Why We DNF

The vast majority of ultrarunners have or will drop out of a race at some point. Sometimes we just have bad days, get sick or injured during the race, or just can’t keep our focus for the length of the race. It’s somewhat inherent in the sport of running in general, but in ultrarunning the DNF is a much more typical part of the sport than in shorter distances. Doing any one thing (save sleeping) for six-plus hours is generally quite difficult and unusual. When that thing is something as strenuous as running as fast as you can for that time, it only makes sense that so many of the more strenuous ultras have finishing rates in the 50-80% range. That means 20-50% drop out.

It’s always a tough decision to drop out of a race, but the process seems to be a little different every time. Sometimes we have no choice. Often these can be the toughest DNFs to accept. Whether it’s injury, sickness, or time cutoffs, it can be hard to accept stopping for one very specific thing, especially if everything else seems to be working properly. Other times we aren’t even sure what the problem is, but things are not going the way we had envisioned. In ultras it’s really important to adapt on the fly and accept that things pretty much never go as planned. Sometimes, though, we just aren’t able to make this mental shift, and things sink lower and lower, ending in an eventual DNF after deliberating on this for hours. It is these types of DNFs that I think are the most confusing and, thus, fascinating to examine. Why is it that sometimes when things start to go “wrong” we are able to adapt on the fly and turn things around and, other times, no matter how stubborn we are, things just never seem to turn around?

Geoff Roes - 2012 Transvulcania Ultramarathon

Geoff Roes amidst his DNF decision making at Transvulcania 2012.

I’ve had two or three DNFs that I would say fit into this category (most specifically Western States in 2011 and Transvulcania in 2012), and I’ve thought often about why these races ultimately led to a DNF while so many other races in which things were going bad for a few hours or more ultimately led to me turning things around and running some of the best races I’ve ever run. (2010 Western States would be the best example, but Wasatch in both 2008 and 2009 as well as UROC in 2011 would be other good examples.) Of course, we can’t have great runs every time we race, and, oftentimes, I think that not being able to turn things around when they start to go bad in a race is just a natural thing that is likely to happen at some point to anyone who races enough. Beyond this, though, I think most of our decision as to whether we drop out or continue on in these circumstances is made before the race even starts.

Geoff Roes UROC 100k

Geoff Roes - 2009 Wasatch 100

Geoff after conquering the DNF demon en route to a Wasatch 100 course record in 2009.

Sometimes, we go into races with the mindset that we are content however it plays out, and that we are willing to accept whatever our bodies can give us on that day. This isn’t something we can fake. (Although I know I have tried to fake this sometimes in the past.) This mindset is either there or it isn’t. When it’s there we often don’t even think of dropping out, even when things get really bad. When it’s not there, though, we start to question whether we should continue on when things actually aren’t that bad. (I definitely did this last year at Transvulcania – I was in pretty rough shape when I eventually dropped out, but I began thinking about dropping 15 miles into the race when I really wasn’t feeling that bad.)

Another huge factor is confidence. When we go into a race with a lot of confidence – whether it’s confidence about being able to win the race or confidence that we can definitively finish the race – it’s so much easier to trust that things are going to get better as long as we slow down, eat and drink the proper amount, and practice some patience. This confidence is another thing that we really can’t fake. It’s either there or it’s not. When it’s not, it’s nearly impossible to trust that things are going to get better, even when they’re really not that bad.

The other interesting factor that plays into all of this is that when our brains are trying to convince us to stop, it’s usually for reasons of self-preservation. Typically, if we have an unexplained desire to quit a race that we can’t seem to shake, it’s because our brain is trying to tell us that we will be doing more damage than good if we continue on. We can, of course, over ride this and push on through some pretty stressful stuff. We’ve all probably pushed through something which ultimately led to damage to our bodies that was more than we were hoping for in the days and weeks to follow. Sometimes, this all seems worth it, and, other times, we wish we had listened to our bodies and brains more closely. Unfortunately, in the moment, it’s essentially impossible to predict which way this will go.

