How to DNF in Style | February 18, 2012
The ultra is a tough taskmaster. It is a challenge to succeed even when everything goes your way. But everything doesn’t always go your way. At some point in some race you’re going to suffer a debilitating mechanical like a twisted ankle, get seriously lost, run into a major GI tract issue, or encounter some other show-stopping problem and find that your race has slipped away. Then just as you reach the depths of exhaustion, confusion, and disappointment, you are faced with the task of managing your DNF. Will you go down in style or will you cry about it like a baby? Thomas Paine’s phrase, “These are the times that try men’s souls…” comes to mind.
I was pacing a friend at Western States once who was in the throes of a slow-motion DNF. We were past Foresthill (mile 62) in the California Street section of the course heading toward the Rucky-Chucky river crossing (mile 78), and he was slowly falling behind his race plan. I tried prodding him along, plying him with energy gels, telling him stories, but I couldn’t speed him up. “We’ve got to hammer,” I said. “This IS hammering,” he replied. We went from barely ahead of thirty hour pace to clearly behind where we needed to be to make the next cutoff. But he would not quit. He just kept stumbling forward, kept trying, until we got to Peachstone (mile 71). The aid station captain there met us with scissors in hand. My friend immediately offered his wrist and watched the race band being cut off. Without a word, he collapsed into a chair. A long and tedious process followed to get him and other runners off the course and back to the start/finish. He didn’t complain. He didn’t make any excuses When I asked him later, how he felt about that moment of defeat, he said, “I felt relieved.”
I only wish that I could handle a DNF as well as my friend did. I usually act and feel like a beat up, pathetic, limp rag when I DNF out of a hundred mile run. I lie around in a heap, not much help to anyone, and feeling sorry for myself. I’m thinking, “Get me back to the hotel. Get me to bed. Help me!” What I should be doing is making sure that the aid station captain knows I’ve dropped, that he or she passed the word along to whomever is keeping track at the finish, that I’ve gotten all my drop bags picked up, that I’m not a burden to anyone who is still helping runners actually in the race, and that I’m not blaming anyone but myself for quitting. All that is hard, though, when you’re feeling totally drained of energy and beaten to a pulp mentally and physically.
One’s thinking process in the midst of a DNF can be tricky, slippery, and self-deluding. During one of my own attempts at Western States, I headed to the bottom of Volcano Canyon in a perfectly standard ultra-type frame of mind. Everything hurt. I was tired, but I was determined to get to Foresthill and then push on to the finish. Then somehow I got to thinking about how sick I was of anticipating aid stations that never seemed to appear, how much easier it was to run shorter distances than a hundred miles, and how I was just plain getting too old for all this aggravation. By the time I was climbing out of Volcano Canyon I had made a momentous decision. I was through with running hundreds! It seemed so obvious. I had been there, done that. What did I have left to prove? Why even finish this hundred, I thought? No biggie if I dropped. I was so happy with my decision. I walked along waving nostalgically at the runners passing me by. Goodbye Western States! Goodbye endless miles to the next aid station. Farewell! When I strolled into Foresthill, my friend looked at me like I was crazy. I was ahead of schedule. I was moving well, looked okay. “This seems like a good idea now,” he argued, “but in the morning, you’re going to hate yourself.”
“I’m done,” I replied happily. “Get this thing off my wrist. I’m through with all this.” Of course, that was about ten hundred mile runs ago, most of them successful. My resolve to stop with the hundreds had lasted about a month and then I was itching to get back out there. I realize now that I had broken one of my sacred running rules when I was climbing out of Volcano Canyon: Never make a decision while you’re going uphill.
At Leadville, I was derailed from a Grand Slam attempt when an ankle problem left over from Vermont (the second race in the slam after Western States) cropped up only ten miles into the race. I hobbled all the way to the Winfield turnaround at 50 miles and back over Hope Pass and into the Fish Hatchery/Outward Bound aid station where I begged for some painkillers but to no avail. I left there and started up Sugarloaf Pass with only about twenty miles to go before the pain finally got the best of me. I turned around and went back to the Fish Hatchery which was now deserted. While I was sitting there on the curb just about as miserable as I have ever been in my life, I found an enormous rock wedged into a deep pocket in the heel of my shoe. It was like two inches long, an inch wide, and thick as my arm. How long had that thing been there? Had I run the whole pavement section from Halfmoon/Half Pipe around to the Fish Hatchery and up to the bottom of Sugarloaf with this boulder sabotaging my ankle? I had no idea. In the fog and confusion and panic brought on by the pain I was in and the prospect of DNFing, I had missed the fact that I’d been running for miles on top of a rock.
Poor thinking also contributed to my only drop ever from a race that was less than a hundred miles. At the Quicksilver 50Mile/50K in San Jose, California, on a hot day, I came to the end of the 50K at the start/finish feeling dizzy, nauseous, feint, hot, and totally spent. I was signed up for the 50 mile but it seemed obvious it was not safe to continue so I went straight to the race director and made my drop official. Of course, after sitting down in the shade and having something to eat and drink, it only took me about ten minutes to completely recover and feel fine. But having dropped, I just couldn’t get myself to stand up, reverse what I had done, and continue. Being finished just had too powerful a hold over me. As I look back on that day, having run in a lot of heat since, I’m pretty certain that my problem was that I’d just pushed a little too hard getting to the end of the 50K. Sure I had arrived at the brink of heat exhaustion, but after a short rest and rehydrating, I could have cut back my pace and almost certainly continued safely to the 50 mile finish.
So don’t be surprised if your thought process in the midst of a DNF is a little tortured. Try to cut through all the noise in your head and come to a sober judgment of your situation. If you’re at the point where you’re left with no options but to DNF, then do it in style. No whining and keep the focus on helping others. After all, you’re an ultrarunner.