World’s End 100k: My First DNF

AJW's TaproomLast weekend in the Endless Mountains of central Pennsylvania, I attempted the World’s End 100k. I ended up making it 22.5 miles before I decided to call it a day. In my 185th ultramarathon start, I succumbed to my first DNF. Today, just about a week later, I do not regret my decision. However, I also feel bad about it. And I have spent a few sleepless nights trying to learn from it.

The day started in the pre-dawn gloaming at 5 a.m. The first couple miles out of the state-park campground were an innocent introduction to the shoe-sucking mud and infamous Pennsylvania rocks that awaited us just up the trail. Reaching the 4.6-mile aid station after an hour and 15 minutes of running, it was clear I was in for a long day. When I hit mile 10.6 in 2:42, I considered asking the aid-station volunteers what the cutoffs were.

Fortunately, the next few miles were more benign and I began to get into a nice rhythm with a small, fun group. Until, around mile 13, that is, when I slipped and fell hard, twisting my right hip in a way that didn’t feel quite right. After walking a few minutes and rolling into a soft trot, something still felt off. On the subsequent climb I settled into a nice hiking pace and my hip flexor felt better but every time after that when I tried to run it seized up in what I could only describe to the aid-station volunteer at mile 19 as a “crain,” which was my invented word for a combined cramp and strain.

Back in 2015 when I had my first hip-resurfacing surgery, my surgeon Dr. Thomas Gross told me, “You know, while you can do anything with this hip the way it is, you need to know that you will forever have an abnormal hip and that means it will sometimes do abnormal things. You need to be prepared for that.”

As I sat in the chair at mile 19 contemplating my next move, I was thinking this might be one of those “abnormal things.”

With my face full of grilled cheese and some cold water in my pack, I plodded on for another 3.5 miles but about a mile before the Canyon View Aid Station, I knew I was going to call it a day. My left hip flexor, the one that has been my weak link since long before my 2015 surgery, was just not going to cooperate on this day. Sure, I probably could have hiked 40 miles in 13 hours but on this day I thought better of it. And, when I got to the aid station I told Wendy, the aid-station medic, “My day is done.”

Back at the start/finish when I met my crew (who hadn’t even gotten there by the time I dropped), they regaled me with comments like, “Took you long enough!” and “You should have DNFed a long time ago.” Just like everything else they’ve done to support me in this crazy sport, it was a real tough-love moment. No time for feeling sorry for myself, just time to move on.

“Well, Dad, you’re a quitter now!” said my son Tully with his 18-year-old know-it-all smirk, as we got in the car to head home with still half a day ahead of us.

And, of course, Tully is right. I am a quitter now. After 184 successful times of not quitting, I finally quit. Does that make me less of a runner? Less of dad? Less of a man? I am not sure. But what I do know is that it’s made me more accepting, more understanding, and more empathetic. If that’s the gift of my first DNF, I’ll take it.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from New Trail Brewing Company in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. A proud sponsor of the World’s End Ultra, New Trail makes a delectable Hazy IPA appropriately named Rocksylvania brewed with oats and hopped in a piney way that is reminiscent of some of the best West Coast IPAs that are decidedly unhazy. If you find yourself in Central Pennsylvania, this brewery is worth the trip!

Call for Comments

Have you DNFed a race before? Leave a comment to share your story.

Worlds End 100k

Scenery at the 2021 World’s End 100k. Photo: Worlds End 100k

There are 17 comments

  1. Sebastian

    Nice to see a story about a DNF. I am a quitter too! DNFed Old Dominion last weekend.. On the hardest section of the route my stomach went really bad this together with heat exhaustion got me worried about my kidneys.

    With the sub-24 goal out of sight and concerned about my health, I quit!

    Don’t feel bad about it, felt better 24 hours later, still fun to be out there, and there are more races on the calendar.

  2. Ellie

    I just finished listening to your episode on my friend Jay’s podcast and you mentioned you’d yet to DNF. I didn’t get the sense you were a “death before DNF” guy, more that you have the combination of east coast grit, talent and a bit of luck, which has gotten you through all your races. That is commendable, but so is calling it a day when you have to.