When we add all these factors together we end up with so many conflicting dynamics. Continuing on and finishing a race when we are tempted to drop out is a mental challenge that is largely determined by our mindset in the days and weeks leading up to the race. At the same time though, our brain is telling us to stop to try to protect us from further damage. Sometimes, we can have some of our best races when we ignore any temptation to drop and just keep moving forward, and other times the further we go the worse things get. Sometimes, it seems like we just know when enough is enough, but more often than not we second, third, and fourth guess each DNF. In the end, the more we think about it and try to break it down, the more mysterious it becomes.

To me this is one of the most appealing things about racing and competing. Without the mystery and confusion it would all be quite boring. There are many reasons why we like to race instead of just doing a bunch of “training” runs, but the mystery of not knowing what’s going to happen when we try to push our bodies to their limit is certainly one of the most appealing of these. On one hand, it might be nice if there was some secret to when to drop and when to continue on, but the reality is that no one really knows, and the answer is kind of different for everyone. Some people choose to push through virtually any mishap and finish every race they start, no matter how ugly it gets, while others tend to drop more often than not when things start to go really bad. I don’t believe that either one is more wise than the other, or has things more figured out than the other. They simply have different perspectives and different thought processes. I also think these trends tend to shift in people over time, and then sometimes shift back.

Perhaps many other runners have this whole thing more figured out than I, but I like how baffling the DNF thing is. In every race I’ve ever run, I’ve been very aware that finishing is not a guaranteed thing. Sometimes, though, I get into a race and my gut reaction is to push through just about anything to make it to the finish, and other times I seem to be able to tell that it just isn’t meant to be. When the dust settles at the end of a race, I never seem to know why on certain days it makes sense to keep pushing on through just about anything, and on other days it makes sense to stop. I just know that this uncertainty and unpredictability is one of my favorite things about racing.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • Personally, what sort of situations have you found to most often lead to DNFs in ultras? In others?
  • To what lengths will you go to avoid a DNF? Or are you willing to cut your losses if it’s simply not your day or you aren’t enjoying it?

There are 40 comments

  1. Mic Medeska

    I took my first DNF this past weekend in a road marathon, throwing in the towel at 25.3 miles. I had a very specific time goal and then a worst case scenario time goal, and was well under pace and feeling very good through the half. Then I injured my tibia and knee, and my pace slowed, then slowed some more, then more, until mile 24 when I had to start walking due to pain. The ONLY thing that made me want to finish was the thought that I would have to explain this to people if I didn't finish. My body told me to stop at mile 14 when the injury occured, then was relentless at mile 18 and just wanted me to pull off and sit down. The only reason I kept going was I didn't want to tell people I didn't finish or didn't hit my worst case goal. It took barely being able to walk a full mile, getting to mile 25.3 and finally just throwing in the towel cause I FINALLY didn't care anymore.

    I've never had to DNF before, and even if I don't have a good day or my time is way off from where I thought I'd be I will run it to the end.

  2. Stevie S.

    To DNF is a terrible decision to make in the first place. I would DNF if continuing meant further debilitating damage to my body. I try to live by the premise, "Finish to run another day." This said, I finished my first 100 miler by walking (barely) about the last 20 miles with frostbitten ankles. If it was any other race, I probably would have dropped.

    Every race is its own being. Every situation is unique. Sometimes it takes more

    guts and smarts to quit than it does to keep on.

  3. Mic

    I would love to try having crew. I think this would help stave off the DNF.

    But that's hard to come by – as most my friends I don't want to inconvenience, or maybe they don't show interest. But the times I've dnf'ed, it seems that if I had someone there taking up the slack then I'd be "fixed" or patched up. Then they'd motivate me to get back out there.

    One thing I liked about Off Road Multisport is that your Team Mates could serve as your crew.

