DNF?! DNF?! For the fortunate minority of those who have never had to drop-out of a race, it’s merely another one of those annoying acronyms that runners toss around, “Did Not Finish.” After years of running races of various distances of varying terrains and climates around the country, I too was among that fortunate minority until November 14, 2015. As I emerged from the woods and descended onto the unforgiving monotony of the C&O Canal Towpath, I found myself staring DNF in the face and actually fencing with the idea of bowing out. I did – and with that decision came a mixed bag of failure, accomplishment, frustration, and relief.
I’ll set this up in the true Quentin Tarantino style and take it back to the beginning . . .
Back in the summer of 2015, I decided to forego the overpriced hype of the JFK-50 and I signed-up for the Stone Mill 50-miler (hereinafter, “Stone Mill”); a race that many of my fellow DC Capital Striders were also running. By way of comparison, Stone Mill had more single track (a feature that most trail runners enjoy), slightly more vertical gain in the aggregate (but nothing crazy), and, if cost is a factor, Stone Mill is about 90 cents a mile. This seemed to be a perfect 50-miler to bookend my summer race schedule.
I’ve run plenty of trail endurance races and I’ve studied various schools of thought governing “proper” training regimes. Over the years, I’ve found what works for me, which, parenthetically speaking, I believe is the most important factor at the end of the day. At this particular mid-summer posture, I was at my prime. I had been averaging between 50-70 trail miles a week, I was working in back-to-back runs to increase recovery time, and I was ramping my weekend long runs into the 30’s just for fun. I couldn’t be less concerned about Stone Mill (not in an arrogant way, but as a well-prepared athlete facing an opponent over which victory is owing). The weather in DC was holding strong toward the end of summer and, hailing originally from Southern California, I excel in extreme heat. Fortunately, early fall was similarly forgiving on my training schedule.
I should note here that since moving to the east coast, I’ve had a reoccurring “pressure” which builds in my hamstring around mile 16-18. I never would have classified this as “pain” or any sort of “injury” but it has required that I spend significant post-run time rolling it out. During my pre-Stone Mill training, this particular deficiency didn’t cause any additional problems for me and I was always able to run through it.
Before I knew it, it was the morning of November 14th. I awoke that morning, confident, well-trained, and well-prepared. This was just another walk in the park. On the morning of a race, I always awake hours before the gun. That morning in particular, I rolled everything out, suited up, filled my hydration pack, and loaded my vest with the requisite nutrition for the race. Although I knew that the aid stations would be robust with ample solid food, I always pack gels, chomps, and chia bars in my vest. The race was to commence in a DC suburb within a reasonable driving distance from my house in Northwest DC proper. My wife, having decided to crew me that day, joined me on the drive out to Gaithersburg.
Upon arrival, I met-up with my friends from the running club. The event seemed well-organized and I was still as calm as could be. However, the weather conditions were not on my side that day. It was far colder than what I would deem comfortable.
For the first 8 miles of the race, the field was thick. To wit, there wasn’t more than a few feet of distance between each runner. The pace we were keeping was between 9:20 and 10:00 as the field thinned out. I was shooting for a consistent 10:30-11:00 pace but so far, everything felt fine (despite some Garmin issues that I was having). That’s when it all started. Just like clockwork, around mile 14-15, that pressure in my hamstring surfaced. As usual, I pushed through it while stopping occasionally to stretch it out. The pressure persisted and became more acute as I ran on. Something was different this time. To this day I’m not sure whether it was cold, the training, or something more psychosomatic, but the pressure started to turn to pain.
As I approached mile 17, I found myself falling farther and farther back in the field (which is fine. I have no ego about my finish time but I’m merely noting this fact as a basis for gauging my general displacement along the course). At that time I decided to drop my pace back to 12:00. I entered a portion of the course consisting of rolling single track, peaks and troughs whipped by icy winds, and canopied by ominous grey skies. The pain grew with each step, transforming my quick jaunt through the woods into a tortured slog through a swamp of despair and frustration.
As I approached mile 22, I passed a friend of mine who was possibly more worse for wear than I. He had a serious foot injury flare-up and was undoubtedly undertaking a similar mental exercise in hope that he would find some relief. We commiserated briefly and I wanted nothing more than to walk it off. However, I knew that if I permitted myself that respite, I would never make it to the finish (which was still a possibility, nay, an inevitability in my mind). From that point on, I traveled alone. I experimented with my pace and although I did pass runners on occasion, that did little to buoy my spirits or assuage the pain in my hamstring which had now escalated to a shot of lightening up my left side with every step. Perhaps I was pushing it too hard at this point, but the damage was already done.
