Your Ultra-Training Bag Of Tricks: Handling The Dreaded DNF

[Editor’s Note: For even more exploration of the DNF concept in high-level runners, be sure to check out ‘To Finish, Or Not.’]

Did. Not. Finish. They’re an ultrarunner’s three least-favorite words. Unfortunately, the numbers don’t lie. Examine the finishing rates of the 127 100-mile races listed on Stan Jensen’s site, Run100s.com, and most hover near 50% and drop as low as 3%. It doesn’t matter if the event is new, established, large, or small. There are always high causality rates. Roughly half the starters of the 2013 Leadville Trail 100 Mile Run did not finish. While we may blame altitude and mountainous terrain, what happened at the other races? For example, look at the results from this year’s sea level and relatively flat Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile Endurance Run. Onlookers and participants suggest weather contributed to the four out of every 10 runner DNF rate. Simply put, the chances of not crossing the finish line in an ultra are high and the likelihood increases as the distance of the race grows.

Whatever the reason for it, a DNF is often demoralizing and can lead to a poor mindset in the ensuing days, weeks, or even months. Since the reasons for dropping out of a race are plentiful and, in some cases, out of our control, it’s important to know how to manage the aftermath of such an unrewarding race. The most successful ultrarunners deal with DNFs. Let’s hear some of their stories, commiserate, and learn from them.

Ian Torrence – Each DNF Carries a Different Lesson

Look no further than the author of this piece. I have DNFed race distances from 50k to 100 mile.

The Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run was my first DNF in 1995. After eight years of high school and collegiate running and less than a year’s experience in the ultra world, I found myself puking for the first time. I thought I was dying! I quickly had the bracelet cut from my wrist. Two hours later, I was already feeling much better. I really wasn’t dying out there. I regretted my hasty decision and should have been more patient before calling it quits. I realized ultras were nothing like college cross country. I still vomit occasionally during a long event, but now I know it’s a sign to take better care of myself, not necessarily a reason to drop.

To this day, I still kick myself for DNFs from more than seven years ago. In 2007, I struggled with some nasty muscle issues that led me to end my day at two of my favorite events, the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run and the JFK 50 Mile. Instead of running within the limits of my compromised hamstrings, I let my ego control the races and I ran too aggressively from the start. My frustrations about not being able to run with the frontrunners not only further destroyed my hamstrings, but also prevented me from getting to the finish line in both events. Now I know better and I only toe the starting line when I’m healthy and truly prepared mentally and physically to cover the distance.

Emily Harrison – The First is the Worst

At this year’s Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, Flagstaff, Arizona’s Emily Harrison, one of the pre-race favorites, dealt with her first DNF in an ultra. “Things started getting abnormally tough as early as Duncan Canyon (mile 20), and continued to get worse,” says Harrison. “I knew it was going to be bad when I already wanted to call it a day this early on.”

Her crew convinced her to continue on in the hopes that she’d begin to feel better, but ultimately Harrison pulled the plug at Foresthill (mile 62). “I regret this DNF and I regret not being able to run the last part of the race with Ian and seeing my parents at the river crossing,” laments Harrison. The post-race consequences were tough. The conflicting feelings between doing what she knew was right versus doing what others wanted her to do weighed heavily on her psyche. “I handled the DNF gracefully at times and not so gracefully at others. There was a lot of crying, breakdowns, and a lot of frustration.”

In the end, she came to an important realization about her DNF. “I understand that the ultimate purpose of lining up in a race is to get to the finish line. I still have big goals for the remainder of the year. In my personal experience struggling through a bad race always leaves me worse for wear. I didn’t want to be injured post-race.”

“I’ve come to terms with the fact that while Western is an important race it was not my be-all and end-all goal. It doesn’t make or break me as a runner. I’ve been running competitively for a long time and I know I can’t always win or have a great day. This result forces me to work through my issues and come out stronger on the other side.”

Harrison says she’s also learned that winning shorter races, like Lake Sonoma 50 Mile and Caumsett State Park 50k, doesn’t mean she has the 100-mile distance dialed in. “I’m working through a long process to figure out why I ran poorly at Western. This will lead to better racing in the future.”

Rod Bien – A DNF Fuels the Fire

“I was vomiting horribly and I was cramping severely,” recalls Bend, Oregon, ultrarunner Rod Bien. “At one point, I tripped, fell off the trail, and could not get up as my legs kept seizing up with cramps as I tried to move.” A few miles later, he would call it a day at the 2013 San Diego 100 Mile Endurance Run.

At the time Bien had no qualms with calling it quits. “I literally could not wait to get to the next aid station and tear off my bracelet.” However, as his bodily woes subsided, his views changed. “I was really disappointed,” shares Bien. “Honestly, it was equally tough seeing my training partner win and kill it there. Don’t get me wrong, I was very happy for him but I definitely didn’t want to sit down and rehash the race with him as he rightfully wanted to do. I learned a ton that day.”

