Wednesday, April 18, 2012

DNF: It's Not As Bad As You Think

As many of you already know, my racing season is
not going so well. After a good training marathon in
Kentucky that went just as planned, I had  a bad day at Dances with DirtGreen Swamp 50k  because of IT band problems. Now I had a DNF (Did Not Finish) at Martian Half Marathon this past weekend. 

For most recreational runners a DNF is a devastating experience. Not finishing a race is just about the worst thing that can happen to a runner, short of a serious injury, and often the two go hand in hand. However, if a person runs long enough, most likely he or she will eventually have one, probably in a marathon.

I remember my first DNF very clearly. It was at my second marathon, Las Vegas, in 2002. I was well trained and expecting to do very well.  At what I think was the first aid station, there were no volunteers, just a table. There were no filled cups to grab, but there was a pitcher with what appeared to be sports drink. A guy grabbed the pitcher poured a cup and handed it to me and took a cup himself. I took a big gulp, and as soon as it got into my mouth I knew something was wrong. It was very strong. I should have spit it out. Instead I swallowed. 

At the next aid station I took some water to wash it down. Soon after, my stomach started to slosh. The more I put in, the more sloshy I got. By mile 15 I was sick and dehydrated (nothing was absorbing). I know now that I should have tried to throw up and "reset" my system, but being inexperienced, I stopped. An ambulance gave me a ride back to the finish. I sat on a curb at the finish line, wrapped in a mylar blanket, and cried while I watched the group I had been running with cross the finish line in 3:34, what would have been a 11 minute PR for me.

I was devastated. I felt like a total failure. In fact, I was even thinking that I probably would never run a marathon again. When you DNF at a marathon, all those people that you told you were running a marathon ask "How was your marathon?" You are stuck retelling your failure, over and over and over again. It took about five or six tellings before I could do it without starting to cry.

The next week, after several days of moping, I dragged myself into my local running store to speak with one of my mentors, Doreen Fay, an experienced runner who had run in the Olympic Trials. She helped me analyze what had happened, and she tried to cheer me up and put it all in perspective. As we were talking a guy walked into the shop. He was obviously a runner, but I didn't know him. Doreen, obviously did and greeted him warmly. At that moment a real paying customer came in, and Doreen said something like "You two talk. Lori just DNF'd for the first time." I was mortified.

The guy came over to talk to me. He was very soft-spoken. He began the conversation by saying something like "I have had many successful races, but I too have had some disappointing DNF's."  Then he continued talking with words like "World Championships" and the names of foreign countries, and I thought "Who is this guy?" He continued by telling me how devastating it was for him and saying that he just had to regroup and move on and that I could too. He was so supportive and uplifting. A few minutes later, Doreen came back and he said he had to go. He said how nice it was to talk to me, and wished me luck in my next marathon.

After he left the store, Doreen came back and said with a mischievous grin, "So, did you figure out who that was?"  I said I didn't know his name, but that he is definitely an elite runner. She said, "That was Noureddine Morceli, He is a 1500 m runner," and explained to me about his World Records and Olympic medals. It seems that he had stayed at her parent's house while he was attending college in Riverside. Her father was a running coach and often took in international runners who ran for the college.

I raced home and pulled out my book Running with the Legends  to read about Morceli. I could not believe that I had met an Olympic athlete and world champion, but more than that, I could not believe that successful athletes like that DNF'd too, and it didn't mean that they "sucked." It sounds naive now, but at that time, I did not know anyone else who had DNF'd. (Actually I probably did, but it is really not the kind of things that runners usually talk much about.) It changed my whole attitude. I entered the L.A. Marathon that was occurring the following month. I didn't PR, but I did finish in a respectable time, and I restored my faith in my own running ability.

Since then, I have DNF'd a few more times, once in a marathon and twice in half marathons. The marathon was a DNF that was again emotionally painful, but in a different way. I DNF'd there because I went in not properly trained and had not had enough long runs. It was completely my own fault due to a lack of diligence. That I could easily accept. It was a lesson to learn, an oldie but goodie. Ten years ago, I might have gotten away with being a little undertrained in a marathon, but at 49 that is not likely to happen. Older bodies do not like to be pushed beyond what they have been prepared for.

The two half marathon DNFs were different. They didn't hurt as much emotionally. In both of these cases, I went into the races knowing there was a good chance that I might not finish, both times because of IT band issues. This past weekend at Martian, I figured the chances were better than 50% that I would not finish, but since I was entered and wanted to support a friend that was there running the full marathon, I decided to start anyway, promising myself that if I had problems I would stop.

I did have problems, at only 5 miles, and I did stop. I stopped before I had to stop. I stopped as soon as I started to have pain. Some people have said to me "Couldn't you have walked and just finished, like you did at Green Swamp?"  The answer is that yes I could have, but what would have been the point? At Green Swamp I needed to finish to stay in the race series. However, at Martian there was no reason to continue, and by continuing I might have done damage that would take even longer to heal. In ultra running we often joke that "DNF" means "did nothing fatal."  By stopping when I did, I did not do further damage and increase my healing time.  I still have Dances with Dirt Gnaw Bone 50k  in just four short weeks. That one is a "must finish."

Perhaps I  should not have even started the race, but the thing about the IT band problem for me is that it comes and goes. After my other half marathon DNF at Santa Clarita in 2003, I came back just over four weeks later and set a huge marathon PR. I went into that marathon not sure of the IT band and prepared for a possible DNF, but never had a single problem. (The Running Gods answered my prayers that day!)  I had to take a shot at Martian just to see how it would go.

Admittedly, part of the reason I did not feel the emotional letdown at Martian as completely is that I was buoyed up by the joy of my friend Janet completing her first marathon. Sharing her joy and seeing her sense of accomplishment allowed me to remember why I love running. It also helped me remember that ups and downs are part of the process and that the highs and lows both contribute to the total experience. I am sure I will appreciate my next successful finish more by having gone through a few bad races.


  1. Thanks for sharing. I've yet to have a DNF, but I'm sure my day will come.......just hope it's not at Leading Ladies! I tend to be in the DNS category, at the moment.

  2. Just experienced a DNF during a half marathon due to ITBS issues and I'm really glad you shared this story.

    1. John,
      I am glad if reading this helped. It is a tough thing psychologically. I hope you are recovered soon and back at it.

  3. Hi, its nice to read your story and encoraging to know I am not the only one to have a DNF. I recently participated in Edinburgh Marathon which I could not finish due to ITB. It was dissapointing but I did not wish to risk further injury so I dropped out. But 6 weeks prior to Edinburgh I did manage to complete the Manchester Marathon with my ITB injury

  4. Hi, its nice to read your story and encoraging to know I am not the only one to have a DNF. I recently participated in Edinburgh Marathon which I could not finish due to ITB. It was dissapointing but I did not wish to risk further injury so I dropped out. But 6 weeks prior to Edinburgh I did manage to complete the Manchester Marathon with my ITB injury

    1. I am glad that you found encouragement in my article. It is always disappointing when we don't get to complete a race when we have put so much work into the training. I think that you made the right decision. There is always another race. I hope that your injury heals quickly. I, unfortunately, am still sidelined from a DNF at a 100 mile attempt. I have a back injury. I get the MRI results Monday and am hoping for the best. Happy running to you! Thanks for the comment.


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