Mission Possible, (or Impossible?): Avoiding the Dreaded DNF

Pine Mountain, Kentucky (Location of Cloudsplitter 100) Image from shaman.smugmug.com
Pine Mountain, Kentucky (Location of Cloudsplitter 100) Image from shaman.smugmug.com

While making my regular trek between San Antonio and Austin earlier this week, I was listening to Guadalupe Radio Network Alive and heard Dr. Bill Thierfelder discussing his book Less Than a Minute to Go: The Secret to World-Class Performance in Sports, Business, and Every Day Life. Dr. Thierfelder is an interesting man. He is a devout Catholic, and currently the president of Belmont Abbey College. Before taking this position he was a successful businessman. He also medaled at the 1981 U.S. Track & Field Indoor National Championship. After listening to his interview on GRN Alive, I knew I had to read this book. With graduate degrees in sports psychology and human movement, Dr. Thierfelder has helped many athletes – including Olympic and professional athletes – improve their performances. Of course I am interested in improving my running performance (and if I’m honest, I’d say my desire to run better is the foremost reason I decided to read the book); however, Dr. Thierfelder and those whose reviews of the book I’ve read state that the book aids in spiritual and personal development as well. People are multidimensional. A book that approaches improvement in performance by acknowledging the need to fully develop all the human aspects of an individual seems promising, indeed. I ordered the book two days ago and I am eagerly awaiting its arrival.

Just before I ordered Dr. Thierfelder’s book, I registered for the Cloudsplitter 50k in Kentucky, in October. Phillip and I decided to try a 50k in a colder climate, hoping to increase our chance of finishing it. Our decision to commit to the 50k is partly my inspiration for ordering the book when I did. As much as I want to run longer distances, and to run them well (I don’t want to be the last to finish!), I continue to doubt that I will achieve this goal. Mental doubt probably prevents more runners from achieving their goals more than any physical factor. Partly I doubt because I have started two 50ks (Prickly Pear 50k 2008 and Wild Hare 50k 2013) and didn’t finish either. The reasons for the failure aren’t important; the lasting effect of these failures on my self-confidence is important. After the Wild Hare debacle I began to read about DNFs and the reasons for them, hoping to avoid another DNF – for the rest of my life! My search led me to a helpful article about DNFs, on iRunFar.com, written by Geoff Roes. In this article Roes mentions the confidence issue, among other reasons for DNFs:

Another huge factor is confidence. When we go into a race with a lot of confidence – whether it’s confidence about being able to win the race or confidence that we can definitively finish the race – it’s so much easier to trust that things are going to get better as long as we slow down, eat and drink the proper amount, and practice some patience. This confidence is another thing that we really can’t fake. It’s either there or it’s not. When it’s not, it’s nearly impossible to trust that things are going to get better, even when they’re really not that bad.

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Roes correctly points out that people just can’t fake confidence. Sure, one might be able to project fake confidence to others when she discusses upcoming race goals and such, but deep down she cannot fool herself into having confidence when confidence isn’t anywhere in sight. She can’t fake confidence because she knows all the pitfalls that can cause failure during a running event. She knows how her training runs went, and she knows her own weaknesses and strengths. For some reason, the weaknesses seem to take precedence over the strengths during bouts of self-doubt.

Sadly, some runners harshly judge runners who DNF, at least implicitly if not explicitly. Just a cursory glance at comments that follow online posts and articles about DNFs reveals the negative attitude of some runners toward runners who DNA. Roes’ article is sympathetic toward those DNF moments, and therefore comforting. Some of the comments following his article, however, served to increase my lack of confidence as a runner in general, I having two DNFs to my credit:

I don’t understand DNFs. Did the Donner Pass dudes stop when the mountains got snowy? No, they ate a couple of their compatriots and kept goin’…If an ultra is a metaphor for life, DNF=Did something Fatal. Injury sminjury, ya gots to keep goin’.
. . . .

I think Olga has it right. If you DNF once for reasons other than actual physical problems that could potentially affect your long term health, you risk opening a can of worms.