  4. Ethan

    I think that part of the explanation (on an inter-personal level) is related to goals. For example, Geoff, you tend to be toward the pointy end of the field and so I imagine that you approach at least some races with a goal in mind that is related to how well you run (perhaps this is not part of the issue but you didn't explicitly address it). Running poorly when running well is your goal may add an extra element of negatvity during those low points you're bound to experience out there. On the other end of the spectrum, I had a similar experience to the one Stevie describes above in my first 100-miler; dead quads meant I walked the last 35 (very runnable) miles, often sideways or backwards or at a slower pace than I could have crawled. It took two weeks after that race before I could do a full squat, although I was back to running again by the end of the next week. Had it not been my first shot at 100 miles and a race (Western States) that I may not run again soon, I doubt I would have toughed it out.

  5. Goji Yerba

    DNF – Did Nothing Fatal

    Change (or Geoff refers to "uncertainty and unpredictability") is the only constant in life (or our running life)

  6. trailrunner76

    Again, Thanks Geoff. I love reading you're write ups. I managed to have my first DNF out of 10 Ultra Runs since March 2012 last weekend down in Georgia. I took a wrong turn about mile 20 and ran 4 miles extra. This emotionally crushed me. My first reaction was to fall down and cry, second was to say screw it and abandon the race, then my 3rd reaction was to turn around and try and finish. I think I blew up to much energy trying to make up for the mistake. and depleted everything I had by mile 60 resulting in a DNF. I feel like I have learned, but somtimes things just happen on run day that I now understand. The course was about 64-65 miles and I needed to go about 69 to finish, so I had about 9 miles to go. at mile 60 I fell to the ground and started crying hysterically since every ounce of energy and feeling in my body I had left on the trail. You know, the funny part, I cant wait till my next race April 13th. GRT 50 mile.

  7. Steve Pero

    Ah, the DNF discussion…back when I fist began ultrarunning in the late 80's, DNF didn't exist in my vocabulary. Then in the 90's I started running 100 mile races and the DNF bug hit me. I have only not finished 100's to date and one of the reasons I keep returning to Hardrock is it is the biggest challenge. I am 2 for 9 at Hardrock and this year I will finish and get the other direction, finally. If I do, I quit attempting this challenging run. ;-)

    I am in the camp that deciding on a DNF is smart because most likely there's a reason to not continue and you have had a discussion with yourself that this makes sense. To me, going on when your injured or sick, isn't smart.

  8. Steph Dub

    I DNFed once in a Saturday trail half of a double half mary weekend because I fell suddenly and hard. Bloody knees don't freak me out, but when I stood up to finish climbing the hill I couldn't put much of my weight on that foot. It was disheartening and felt like a failure. I did run the other half marathon on Sunday, but it turns out that I broke several small bones under the 1st metatarsal. It wasn't smart to run the second race, but at the time I thought I was just sore/bruised. So…I guess I'd DNF again in a longer race (or in another half) if I were so sick or broken that I simply couldn't run anymore.

  9. Ian Little

    V interesting. I actually wrote a blog this week on pushing through, albeit in much shorter races. I've DNF'ed the only two 100km races i've started. Both through what felt like a minor injury (afterwards anyway!). On both occasions i was running solo with no crew. With a crew i think i would have struggled through. The main motivator for stopping apart from some pain was that i was way outside my time goal and slipping back through the field. I didnt want to finish back in the pack way behind where i would 'normally' be.

    Having not ventured above 90km races (Comrades) i havent had that complete depletion feeling that often. In Comrades, as its a point to point course and big crowds its hard to stop and disappear. So the 'shame' factor and having top explain to family and friends is a big motivator not to stop.

    We are all different mentally and runners can ether respond negatively or positively to their crews urgings, or lack of them. Personally i would have kept going in my two DNF's if i had support pushing me on.

  10. stack

    I think we should embrace the DNF… DNFs are one of the things that makes this sport what it is. If everyone was able to finish every ultra I think it would take a little something away from this sport we all know and love.

  11. Eric Lee

    Lots of great points above, the choice to DNF depends really on one's personal goals and mindset. In my 7 odd years running ultras and approximately 30 races I've never DNFed to date, mainly because I go into each race with one goal, to finish (and I'm stubborn). Sure I've pushed through mild injuries, sure I've been sick, but as long as its nothing permanent why not go on? This is where my approach differs from Geoff's, I'm there to finish, not to compete (though that's always nice). I think some of the best and toughest lessons are learned at mile 80 of a 100miler when you're feeling tired, ill, and just hiking along. I don't think one should be defined by their best day on the trail, but how they deal with their worst days and the adversities that arise.

