, and was not the same as reality. The justification, redemption, and clarity I craved were not there. For weeks after the race, I reached out to friends and mentors for comfort. It was difficult to be that open about my struggles.
Eventually, it was clear I had two choices:
- I could stay on the narrative path of telling myself I was a failure, and that my DNF reflected the failings in my personal life. I could focus on what I had not done and why this made me less legitimate as a runner. I could bring more pain into my life.
- I could choose a different narrative and mindset. I could choose to understand that by holding onto my feelings of failure, I would dismiss my 10 months of training. I could accept that by embracing the DNF as an opportunity, I could rise stronger. I could accept that I had a DNF after blacking out and coming back and running 63 fast miles. I could accept that while I had used my pain to fuel my training and racing, the personal issues did not define me, nor my abilities as an athlete. I could choose how to process the DNF; it did not need to be a conduit or benchmark for processing my pain.
I chose option number 2. It was a tough choice. For my perfectionist nature, wallowing in pain and failure is surprisingly easier than being shamelessly proud and choosing to grow humbly.
So after all that, what did I learn?
Lessons Learned From a DNF:
- A DNF or not reaching a certain time does not mean you failed. If you learn from the race and see the DNF as an opportunity to grow stronger, you have succeeded.
- Always, always listen to the pacer who tells you eat and drink; even if your options are beans, tortillas, potato chips, and coke, and even if you hate all of those things.
- Go into a race confident in your ability to make decisions. Yes, you will reach very, very low points. Yes, you will want to give up. But, if you have reached the level of fitness where you are running a 100-mile race, you have the mental strength to keep going — and, you also have the mental strength to know when to call it. Trust in yourself.
- As learned and reiterated from a mentor: See ultra running (and all running) as a gift and a tool that allows you to see and learn about the world and yourself. Don’t limit running to simply finishing or not. Running, and life, is far more beautiful and complex than crossing a finishing line.
- Never lose sight of why you truly love to run. Revisit this love often, and use it to refocus and balance when things get rough.
- Be very clear about your motivations for running an ultra (or any race for that matter.) Are you hooked on an ego trip? Are you an adrenaline junky? Understanding and being clear about your motivations will frame how you approach a race. They can provide a foundation for clear, logical thinking when you process things at the finish, or in the medic tent.
- It is O.K. to use running as catharsis, but remember: You are more than catharsis, more than pain, more than working through your issues.
- Be aware of your strength to choose and decide how you will think and learn from your race – be it a win or otherwise.
- By entering a race, you are choosing to put yourself into the exhilarating unknown. This is awesome and powerful and totally kick ass, so embrace new thoughts, feelings, and lessons as they arrive.
- Be smart about your hard training. When you think you’ve reached your limit, go just a little bit more. It will pay back dividends when you reach the decision point of whether to keep going or to stop (see #3.)
- From that same friend and mentor: Understand that the typical reasons for a race going south are generally related to running faster than your current fitness or conditions allow. Adjusting to conditions, the course, and understanding your body are necessary. This means run smart, and realize your race plan is only as strong as your ability to adapt along the way.
At the end, it was all worth it. The training, the disappointment, the joy around mile 63 when I felt invincible, and even the DNF. While lessons such as this one are difficult and challenging to learn, I’ve started my next training cycle more confident and more sure of my abilities than ever before. The outlook for the 2017 racing season is bright!
Have You Ever Had to DNF?
Bad races happen to all of us. Have you ever had to DNF a goal race? Share your experiences below.