After mile 24 or 25, I burst through the tree line onto the C&O Canal Towpath. For those who are unfamiliar, the Towpath is a fire road-like ox path which borders a Canal previously used to facilitate maritime commerce along the Potomac River in the late 19th century. It’s akin to the Erie Canal in New York. DC-area trail runners have a love-hate relationship with the Towpath. Although it provides miles of uninterrupted running along the countryside, it is as monotonous as any other fire road you’ve experienced. It’s packed dirt, often bordered by trees, you can usually see at least a mile ahead, it’s unforgiving. Although I had somewhat familiarized myself with the course and I was cognizant that this segment was imminently approaching, the sight of the Towpath served as the deathblow to any mental stamina which remained after that painful slog through the woods.
From what I remembered of the course map, I knew that I was close to one more aid state to which there was crew vehicular access. It was at that time that the thought first crossed my mind – DNF.
“DNF?! I’m freekin’ bulletproof. I have never – will never – DNF!”
As I started to hobble into the aid station, those thoughts turned to, “Holy Damn. I think I have to DNF this thing.” Which eventually became, “I absolutely need to DNF this thing. Get me the Hell outa here!”
My wife greeted me at the aid station. The pain was no longer hot lighting but had become something different altogether; a dulling numbness which surged up my entire body with each step. Thinking that a change in stimuli would offer some small bit of relief, I changed my socks and swapped my shoes out. No difference, I had to drop. My wife was persistent in urging me to continue but I would not be persuaded. My mind was made up. I had to DNF Stone Mill. Nothing hurts more than approaching the aid station captain to inform them that you’re dropping out.
Although I had never DNF’ed a race before Stone Mill, I’ll attempt to convey three of my takeaways in the event that they can be of any help to you in the future (As much as I would love to get into the recovery aspects after a DNF, I believe it would be too particularized to be of any benefit to you):
Stay positive – I was dismayed that I had to DNF Stone Mill. I’ve raced distances in great excess of that aid station on countless occasions. That’s the ego talking. You have nothing to prove to anyone. Running is a solo competition against yourself (unless you’re in the elite class). Don’t take the whole thing so seriously. It’s okay to be disappointed that you dropped-out. That’s natural and healthy. If you can look back and accept that it was beyond your control, you have no reason to accept that experience as anything less than an opportunity for growth. If you can look back and identify the contributing factor as a deficiency in your training or something avoidable, all the better! Then, it’s a learning experience!
Understand why you DNF’ed – A necessary corollary of the antecedent point is to understand the reason for your DNF. This might be the most challenging aspect of DNF’ing and it will plague you until you face it head on. All endurance races are tough (uh…they’re “endurance” races). So why did you drop? Was it a product of the standard ultra-marathon wear and tear? Or was it injury related? Either one is completely acceptable but both must be regarded in different ways. Upon accepting that it was the former, one should regard it as merely another learning experience. Perhaps next time you should conscript a pacer to help you through it. Upon finding that the latter was the case, you should probably congratulate yourself for bowing-out before causing yourself any irreparable physical harm. Either one is fine, but you should probably take a moment of introspection so that you can get the most out of your experience.
Don’t be embarrassed – If you had anything invested in the race, it’s easy to be embarrassed after a DNF – Hell, I was - Don’t be embarrassed! This sort of thing happens to everyone, even the elites. Even if it’s your first DNF, it won’t be your last (I always knew mine was coming eventually). I know of no runner who would ever cast dispersions under those circumstances (if you do, then you should probably unfriend them on Facebook or something). The point is, if you go your whole running career without ever DNF’ing a race, I think it means that you’re either Dean Karnazes or you have no skin in the game and you don’t really care about chasing the burn or pushing for the golden ring. One only finds growth through challenge. If you’re not challenging yourself to try something new or to summit the next peak, you should ask yourself what you’re getting out of this sport. I’m not a competitive guy (I’m probably the only law school graduate to say that) – but I’m out there to try new courses, see new places, run through some new terrain, and meet great people. You absolutely don’t have to be “in it to win it” in order to have some skin in the game. Don’t be ashamed of the DNF.
So after years of successful racing, I had my first DNF on the Stone Mill course in 2015. It popped my DNF cherry. In case you’re wondering, that pain in my hamstring has yet to flare-up in that same fashion despite running 50Ks since then. Will I ever return to Stone Mill? Maybe. I’m not opposed to it but it’s not like I have anything to prove.