  12. ken michal

    I've learned more from my DNF's than my well executed races!! Mostly, it's train harder and stop missing those cutoffs!! ;) I've always been a "push through to the end" kind of runner but I also don't run competitively and have to worry about my performance at the next event! I find that there can be a line if you want one: Come up with a quit list before the event and set it in stone! My list usually looks like this:

    1)Risking permanent injury. Blisters, chafing, puking, pain and fatigue are all temporary! If bone aint showin'…

    2)Missing a time cutoff (although, I have to admit that I stopped at 100k at HURT 3 times, knowing I wouldn't make the 100 mile cutoff…). Some events may look the other way on cutoffs if a runner is looking good (I've done it quite a few times at our races…). If I'm behind one cutoff, the chances of me not missing another are slim…

    3)AS's running out of oreos! (he-he!)

    If it's not one of the above conditions, I continue no matter what! I'm busy running, let the race officials make the DNF decision for me!

    All Day!

    ~Ken

  13. Jake D

    I DNFed my first 50 mile attempt. In the days that followed, I boiled it down to a lack of experience. Looking back on it, I know now that I could hydrated at the 34 mile aid station for a half of an hour and then rolled out to a respectable time. I learned that it is okay to spend some time at the aid station eating and drinking to see how your body responds, even if other runners are passing you and the clock continues to roll. There were other runnings I know that were dealing with much bigger issues than I had that day that finished the race.

    Having said that, my next attempt will likely be dogged by another issue that, hopefully, I will be able to overcome. Dropping should be Plan B or Plan C.

  14. adam

    I've Dropped from one 50k after 27 miles….Back hurt and I had a long drive back home. That day I cashed in my chips and it was no biggie. Other times I fight tooth and nail to get to the finnish line. I guess I just take each one as it comes.

    I would have dropped from my first 50 miler if it weren't for my amazing wife! Aid station crews have brought me back from the dead more than once…

  15. GMack

    I suspect many elites and sub-elites DNF because they're underperforming in a race. Either sponsor expectations, Ultra Signup ranking, ego or whatever leads to pulling the plug when they're otherwise physically capable of finishing. The 2012 RRR100 where only 16 "hares" finished out of 52 starters is one example. On the other hand, I really respect efforts like Hal Koerner's 2011 UTMB (371st) where he gutted it out to the end.

    Just about anyone in decent physical shape can finish a 100 mile race. I finished my first 100, the 2004 WS100 right behind a Byron Powell ;-) on 11 mpw and later the 2005 HURT and Hardrock on no training at all. Work, travel, fatherhood and other things interupted my training, but I wanted to finish these races really badly. I also DNF'd some races where I was in pretty good shape. I started feeling buned-out from running hard and didn't think the pain was worth the event. That's tough to admit, but it's the bottom line. Like most things in life, it comes down to commitment. (And this is also true most times when you're sick or injured.)

  16. Matt

    Excellent write up, Geoff.

    For me, one of the main reasons for DNF (apart from serious injury) is if the answer to 'Am I having fun doing this?' would be 'No'.

    Obviously I don't take running as serious as elite runners who have goals/commitments, or people who have invested a lot of $$$ to be there and get it done.

    Not to mention the time sacrificed while training, getting other people involved (crew), etc.

    It would be interesting to find out how much the decision not to DNF is selfish (pride, stubborness, even downright stupidity) and how much it is based on the environment(people asking you what happened, thinking you let them down, etc)

    I am quite certain the way the DNF seed gets 'planted and watered' in ones mind is a very subjective matter and it is always an interesting point to observe.

    I will conclude that no victory or finish is worth serious health damage, the race will be there again next year, right?

