To Finish, Or Not

[Editor’s Note: This article was written by guest writer Jessica Hamel. For even more exploration of the DNF concept in high-level runners, be sure to check out Ian Torrence’sHandling The Dreaded DNF.]

Vomiting. Loss of will. Dehydration. Getting lost. These are a few of our least-favorite things during an ultramarathon. They’re also precursors to the cursed DNF. (Did Not Finish.) The truth is, as ultrarunners, we push ourselves through a lot of pain and suffering to get to the finish. But, whatever we’re going through, there is most likely another runner closer to death crawling to cross the finish line.

Why do we in some moments push through to the finish and at others we submit to a DNF?

Elite runners are often scrutinized for their decision to DNF, especially when it comes at a time when they appear to be in a decent physical condition. These moments often result in “he/she could’ve walked into the finish” responses from the crowd. If the back of the packers can finish in over double the time and in worse condition, then why can’t elites push through their low moments to avoid a DNF? It seems, in the end, it often comes down to one thing:

Motivation.

In this article, we explore just that, the motivation or lack thereof of high-level ultrarunners when it comes to finishing out a tough race or DNFing to save things for another day.

For most elite runners, running an ultra is much more than going the distance. It’s no secret; they’re out there to win. This is not only a self-imposed goal, but pressure felt from sponsors, media, and fans. In 2001, Karl Meltzer, long-time veteran of the sport and a record holder for the most wins in 100-mile races, succumbed to this pressure, resulting in a DNF at the Wasatch 100. He explains, “This was about eight weeks after I had just broken the record at the Hardrock 100 by three hours. I had a lot of pressure to perform well at Wasatch and I succumbed to the pressure of ‘having to win.’ I was in the lead at the time, but my quads were pretty fried. I chose to get a ride up to Upper Big Water Aid Station, forcing myself to be DQed.”

This pressure can cloud an elite athlete’s motivation and leave them fixated on one outcome: winning. If that no longer seems possible it’s hard to go on. Often, however, it doesn’t stop at just winning. Anton Krupicka, two-time winner of the Leadville 100, came under scrutiny after his 2009 Leadville 100 DNF. He shares, “I went into this race just wanting to run fast and take a shot at the course record. I didn’t go in with the explicit goal to finish the race. When the goal of running fast was out of reach, I stopped caring. If you don’t have motivation past mile 70 it’s not worth it.”

An ultrarunner must be physically strong, but mentally stronger. It takes a lot to push the body 100 miles, but a lot more will to mentally push through with the loss of motivation. DNFing when the body could go on takes a psychological toll on the elite runner that lasts longer than most physical issues would.

Anton reflects back on his Leadville DNF, “Leadville 2009 is the only [DNF] I regret. I chose not to go on. It was weak on my part. I could’ve finished if I had a more humble mindset going in. 2009 taught me: you need to have a tiered determination of goals. You need to have B, C, D goals. And realize just getting to the finish line is a worthy goal. In 2012, I realized the last two times I dropped out [of Leadville] so I was going to finish no matter what this time.” In 2012 Anton went on to finish in fourth place after what he described as “an epic slog.”

In a sport where we are able to push ourselves so far past our physical capabilities, it’s humbling when it’s our mind that is holding us back. A DNF becomes an experience to learn and grow from, eventually changing the way we look at racing. Sandi Nypaver, first-place female at the 2013 Desert Rats Trail Running Festival 52 Mile, took her DNF at the 2012 Run Rabbit Run 100 really hard. Sandi went off course five miles within the first 20 miles. This caused a chain reaction of missing an aid station, becoming dehydrated, and eventually losing the will to keep going. She explains, “I was upset with myself for missing a turn and just not being able to find a positive place to keep going. I’m human though and it happens. One day maybe I’ll be like the amazing people at Hardrock who get lost for an hour, climb an extra pass, and still finish the race. For this race, I wasn’t there yet, but I’m still growing as a runner and as a person so hopefully one day I will be. The DNF, it’s something to learn from but not something to hold on to.”

Jason Schlarb, 2013 Run Rabbit Run 100 champion, describes his DNF at the 2012 Run Rabbit Run 100 as “a monumental turning point” in his running world. Starting off the race overwhelmed with the “enormity of the task” and taking a six-mile detour halfway through the race, he became overcome with feelings of doubt and took a DNF, but not without consequences. He shares, “The next day after sleeping nearly eight hours, I witnessed the middle-of-the-pack runners and back-of-the-pack runners successfully finish, 24, 36, even 39 hours after starting. Seeing these people finish the race, I realized how pitiful it was for me to quit the night before. Watching finishers persevere 30-plus hours to finish the race, I decided I would race the next 100-mile race I could enter (only two weeks later) and that I would never quit another 100 miler unless for reasons of injury or safety.”

Even when runners find motivation beyond ‘winning’ it can become difficult to go on once we fall into a mental slump. Tina Lewis, the 2012 Leadville 100 champ, says she never goes into a race even considering DNFing. This doesn’t mean the thought won’t creep up in the middle of a race. In fact, she felt strong in the beginning of the 2013 Leadville 100 that would ultimately lead to her first DNF. By mile 15 she started to take a mental turn for the worse in dealing with blisters on her completely bruised feet. She explains, “My feet hurt a lot. When I got to Pipeline I felt like I should possibly back out but I pushed further. I had to stop constantly to assess the situation. I wasn’t happy out there. I had pressure from other people telling me not to do this race. I got into Twin Lakes and said, ‘I’m done.’ Everyone said to just hike it and reassess at Winfield. I went out a few miles and turned around.” Could she have pushed through? Possibly. But when you get to a low point it takes a lot to pull out of it.

When things start to go south mentally it takes a lot of strength to even consider finding new motivation to go on. When racing we’re trained to just go, go, go, but to find this new motivation athletes sometimes choose to pause for a moment, breathe, and search deep. In 2011, Josh Arthur, second-place finisher at the 2012 Cascade Crest 100, had a 30-minute lead at mile 30 during the Devil Mountain 50 Mile and then he missed a turn adding on an extra five miles. When he was playing mental catch up his hip started hurting, keeping him from running. With goals of winning lost, he knew he had to mentally change focus from winning the race to seeing if he could just finish it. Josh Arthur found his pause in a book. (During Devil Mountain runners need to tear a page out of a book to prove they reached a point.) He shares, “I walked three miles (to the bluff/turn around), ripped a page out of a book, and sat down for 10 or 15 minutes. I read the page and enjoyed the views. My hip hurt so bad I couldn’t run and there was still 20 miles to go. I walked back down the three miles and saw a friend. I knew if I waited for her I could at least use her as motivation to finish the race.” Leading at mile 30 he was on pace for eight hours. After finding deeper motivation, he finished in just under 12 hours.

Karl Meltzer says it best, “These races are all mental, sometimes we have lows, sometimes highs.” In the end, racing and a DNF is not what defines our passions and the sport. As ultrarunners, the trail is a place we discover ourselves and push our limits. It’s where we go for comfort when we’re sad, to celebrate when we’re happy, but really just for a good adventure. When the day is over and done it’s important to remember why we really get out there on the trails.

And when the trail leaves you in the comfort of a rancid mattress on the side of the trail remember these words from Timothy Olson, who showed us we can all push through at this year’s Hardrock 100, I haven’t DNFed yet if that matters to your article? I would like to one day.”

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • This article’s focus is mostly on the mental side of DNFing, or not DNFing. Have you DNFed for mental reasons? If so, what got you on game day?
  • If you have previously DNFed for similar reasons described in this article, what have you learned from the experience that you’ve applied to races since then?