How Not to DNF | July 24, 2011
Ultrarunning is one sport where it can truly be said that every finisher is a winner. That’s because nobody gets to the finish line without a tremendous effort, and especially in a hundred mile race, it seems nobody gets to the finish line without going to hell and back. The flip side, though, is that if you don’t finish, you feel like a loser even though the effort you put into your “losing” effort might have been substantial. We avoid the dreaded Did Not Finish like the plague and worry over a DNF after the fact like a dog with a bone. Could things have played out differently? Would I have made it if I’d just found a way to hang on? Leadville 100 Race Director Emeritus Ken Chlouber always delighted in reminding runners that the pain of finishing is nothing like the pain of having to explain to people over and over again why you didn’t finish.
Certainly some DNFs can’t be helped. If it looks like your health or even your life is on the line, it’s time to quit. Significant changes in weight, lasting nausea and vomiting, dizziness, inability to breathe properly, severe headaches, inability to stay warm, and other such clearly serious symptoms are signals you may be headed toward a dangerous medical condition if you continue. An accident, like a severe fall or a sprained ankle, is another reason you might be forced to DNF. Race conditions sometimes catch you off guard. A sudden cold rain might leave you with insufficient clothing. You might find yourself unable to deal with the altitude in the mountains. You can get lost and take so much time getting back to the course that you miss a cut off.
Often, though, whether you DNF or not is up to you. The combination of sore muscles, painful blisters, sheer exhaustion, no energy, loss of will, and a stomach that just won’t settle down can make that finish line seem impossibly far away. In most ultras, and especially in a 100 miler, you will come to a point where you’d like to quit. Here are a few things you can do before, during, and even after the ultra to give you the edge it takes to keep going when you come to that point in the race.
Your best insurance against DNFing is to be properly prepared for the race in the first place. Your training needs to match your ambitions. If you are stepping up to an ultra for the first time, the key to your training will be a series of long training runs, which you should tackle come rain or shine. Use the tail end of these runs to practice staying mentally tough. Learn to accept the pain and fatigue as a natural component of the process. Complete each workout no matter how you feel. If you are shooting for a 100 kilometer race or a 100 miler, your weekly mileage should reflect that goal and your long runs should be challenging. Run at night or in the heat or in pouring rain. Do back to back long runs. Sign up for a couple of preparatory shorter ultras. Again as you push your limits while training, pay attention to your mental strategies. Focus on staying positive and patient. Practice using a mantra that you can go to when you need to avoid negative thoughts. Learn to stay focused on the immediate task at hand and staying as relaxed as possible, and avoid worrying about the end result and how much more is left to do before you finish.
Your pre-race planning also plays into your chances of finishing the race successfully. You want to be as sure as possible that you will have everything you need out on the course when you need it so you won’t add to your woes during the race by finding yourself short of warm clothes or fresh socks or more energy gel packets or salt tabs just when those things are essential. Work out a race plan that projects when you expect to be at certain aid stations at certain times and then pack your drop bags and instruct your crew accordingly. Prepare for things going wrong, such as your crew missing you at a crucial aid station or the weather going bad, by putting extra contingency supplies in your drop bags. You might also decide to take more essentials along with you on the trail. Don’t skimp on backup lights or extra warm clothing if your race is going to take you through the night.
During the race, you will need to maintain a “floor” of fluids, electrolytes and calories so you don’t succumb to dehydration, muscle cramps, or a total lack of energy. If you feel extremely bad at some point in the race, there’s a good chance that you’ve fallen behind on one of those ingredients. Sit down at the next aid station and rest. Drink, eat, have an electrolyte tab, and give yourself some time before you continue. As the ultra grinds on you usually start experiencing mental and physical peaks and valleys. And eventually a “valley” will feel like it will never let up. Now is the time to use your mental toughness training to stay positive, accept the bad feeling as just part of the process, avoid fear and panic, call on your mantra, and keep the focus on just what you need to do at the moment and let the rest of the race take care of itself. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to calculate your pace and convince yourself that you don’t have time to finish. Cut off times allow for a slow down which you might not be taking into account. You might also have a good stretch or get a real bump when daylight comes if you are running at night. If you keep going, even if all you can do is walk, you keep your chances alive. If you quit, you’re done.
When you’re really suffering, even your post race plans can affect your thinking. Keep your obligations after the race to a minimum. If you know you have to drive yourself home, catch a tight flight, or be responsible for the kids after the race, you tend to weigh that extra burden in your decision to quit or keep going. It’s so much better if you know you can leave everything you’ve got out on the course without having to worry about what happens after you finish. Bring a friend along to the race who can be responsible for helping you after you’re done. Book an extra night at your hotel. It’s great to know you can collapse there afterwards and put off any traveling until the next day when you’ll feel a hundred times better
However your race ends, though, whatever happens to you out there on the trail, it’s worth remembering Teddy Roosevelt’s words about “the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood…who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…”