    Good luck on the recovery and next race :)

  3. Vagn Steen

    What I read is your mind and heart were in the game, but sometimes our physical parts and or biomechanics don’t always comply. You didn’t quit, you stopped. You stopped for what I would call a health-related reason. I once dnf’d (my only) for what was later diagnosed as an upper gi bleed, noticed when I saw black stool at mile 85. I felt horrible for months about stopping but I knew it was for my health and in my heart, I knew I did not quit.

    On a side note, New Trail Brewing is a favorite. We drive from Ohio to hit the rock and vert around Little Pine State Park, Waterville, PA. There are some great trails in the area, near the Hyner 50K and Call of the Wilds marathon courses.

    See you at States.

  4. Randy Shemanski

    Well said, AJW. I also DNF’d the WEU 100K on Saturday, dropping at mile 27.5. I wasn’t hurt, but I just wasn’t feeling it and also didn’t have the determination to hike the majority of the last 35 miles in that heat. Hope you’re feeling better for Bighorn and get some redemption!

  5. Ian Torrence

    Lad,

    I was supposed to be running a race this weekend, but for various life reasons I won’t be toeing the line. I’ll miss not following through on my goal—not an outcome I prefer. It might not be any consolation to you, but you did get out on the trail and participate. Many don’t even have that luxury. I had an athlete run World’s End this weekend and he said it was miserable most of the time. The slippery mud, 90 degree heat and endless rocks made each mile feel like forever and more than 50% of the field had an unsuccessful day.

    I count my DNFs too. I have 10 of them and I remember them more vividly than any of my wins and/or course records. You’ve seen some, like those at Western States and Bighorn. I suppose if I keep doing this sport we love so much I’ll tack on a few more to the list. I hope your hip and hip flexor rebound quickly so you can get back out there and tackle your next ultra.

    Cheers AJW!
    Ian Torrence

  6. Gary Ritchie

    Discretion being the better part of valor, knowing that if you go on you may cause permanent damage, the decision to stop can be soul searching. My 2 DNF’s were both WS, 85, and 80 miles respectively.. severe dehydration. Never looked back, but accepted why it occurred. It does give you perspective.

    Get better AJW
    Gary Ritchie

  7. Wes Claytor

    Hey AJW – no shame! You’re a beast and I’d call this one a fluke after 184, lol.

    Way to put it on the line and show up. I just had my first 100 mile attempt at Old Dominion last weekend and missed the time cutoff at the 75 mile mark. Vomiting, heat exhaustion and defeated spirit led to my DNF. But I woke up the next day feeling more driven and focused than ever before. Next time!

    Here’s my DNF race report if interested: https://wesclaytor.com/thoughts/2021-old-dominion-100

    Keep doing awesome things brother!

    1. Sebastian

      Hey Wes, Awesome race report. You will definitely finish your next one hundred. I bailed at Four Points 2 after creating an another creek crossing with my reversals.. Awesome how you stuck around for your buddy.

  8. Devon

    I think all a DNF means is that you DNF’d. And that is what was necessary on the day. I do not think there is or should be more meaning than that!

  9. Josh Ferguson

    Thanks for sharing the video from OD. Some awesome course views, and love the honest commentary. Sorry to hear that you day went south…conditions were tough! I was out there as well, and the heat was no joke for the middle part of the day. It caught up to me pretty hard between Little Fort and Elizabeth. Hope to see you out there giving it another go in 2022!

    1. Josh Ferguson

      AJW – head up, you’re a legend for a reason. Keep crushing it. 184 in a row is a Cal Ripken-esque streak.

      (meant to post my original not about OD as a reply to Wes)

  10. Tropical John

    The late great Dick Collins famously said, “you aren’t a real ultrarunner until you’ve DNF’d”. So, welcome to the club of real ultrarunners!

  11. John Vanderpot

    Live to fight another day?

    You’re learning!

    (Is that, per chance, the longest anyone’s ever gone without a drop?)

    (I still cringe when I think what you did to yourself that year at AC…a week in the hospital was it?)

  12. Mike

    The last paragraph is brilliant.

    I’ve DNFed once and it changed the way I run and train and approach this sport. In other words, while it was quite unpleasant, it eventually had a very positive effect on my running. And yes, it also checked my hubris.

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