    Happy running

    //Matt

  17. Steph J.

    Great timing for this as I'm debating one of two possibilities: a DNS or a DNF for a 50K trail race on April 7. ITB issues started on 3/2 at mile 18 of a hilly marathon, finally stopped running on 3/18 and started PT. PT is going great and I'm cleared for a short flat run tomorrow to see how it goes. Only way I can recreate the pain is to run downhill. Have been doing lots of ITB stretching and strengthening exercises. I also have a short (7.5 mi) trail race on 4/20 that I'd like to race.

    Sooo, even re-reading this, it seems like DNS is the way to go for the 50K. I don't think I can finish it despite recent marathon training. Just trying to decide what my goals are and why would I start versus drop. There are many places along the way where I could drop, so part of me wants to start and see how far I get. But I don't want to set back all my PT, either. Why is this so hard?! This would be my second ultra distance.

  18. olga

    I DNF'ed 4 times (all in 100's): twice with injuries (that debilitated me further afterwards and were real), once with pulmonary edema (and missing cut off's with that), and once because I got fed up and ran out of "want" to be there. That last one, while I tend not to look back and dwell, plaques me still. Frankly, each of them does (could I have still..?). In my (bullheaded) mind, once you commit, sans real health problem, stopping once means opening a whole can of worms for more to come. It's mental. I might be compassionate to others' decisions, but I hold myself to standards where I better don't use excuses. Yes, "not having fun" is valid, but it's good to figure it out before starting. That said, it is simply my personal thing:)

  19. panos from greece

    Until today i have never DNF. But that doesn't mean i haven't suffer.

    I have much suffer in all my 3 utmb finishes

    On my first finish i had ITB syndrome on both my legs for the last 100k

    On my second i had 2 very bad black toe nails starting from the half of the race

    On my last i had muscle strain for the last 30k

    My point of view is that if i can walk, now matter how much the pain is, i keep going.

    Now that i recall those finishes in my mind i find a common thing in those suffering times. During the whole suffering time i… revile (i hope this is the right word), i revile alot, not from time to time but constantly, i revile for hours, i revile myself, my legs, my muscles, the runners who pass me, the race director (this is my favorite), the uphills, the downhill, anything that comes in mind.

    I think that maybe all this anger has helped me finish those races.

    I hope this wont happen in Ronda dels Cims next june.

  20. Charlie M.

    I don't understand DNFs. Did the Donner Pass dudes stop when the mountains got snowy? No, they ate a couple of their compatriots and kept goin'…If an ultra is a metaphor for life, DNF=Did something Fatal. Injury sminjury, ya gots to keep goin'.

  21. Jason H

    I think Olga has it right. If you DNF once for reasons other than actual physical problems that could potentially affect your long term health, you risk opening a can of worms.

    I'm not near Geoff in terms of performance, but I am used to being somewhat near the front. The fact is that this means nothing. It can be something to be proud of as it reflects tons of sacrifice in terms of training and ability to run through discomfort, but it's really an ego thing (not necessarily bad). It's a hard pill to swallow when you just aren't performing like you hoped, and that can be a tough thing to run through.

    I was mentally engaged at the end of Cascade Crest 100 as I passed people and snagged third overall. My body was wrecked, but I'd have never quit. I'm not sure the actual finishing place is so important, but more the empowering and motivating feeling of 'having a good run'. Different story at Orcas 50k. My training had been almost non existent for a while due to some big issues (moving to HI), but I figured I could 'remember' how to run and probably pull off an ok performance. WRONG. My legs felt off right from the start, and I've never come closer to quitting. I took a minute to soak in a stream, and mentally turned off the race mindset in favor of just finishing and regaining the 'fun' part. It sucked for a while, but I enjoyed the scenery, and ended up having an enjoyable run, even racing again in the last couple of miles.

  22. JP

    I'm happy to DNF at any race if I'm not enjoying it… injured, tired, or not. If the race course is boring (flat firetrail) and there are heaps of good options being bypassed (steep singletrack)I'd be happy to call the race director and pull out so I can run the better trails.

    I DNFd a multisport race years ago because my mum came to cheer me on, I hadn't seen her in about 6months and we only had a day or so to catch up. I pulled out straight away so we could hang out for a few hours more.

