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?