I’m not near Geoff in terms of performance, but I am used to being somewhat near the front. The fact is that this means nothing. It can be something to be proud of as it reflects tons of sacrifice in terms of training and ability to run through discomfort, but it’s really an ego thing (not necessarily bad). It’s a hard pill to swallow when you just aren’t performing like you hoped, and that can be a tough thing to run through. I was mentally engaged at the end of Cascade Crest 100 as I passed people and snagged third overall. My body was wrecked, but I’d have never quit. I’m not sure the actual finishing place is so important, but more the empowering and motivating feeling of ‘having a good run’. Different story at Orcas 50k. My training had been almost non existent for a while due to some big issues (moving to HI), but I figured I could ‘remember’ how to run and probably pull off an ok performance. WRONG. My legs felt off right from the start, and I’ve never come closer to quitting. I took a minute to soak in a stream, and mentally turned off the race mindset in favor of just finishing and regaining the ‘fun’ part. It sucked for a while, but I enjoyed the scenery, and ended up having an enjoyable run, even racing again in the last couple of miles.

Comments such as the ones above appear on runner’s forums as well. I read the following comments on a Runner’s World forum thread devoted to DNFs. Thoughts such as these shared by other runners are rather discouraging to people such as I, who have DNFs in our race history:

The threshold for a DNF should be high but there is always another race. DNF stands for “did nothing fatal” you know. If there is risk of doing serious harm to yourself, or you are unable to take care of your own safety, then you should withdraw. I think a lot of people talk themselves into thinking that it is impossible to finish prematurely, in order to get out of their immediate ordeal, but if the calculation is legitimately clear cut then you are justified in doing it. Often it is better to continue until you miss a cut-off, so that you do not have to carry the burden of wondering what “if”. The lesson that most people take away from their first DNF, is that in the long term it hurts more to quit than it does to carry on!

The super discouraging passage below appears on ultrarunner James Adams blog Running and Stuff:

I would love to be in a position where I could say that I was pulled off the mountain with Hypothermia, or that I got a nasty shin splint or twisted ankle coming off the mountain which reduced me to a crawl, or that I puked so much that my body went into shock and I was taken home in an ambulance. The reason for my DNF is somewhat less glorious than that.

Back to the original pie chart I was hoping to change your mind on from the start. I don’t think I am unique at all in what happened here though I rarely see something like this written. I am going to put it out there that 80% of DNFs happen in a similar fashion to what I have described. I am going to call this large segment of the pie chart “lazy cowardice”.
The reason I didn’t carry on was because the thought of doing the 53 miles that remained was just too hard. I quit because what lay ahead felt too hard. That is it.

Considering rather ungenerous – incompassionate? – attitudes some runners have toward those who start, but don’t finish, a race, a DNS might be preferable to a DNF. A runner can DNS a couple of ways: by registering for a race and then not showing up to run it, or by not even considering to enter races she believes she may fail to finish. I’ve spent some years DNS for the latter reason, but never the former. Phillip and I are too cheap to pay race registration and then not show up at the start. Precisely for this reason, I have not only registered the two of us for the Cloudsplitter 50k (still four months away), but I have also purchased our round-trip airplane tickets to Kentucky. No turning back now. We’re committed to running this race. I’m committed to finishing it. The only DNF Phillip has had is the Wild Hare 50k, which he had to stop because I was ill. Of course, I like to point out to him that he could have finished that last seven mile loop without me, and I encouraged him to, but truthfully he was pretty hot and tired by the end of the third loop. My dropping out made his dropping out easier (a situation about which I will feel guilty forever for a long time).

With the Cloudsplitter 50k ahead of me, I have the incentive to train harder during these wretchedly hot, humid summer days (I can never figure out how a naturally arid geographical area such as South Texas can be so dry and so humid at the same time). I did speed work twice last week, and hill work twice as well. My weekly mileage is up to the 40 – 50 range. My goal is to get it up and keep it up in the 50 – 60 mile range. As always, I sign on to every challenge Strava offers as a way to stay motivated; I’ve already signed up for four challenges in July. Finally, when my copy of Less Than a Minute to Go: The Secret to World-Class Performance in Sports, Business, and Every Day Life arrives, I will read it cover to cover and apply what lessons I can to my running and my life.

If anyone reading this post has a DNF in his or her running history, please tell me about it!

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