    I'm more motivated on training runs, no crowds, generally more inspiring routes, friends with me. That's the environment in which I feel like I do great stuff and I guess all of my most memorable things in sport have been "training" with mates. I pay entry fees to race mainly for the atmosphere of the weekend, find some new trail, meet other people that do this sort of stuff, or whatever.

    I like to think my ability to DNF is because I have nothing to prove to myself. I'm way better at life than I ever thought I'd be and my wife is way better than I thought I'd find. Happiness is the goal. I'm 1000 times more proud of pulling out to hang with mum than I could've been if I had won that race.

  23. Plow

    If you DNF for reasons that are non injury related it is most likely due to mental fatigue. This can manifest either prior to the race or during; why would a healthy person not cross the finish line?

  24. AJW

    Geoff, great piece. Thanks for writing it and for sharing your stories about your dnf's.

    Most irunfar readers know my position on dnf's so I won't repeat them now. What I will say, however, is that your paragraph about confidence is, to me, the most important in your entire column.

    If you have trained to run the race distance, confidently paced the race congruent to your training, removed all variables with the help of a crew, pacer, and course knowledge, and arrived at the race with a calm peace of mind there is no reason you can't finish.

    Confidence is never overrated.

    AJW

  25. JP

    Well said, Matt. You mentioned the sacrifice people make for these events and I think it is a motivation for a lot of people to keep on pushing when they are in the thick of it.

    To "invest" training that you arent at-that-moment loving because you're tired (or your family doesnt want you to go, or whatever else) is allowing the sport to accrue debt that you will, at some stage, expect it to repay, usually in the form of increased performance for us non-elite runners. If that performance doesn't come (especially after repeated cycles of investment), it's hard to keep the pure love of the sport alive and can often lead to decreased enthusiasm for the sport.

    It can also happen in other ways. People training on a program might wake up one day and feel a MILLION buks, ready to pump out the performance of their life, only its 4 days before race day, they've missed their taper a little and they are only meant to run an hour that day. So they follow their schedule, forgoe what could have been the best running day of their life, to "prepare" for the big day. That also adds to the debt, that feeling they had when they woke up on tuesday morning will be at the back of their mind on Saturday. Its a sad state of affairs, yo!

    I think this all means that some people hang on in races to recoup the debt that running has accrued in their life. This is gut wrenching to me, but I'm certain is admirable to others.

    I write that because i've felt it, many more times than once. Some people love and can deal with the rollercoaster (sometimes it works and all that investment pays off!), some people walk away from the sport.

    I can honestly say that in the past 3 years I've not started an event thinking that it owes me anything, not money, and certainly not an opportunity to put an amazing performance out there. I never do a session that isnt a stand-alone good time. And in that respect I haven't toed a startline that I couldn't happily walk away from. Races owe me nothing, running and I are now totally square.

    I want to go crazy in races and smash myself to pieces, rebuild and smash myself again, but only because I love it, and if I'm not loving it, I happily pull out. There's always Wednesday morning's run, and I can give it another crack then, too.

  26. Dylan Russell

    I've not run an ultra yet. Next weekend is my first 50k. But I've run 4 marathons, one being a trail run. All were tough at certain points and thought about stopping even for a fleeting moment. But my only DNF was a PR attempt at a road half marathon. I had a back twinge (sciatic nerve I think) that usually shows up while picking up moly kids or similar activities. Anything nerve related in the back seems like bad news so I stopped at mile 6 and actually ran back slowly. I was embarrassed. The cool part was watching the Kenyan fly by well ahead of the #2 and #3 guy. I would have been much farther back from even them. Ultimately, I DNFed due to potential serious injury or at least a debilitating one. Probably a good choice. But I think having done it once, I makes it easier the next time. Hopefully not. Also, I should note that I'm a streak runner (haven't missed a day running in over 2 years), so I was concerned that I might jeopardize my streak if I kept running the halfy. Any ultra streakers out there?

  27. LL

    A DNF usually means you should've had a DNS.