Bien didn’t dwell too long on his DNF. In fact, he used it as motivation and returned to training. “A few weeks after San Diego I ran Mount Hood 50 Mile, finished second and under the old course record,” says Bien proudly. “I was running with an intensity that I would not have had had I just not DNFed.”

Bien has run 15 100-mile races and has vomited in every single one, but he continues to push on. “DNFing sucks! The 100-mile race is my weakest ultra distance by far. While I continue to try and find a way to avoid my revolting stomach, that DNF has given me the determination in recent 100s to keep going even if things are bleak,” says Bien. “Packing up your items, flying home, and unpacking is downright horrible after you don’t even finish the race. I recently had a very disappointing 21:56 at Bighorn Trail 100 Mile but I continually told myself how bummed I would be if I had nothing to show for all my hard work.”

When the going got tough, Bien fell back on a few dependable tricks in order to keep his goals and ego in check. “I have a mantra that I say to myself. Move efficiently in the mountains. Meaning stay smooth, don’t rush, but don’t dawdle. I also think about my dad. He was a Navy SEAL, an ultrarunner, and one of the toughest guys I’ve ever met. I picture him looking down at me and I want him to see me charging to the end and never giving up. Lastly, I consider the lost money. I literally have paid thousands of dollars to be at this race!”

Scott Jaime – It’s Not All About You

In 2008, Colorado’s Scott Jaime had one of the best performances of his career at the Miwok 100k Trail Run. He returned two years later determined to win the race, but DNFed instead. “When it didn’t happen the way I wanted, I didn’t have the courage to continue,” recalls Jaime. “I was utterly disgusted with myself for not only quitting but how I acted toward everyone. I was a complete jerk to my wife and parents and took the DNF out on them.”

Jamie soon realized that his DNF wasn’t the end of the world. “I shouldn’t be taking this stuff so seriously. This is supposed to be fun and not cause family conflict,” remarks Jamie. “Yes, it’s nice to do well in races but it’s not everything. Every race can’t be my best but if I mentally prepare myself to accept whatever comes my way then I’ll make it to the finish line a happy person.”

Jaime has stared the DNF bear in the face at all eight of his Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run finishes, but he persevered in all. Why? “This is how it goes,” describes Jaime. “Bonking begins because I’ve gone too fast and not had enough food and water. Then I start thinking about how far I have to go, people begin to pass me, I feel sorry for myself, I develop a story to tell my crew about why I’m quitting, and phantom pains develop all over my body. I get to the aid station and I have a pity party.”

It was a tough cycle to break and each year’s race kept getting harder and harder for Jaime to finish. Finally, clarity came to him during his roughest Hardrock to date in 2010. “My son Jaxon made me realize the impact I had on him and others close to me. I came into the aid station dreadfully far behind schedule with the full intention of quitting. I was done!” Jaime continues, “Jaxon said, while sobbing and wiping his tears, ‘Dad you can’t quit! You are truly an inspiration to me. Not very many people get a chance to do this race so you have to finish.’ My thoughts immediately shifted to what I needed to do to get through this. I ended up finishing in 31 hours in 11th place.”

Though it didn’t live up to his 2008 Miwok performance, Jaime is quick to say, “This finish was my greatest accomplishment in my ultra career because of what I learned about myself and the impact I have on other people.”

The Takeaways

As you can see, nobody plans for a DNF, but how you handle it makes you a better athlete. Below are some key points to remember if you do decide to drop at your next event.

  1. You aren’t alone. The DNF can be a lonely place. Know that many runners DNF, even the best. In time, it’ll be an experience you’ll talk about around the proverbial campfire.
  2. Experience catharsis. Cry, yell into a pillow, or punch the air. Release the emotions and frustrations that are associated with your DNF. Let others know about your feelings so they understand why you may be acting the way you are.
  3. Get back on the horse. Don’t dwell on the past. Put the bad race behind you by scheduling your next adventure.
  4. Make a list of the things that went wrong. DNFs are commonly caused by errors in our race preparation and execution. Before memory fades, write down what you can do the next time to prevent a DNF. For example, I still have my list from that fateful 1995 Vermont 100 Mile:

VT100_DNF list

Though rudimentary, I referred to this list before returning to the race in 1998 and it helped. I followed my own advice, finished second, and set a 100-mile personal record.

Just Say No

Do your damnedest to avoid a DNF. Prepare for the unexpected, train intelligently, practice your nutrition routine, test your equipment, and drum up the support of family, friends, training partners, and coach. Bien wraps it up perfectly, “Man, when you have a great finish that really is a special feeling. Afterwards, the beer tastes better, the finish-line festivities are more fun, and it’s a satisfying trip home. It’s inspiring to overcome personal demons and tough moments out on the trail.” The game we play is brutal. We’re bound to face setbacks when we test our psychological and physiological limits. The DNF is a result of us knocking on that door. Next time use a battering ram!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Okay, okay, let’s hear it, your DNF story. And perhaps more importantly, let’s also hear how you learned from that experience and grew as a runner.
  • What in this article rings true to your own experiences?
  • And what is something new that you will take away from Ian’s advice here?