Letters Never Written: the DNF

Yep, I had a DNF earlier this year, back in February. The dreaded DID NOT FINISH. Dropped out at mile 20 of a 50k. I probably learned more about not only running and competing but a lot about myself from not finishing this race than almost all of my other finishes combined. I also ate a huge steaming pile of crow that fateful day in February, because up until that point I had been bragging about never having dropped from a race.

How about that title, too? Little bit “emo”, eh? I didn’t want to get too over-dramatic but c’mon, it’s click bait. Seems that DNFing has become one of the hottest topics in ultrarunning over the last year, or maybe it seems that way to me now that I’ve dipped my toes into that pool. But I digress…

If you check my UltraSignup page the DNF is not listed there, and that’s okay. It says something to the effect of “wow, you’re tough as nails, you have no DNFs that we know of.” But in fact, I dropped from that race, a little over a mile from the start/finish aid station at 30k. Walking back to the start and seeing the other 50k runners go the opposite way by me; some offering encouragement to keep going (“don’t ever make a decision on an uphill” one guy said), some with looks of disappointment, a few didn’t even want to make eye contact, some with looks of relief (that it wasn’t them dropping) and some saying “you’ll get ‘em next time”.

I can remember the feeling of un-pinning my bib from my shorts and stuffing it in my pocket, at first to hide my embarrassment from the fact that I was just racing one minute and the next I’m done. Then this slow creep of self-doubt that gave way to this feeling of complete and utter failure- now this idea had manifested in me of if I’d ever be able to finish another ultra again, and at that point I wanted to crawl into a cave and/or jump in that dirty lake.

Failure can really fuck with your head.

Because I had the Miwok 100k on the calendar for early-May, going for another Western States qualifier, I had to immediately switch gears right after LA from road marathon training to 100k trail training, stuffing what amounts to some serious mileage into about 5 weeks, hoping to jack up the mileage and not to get hurt while making sure I had enough work under my belt to be somewhat prepared to run 62 miles, and to put everything into finishing that race healthy.

Then if I didn’t run a 3:08 or better at LA, I’d have to switch gears right back to marathon training after Miwok and put a July-August road marathon back on the schedule, which is exactly what happened anyway- hindsight is a bitch.

So there’s the first piece of the puzzle adding up to the DNF: stress. This unrealistic expectation that I had to get a BQ, no matter what. My focus for the last few years has been solely on trail ultras so the idea to run a fast road marathon put me completely out of my comfort zone; everything I had done up to this round of marathon training had been based around three things: trails, elevation, and spending as much time on my feet as was possible. So when I say just looking at a marathon training program, with all the “10 x 800 repeats” and “X miles at marathon pace” on the calendar, that left me in a place I hadn’t been in in years.

We also found out we were pregnant around this time, so I had to pull myself out of the Wasatch Front 100 lottery because that was really close to our due date, and it’s probably not a good idea to go run 100 miles in the Utah wilderness 3 weeks before your first child is set to arrive. My wife is really supportive of my running, but that’s asking a lot. So there’s some more stress, albeit a positive stressor but still a huge life change- one that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time.

Then the idea that I didn’t feel like an ultrarunner anymore because I had yet to run an ultra in 2015- never mind the fact that I’d run nineteen prior to lining up at the start of the Inside Trail Chabot 50k on February 21st. I thought it might be a dumb idea to run 31-plus miles 3 weeks out from a goal race, but hey- gotta get that ultra cred, right? What a dumb thing to think, after all- once an ultrarunner, always an ultrarunner, right?

Goin' down the road feelin' bad bad bad. But lookin' good good good, I guess. Damn.

Goin’ down the road feelin’ bad bad bad. But lookin’ good good good, I guess. Damn.

Let’s also put “ego” as a reason I wouldn’t finish this race. I knew I had come close to running my trail 50k PR here the year before, and that based on the recent marathon training and all the speedwork I felt 4:41 or faster was totally doable. When I came through the 30k at somewhere around 2:45 all I was thinking was that I “had” to run the last 13 miles in 1:55, which again was totally doable but took me right out of the moment and put me into future-tripping mode. Nothing will wreck your serenity like hanging your self-worth on a result rather than being fully immersed in the process.

It’s not like I was completely falling apart during this race, I was still being my jolly old self- smiling, laughing and joking with all the aid station folks, trying to have a good time. I even stopped to check on a runner that stepped off the trail with shortness of breath- doing all the stuff you’re supposed to do. I also wasn’t feeling quite 100%- my stomach was super sloshy all day. I learned at this race that I can no longer use a certain product (that shall remain nameless) and just couldn’t get myself right nutritionally, so I thought I’d just run through it and as is usually the case in an ultra I’ll be okay in a half hour, or maybe six more miles; but to no avail. I had that weird feeling like when you’re about to get sick, like a cold sweat kind of feeling. It lasted all day.

I also realized after DNFing, that if it’s not an “A” race for me then my heart just isn’t in it. I define an A race as the huge goal race for a long-term block of training done specifically leading up to that race. I mean, this wasn’t even a B race, which is how I define a “tune up” race to see what kind of fitness I have leading into my A race. Kaiser Half was a great tune up for LA, I was targeting a 1:30 and was right where I wanted to be, so everything was lining up nicely.

Then there’s the C race, where I’m more or less using a race as a workout. The only way I could’ve justified doing a 50k in February was if I was running a 50-miler in March. So all of this in my head pretty much took my heart out of it. That kind of disconnect is lethal to my psyche, this was basically a D race- so the grade I received for this was an F.

Which brings me to my next point: this race was in no way any part of my training that could be considered specific to the distance or terrain I was going to see in LA. Non-specific training is a waste of time (I would also learn after LA that Yasso 800’s are pointless for marathon training, but hey- it’s all a process). So stick to the program.

I was just running a race to run it. Had no heart or head in it at all, no real reason to run it. I was basically just using a race credit from volunteering. It would’ve made more sense to just run the 30k, because a hilly nineteen mile tempo run makes sense in the build-up to a marathon, which is basically what I did.

So there’s a list of reasons why I didn’t finish that race; but as someone who knows when he’s bullshitting himself, reasons are just well-worded excuses and I’m not trying to hide truths from myself. If anything, running has been a gateway to getting in touch with the real me, my true authentic self. The experiences I’ve had running that have brought me closer to those truths are not something I can take all that lightly anymore.

One of the most important things I learned from this race was to be a bit more discerning when signing up for a race, not to try to force an experience on myself that I’m not totally into. There’s a huge difference between mindful and mindless running, trying to do a race because you feel like you’re missing out on something is pretty ridiculous.

I’ve learned that being fully engaged in the process, that’s when flow state is achieved and probably one of the most important things I’ve taken away from the whole thing. Everything has to align in just the right way for me to be totally psyched up to run a good race, and for 21 of the 22 ultras I’ve started, it was there- Lake Sonoma 50, San Diego 100, even Wendell’s Coastal races I get hyped for.

I was always in the moment, it was fun, it was fun even when it wasn’t. It’s been said that you’re not really an ultrarunner until you DNF your first race, so not finishing a race I ran because I didn’t feel like an ultrarunner is a little too ironic.

So there you have it, my first (and only) DNF as of today. It’s a yucky feeling and one I hope to not revisit any time soon.

Thanks for reading!

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