    I had three DNFs this past year and each was different and an incredible learning experience. One should have been a DNS, the second was my first trail race (I was wholly unprepared for it on Mt. Diablo) and the third involved a puncture wound from a fall on Mt Tam. I earned each and every one of them. I didn't go out expecting to have it happen but I learned invaluable lessons from each.

  28. Charlie

    Does anyone think pride ever plays a part in DNFs? I am a middle of the pack runner, so I don't know if I will ever have to think "I don't have a chance to win today, so I think I will just drop out". I am not suggesting this was the decision Geoff made. As we know, he persevered, determined to just run and not worry about the race, and has set course records.

    I would like to think I would have the mindset of Panos from Greece, where as long as I can walk it out, I will finish.

  29. Andrew Guitarte

    Maybe there's the culture factor. Maybe the "shame" factor is more of a deterrent in Asian cultures for example than in other cultures. But with the anonimity of DNFs in ultrasignup lists, this may not be a big deal compared to an Ironman® results page. Nevertheless, having a big pre-race kickoff party where all kin & kindred shower you with well wishes & all of your Facebook & LinkedIn kinships congratulate you in advance for rocking the race and wrecking the trails, there's a slight possibility that you may think twice of quitting.

  30. marathon girl

    Hi, Great piece and just the tonic after my DNF last saturday on my debut ultra!!!

    My first ever DNF, and it sure has a sting in the tail!!!

    Basically it was quit a tough 50k trail, made harder by unexpected snow on the mountains….

    mile after mile of white misery, no visibility, ice cold water up to your knees if you fell off the tracks. I just lost the plot and was really frightned and so cold. I could not feel my feet at all, and kept slipping and falling.

    when I descended to the forest for a turnaround back up to the mountain, I just could not mentally face it.

    I had loads of energy and know I had the next 15miles left in my legs, it was my mind that let me down.

    felt very disapointed when you see your friends pushing through and completing.

    I know it was a good decision, as my toe is still numb now!! I also have 5 small kids who rely on me….

    My solution, to train for my next ultra…. a 50k forest trail in June. No snow!!!

    Keep on running :-)

  31. Jill Homer (@AlaskaJ

    As with some of the variable views in these comments, I think the "DNF stigma" would be an interested topic to discuss in this iRunFar community. When I first found my way into the ultrarunning world, I found the "finish at all costs" attitude to be off-putting. Finishing a race is always better than not, but the deeper stigma I've sensed in ultrarunning is not as prevalent in the communities of some of my other pasttimes (ultra-cycling and winter endurance racing.) Everyone has their own individual goals and expectations in this sport, but personally my favorite endeavor is to pick an event/destination that is way over my pay grade and enjoy the sheer challenge of attempting to go the distance. I'm not after perfect confidence or certainty in my goals — the uncertainty is what I crave. If I was certain I could finish something, it wouldn't be as fun.

    Doing something I'm certain I can finish, only faster … I try to get interested in that (like aiming for a 50K PR.) But so far the potential achievement of that particular goal hasn't managed to hold my passion. Perhaps it's because I'm not a runner. :-)

    1. the "other&quot

      "My favorite endeavor is to pick an event/destination that is way over my pay grade and enjoy the sheer challenge of attempting to go the distance. I’m not after perfect confidence or certainty in my goals — the uncertainty is what I crave. If I was certain I could finish something, it wouldn’t be as fun."

      Perfectly put Jill!

  32. Seamus Foy

    I probably should've DNF'd at a 50k in October. I was way undertrained, went out way too fast for the shape I was in, puked, spent some time writhing on the ground from muscle cramping, and spent too much time walking in zombie mode, trying not to fall asleep. I have read that that type of fatigue could be from the L-tryptophan circulating in the bloodstream after sever muscle catabolism. The toughest part was that the course provided tons of opportunities to turn right instead of left, where I could drop. Eventually, the spasms stopped and I was able to put down 2 or 3 good miles at the end.

    Mentally, it was probably good to know that I can keep going even when it gets way ugly, but I probably did more damage than it was worth.

