The world of ultra-running is a beautiful amalgam where success is not guaranteed without an ideal combination of  training, discipline, tenacity, problem solving and luck come together perfectly with the ability to ingest and digest sufficient calories to prevent physical and psychological breakdown as you cover extreme distances on foot. Not a single person I know that participates in this sport lacks motivation, work ethic or enthusiasm for a challenge. It’s one of the many reasons I love this sport and the community that it comprises.

Still, what we do – for fun – is extremely demanding both physically and mentally. Even with months of preparation, it’s still hard to nail a perfect race or even feel like you got most things right. A lot of times, these races become a battle of attrition and doing anything and everything it takes to reach the finish line.

photo credit: Guillem Casanova

I’ve experienced every high and every low during these races – I know it’s just part of the process of running far and pushing my limits. It’s something I accept, even welcome, as the gun goes off. And, even though I’ve found a way to problem solve, fight and win that battle of attrition to finish 99% of the time, sometimes we just can’t make it.

Photo credit: Guillem Casanova

But how do we come to that decision? And when we do, how do we become at peace with it?

The negative side to the amazing culture of trail running is we can be our own worst enemies. We can do too much in race preparation, over train, or show up to a race tired before we event start. We have high pain thresholds and can run through nagging injuries until we are literally forced to stop. We can be too motivated and driven, or become obsessed with a task, often times to the detriment of our mental health. So how can we wrap our minds around not finishing something we started, when we are all so highly motivated and committed to that journey. How do we get over the notion of “death before DNF?”

Recently I was faced with this dilemma, when I had my first DNF at UTMB. The decision for me was maybe a bit more straight forward than most – having come back from foot surgery in April, and returning to run in late May, I knew running UTMB was risky – so when I had to stop based on risk of re-injury, I was confident in my decision, yet devastated by it. I had made a decision for my health, yet still was experiencing feelings of shame and guilt for stopping my race. Still, these feelings of shame and sadness ebbed and flowed simultaneously with feelings of being proud of my decision and gratitude. It’s not easy.

Photo credit: Morgan Bodet

Everyone’s journey with racing and choosing to DNF or not, is different. None of us want to not finish what we started, or go into a race thinking we won’t finish it, but sometimes, that’s what we need to do. It can be the best decision for your body or the best decision for your mind. Perhaps the latter is harder to quantify, but in the end, they are both related to one another, and one can’t exist without the other. But here’s the thing, a result or lack of result, does not define our self worth, and we have the ability to value ourselves regardless of either outcome.

So whether or not you got that finishing buckle, medal, a personal best or the badge of a DNF at your last race, wear each one proudly. Know that with each race and decision to keep going or stop, there is this constant – you are more than a result, and your value isn’t conditional with your race results.

Recently, Corrine Malcolm, Keely Henninger and I, discuss the DNF, and how we each have approached our own DNFs, where we did not finish a race. Check out our latest Trail Society podcast here.

Also, check out our latest episode that dropped this week here.

One Comment

  • Buzz Burrell says:

    A good question, and difficult to answer.

    I DNF’d UTMB. Ironically, while feeling mostly good! But my quads were shot from running the first half downhills too aggressively and not having run longer than 25 miles so far that year. So hiking into Lac Champex, I decided to call it, even though I had tons of time and energy left, because I didn’t want hike that route, I wanted to run it.

    Realizing now that I’m not likely to go back, I can second-guess that decision – a Finish would feel good now. Back then I was more of a purist with plenty of time ahead to do it in my style.

    A DNF choice is based on countless factors! Which change.

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