I’ve been here before. Too many times now. I had to go back and look through my results to get an accurate count. I now have 8 DNF’s on my resume in my 12 years of racing. EIGHT! Ouch. The biggest lesson I have learned? They never get any easier to process. Some are out of your control, some are due to bike mechanical failures, and others come from a conscious decision to end your race in hopes of preserving your health, safety, or preventing a full blown injury. One thing they all have in common (for me) is the big black cloud that looms above when the decision is made to pull the plug. The negativity I bring down on myself for feeling weak and not worthy. And tears – there are always tears.
There are many people who subscribe to this philosophy and I get it. I realize how lucky I am to have the opportunity and physical ability to race – to simply “give up” when the going gets tough is not a decision I feel comfortable making. I also respect those who listen to their bodies and know when it’s not worth it to push. Here I was again, faced with the option to drop out or keep pushing forward and I decided to be a quitter. What would I have gained from continuing? A result? More mental toughness? A sense of pride for finishing? Fortunately I didn’t need any of these things. I am lucky to have plenty of races behind me and ahead of me. There may come a time where I face challenges which will make just finishing more important to me. I am not there yet.
I think my first DNF set the stage for me to make better decisions about my health and well-being while racing. I was racing really well at a half ironman in June of 2008 in some unseasonably hot weather. Next thing I know I wake up in an ambulance not having any clue what happened. I collapsed from a heat stroke about a mile and a half from the finish line. Once I was able to grasp what had happened and my memory of the events leading up to the collapse slowly came back I was scared. Being the control freak I am I couldn’t believe that I didn’t see it coming – that I allowed myself to race until I was unconscious on the ground being swept up into an ambulance. Death Before DNF was close to becoming a reality. My mindset had to change – I was wound up too tight around my racing.
I added 2 more DNF’s to my resume within a year of this incident – at a World Championship and then again at a National Championship. Not the races you want to quit. Was I being overly cautious? That thought crossed my mind as I pondered my decisions. But to this day I still believe I made the correct choices, although each time it took miles of convincing along with the accompanying tears. I knew I never wanted to sacrifice my long term health for a race again. I still can’t claim to have the healthiest relationship with racing, or more so with my identity as an athlete. However I have come a long way and Bandera was another example of the progress I have made.
There is no point in writing a typical race report for Bandera because I really only “raced” about 15 miles, struggled through 9 more, then walked 7 to finish the first 50k loop and bowed out. What I can say about the race is that the first 12 miles felt great. It was a lot colder than anyone had planned for but once we got running and the sun was rising it felt wonderful. After picking up our packets on Friday I was excited about the course – I knew the terrain was something I would enjoy. I was right. Lots of dirt, gravel and loose rocks. Punchy climbs followed by tricky descents. The course challenges your footing and forces you to run controlled while also offering plenty of ground to really open up. The course was well-marked and the aid station volunteers were excellent.
I won’t get into the particulars about what happened because I’m not sure it’s something everyone wants to hear about. An old medical issue that I’ve been able to manage for a few years decided to come back full force about 12 miles in and worsen from there. I don’t know what caused it, especially so early into the race, but I’m taking this down time to hopefully find better answers this time around and move past it. Since I am now somewhat a pro on the topic of DNF’ing, I present to you the 5 stages of my Bandera DNF:
- Denial – I’m feeling awesome! I’m running smooth and relaxed! This course will play well to my strengths! Wait, what is this I’m feeling? No, it can’t be. I’ve only been running for 12 miles and I’ve got this issue under control. This isn’t happening. It’s just a small hiccup and it will pass just like any other rough patch. Miles later it’s just getting worse and that’s when the first thought of “DNF” pops into my head. I try to push it out of my brain just as quickly as it enters. I won’t have to DNF – this wasn’t at all part of the plan. No way.
- Anger – Why is this happening to me? Why now? Why today? What could I have possibly done to cause this? Can I really not keep things under control for this one last race of my season? This race was a big one for me. I was ready to end my season after TNF 50 but no, I rallied and fought hard to get myself to this start line feeling primed and ready to race. And now it was spiraling out of my control. I was angry. I was cursing. But don’t worry, I directed 100% of this anger onto myself 😉
- Bargaining – By mile 20 I knew that I was in trouble. The issue wasn’t getting any better. A DNF was turning from a thought to a strong possibility. This is the stage where I start to focus on the “what-ifs” and the “maybes”. What if I just walk the rest of the race? Maybe it will pass. My history with this is that it doesn’t clear up until I stop moving but maybe, just maybe, this time it would be different. I have plenty of race left to salvage if only I can move past this. Or do I just say screw it and keep pushing myself to run even though my body is revolting. It is a smart tactical decision to drop out of a race and save yourself for the next one. There was no “next one” on my horizon – the conclusion of this race was the beginning of my off-season. So why should I care about potential damage to my body? Maybe I should just gut it out and deal with the consequences later. It was a dumb thought and deep down I knew it. These what-ifs and maybes were my desperate attempt to hold on to hope. Which leads to the next step…
- Depression – I arrived at the last aid station, aptly named “Last Chance”, with 5 miles to go. There was a sign at the aid station pointing straight ahead for the 25k course stating it was only .25 miles to the finish line. An obvious choice for someone who made the decision to drop out of the race. But instead, without hesitation, I turned right and kept walking. I had one itty-bitty maybe left in my tank, but really I turned right so that I could wallow in my self-loathing for 5 more miles. Yippee! About 2 miles in I realized this was a mistake but refused to turn around. I was dizzy, my walk was more of a shuffle, and I straight up stopped a few times. My only desire (beyond getting to that finish line) was to sit down for just a minute and rest. I knew that if I did this it would be too comfortable and prolong my day even more. So I continued along, shed some tears, and had my pity party.
- Acceptance – The previous stages are easy compared to this one. Luckily I was not alone at this race. I had other friends out on the race course so this was not the time or place for me to be negative. I had all of those miles out on the course to do that 😉 Once I spent some time lying down to recover I made it back to the finish line to see Tom and Tim come in on their first loops, watch Scott finish the 50k, and then head back out onto the course to crew for Phil. Distractions – they are key. And I enjoy helping others while they race so it worked out well.
The toughest part of this phase has been embracing my down time. My body and mind needed a break for sure but I was also expecting to have a solid race going into my off-season. This race left me unsatisfied and hungry to get back out there and redeem myself. I know that’s not the answer but it’s still tough to end on a sour note. I like to think that I learn something from every race – good, bad or DNF. I am grasping to find what I have learned from this one. The only take-away I have is that I need to get back to the Dr for more testing. I am surrounded by the best support system and I am grateful for that every day. On to the next season!
Do you have experience with the dreaded DNF?
What was the toughest phase for you?
What is your best advice for accepting your decision?