    I made the mistake of running a marathon 2 weeks later, and the same thing happened again: vicious cramping followed by the L-Tryptophan zombie shuffle. A week later, I paced a friend for the last 12.5 of a 50. My muscles were threatening to spasm even though we were running slow and it was only 12.5 miles. I drove my immune system into the ground as stress was cranking up at work. I spent the next 1-2 months feeling pretty run down. Ultimately, I think I did a lot more harm than good. I hope I've learned from it. The lesson: respect the distance. Just because you can finish doesn't mean you should.

  33. Todd

    I've often thought that if a person were being perfectly rational the logical decision is usually to DNF ("I don't need to do this. I haven't slept in 20 hours. I'm hungry, tired, cold, sore …"). The trick becomes to transcend the moment. And that's not easy to do.

  34. Dmitry

    with my short history of ultra running I am yet to DNF but I have no doubts that some day it happens. In my view objective physical conditions are the most important..say you fall down and hurt yourself so further going is destructive for your body. Or you did not plan for a weather and became severely hypothermic. Otherwise the mindset should be that with slow pace you could go as far as you wish…slowdown, collect yourself and continue.

  35. Dmitry

    In Comrades it is sometimes difficult to walk not to DNF :) as all these supporters starts shouting go-go-go once you switch to walk. like major city marathon, not an ultra race..

  36. Nico

    Hi Ian,

    My DNF was on skyrun. I was very disappointed in myself even though my main reason was the pain and feeling of serious damage if I continue. If I set that against the most difficult run I ever did in the very hot Addo run in 2011 where I slowed down to a crawl after not taking in enough liquids. It is hard to say why I pushed on and through and finished Addo while my mind couldn't convince my body to finish the skyrun?

    Still dreaming of going back and getting the skyrun finisher medal…

  37. Miriam

    Great article…puts a lot of things into perspective. After finishing 4 50-mile ultras, I experienced my first DNF at a 70 mile trail ultra when I failed to meet the 19 mile cut-off (it was all a massive mountain). I was disappointed, as was my crew (my husband, daughter and son), but it was a very humbling experience. But I didn't feel too bad…as soon as we walked to the car to drive back to the hotel, it started to thunder and lightning and it poured for about the next 10 hours. I was spared! My second DNF occurred when I dropped out at mile 56 of a very tough 100K trail ultra. I vomited (for the first time ever) at mile 55 and could actually see my Gatorade glow in the dark (there was not one star shining in the pitch black sky). And I was just so exhausted, beaten and cold. Even though my husband paced me beginning at mile 42, I traded tiptoeing down the side of a mountain for 6 more miles for a ride down the mountain on the back of a pickup truck. It was the roller coaster ride from hell! Turns out the reason I did not finish these ultras and then could not run at all for 19 months was because I had myelopathy of the spinal cord as a result of B12 deficiency. I was severely B12 deficient. I am on B12 shots for life (have been since 2009). After that I ran and finished two 100 mile ultras. Two weeks ago I DNF'd and dropped out at mile 26.5 of a 50 mile trail run but only because I would not meet the 8 hour/35 mile cut-off. I was feeling good but running a lot slower. I know I would have finished the distance if I had been allowed to continue. Mentally, I was strong. And besides, it was a beautiful day weather wise. This was an important run for me. I needed to test myself. You see, in August 2012 just 3 days after placing third in the women's division of a 24 hour ultra, I had surgery (unrelated to running). This major surgical error led to two more major abdominal surgeries and a 5 1/2 month medical leave and some other health complications that I'm still dealing with. According to my doctors, I should have been critically ill, but because I was in such great physical shape from all my years of running, I was able to endure and survive the biggest medical nightmare of my life. Anyway, in January I started to walk, power walk, run slowly and then train again. Perhaps I was too ambitious and went back into running too soon. I have another 50 trail ultra next weekend. The good news – 50 mile runners will be running with 100 mile runners and can run past the 12 hour limit (sweet!) but won't get an official time if they finish after the 12 hour limit. That's totally cool with me. I may or may not complete the distance and I know I will not finish it in 12 hours. But what I do know is that running saved my life and running will help me to heal, and a DNF is part of my healing journey. A DNF is just another battle scar that tells a story! A badge of honor!

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