Thoughts on DNFs

Since the finish of this year’s UTMB, there has been a significant amount of chatter online regarding the dreaded ‘DNF’ (did not finish) in ultrarunning. Many runners dropped out of UTMB 2011 and overall I believe there was a 45% finisher’s rate. I am not sure how that stacks up historically, but that is certainly a relatively low finisher’s rate at any race. Leadville every year sees about a 50% finisher’s rate. 100 mile races are tough and DNFs are inevitable from ‘back-of-the-packers’ all the way up to the world’s best runners. 

Many top runners dropped from UTMB last week. I get the feeling that these online comments and discussions about DNFs are being slightly overstated because many of the top American’s were forced to drop out. I too was initially stunned to see so many top names dropping, but when you look more closely at it, these guys (and gals) dropped for a variety of reasons. Ankle injuries, severe cramping, exhaustion, course-changes and several other reasons. Ultimately, I believe this sport (for the top runners in the world) has gotten to the point where there is a lot at stake; from national pride to dollars and cents, sponsor obligations, and future race results. When you look at elite level marathon running and track racing, the elite runners drop out constantly as they pursue the perfect race, fast times, fitness, sponsorship levels, etc. I believe the sport of ultrarunning is almost at that level and an elite runner having to battle chronic exhaustion from grinding out a 100 mile race on destroyed legs is not ideal if you plan on racing a high profile race in the near future.

I am not trying to justify DNFs but there may be a place for them amongst the elite in the sport. I am simply trying to respond to the negative chatter I have seen dismissing some of the best runners in the world as ‘weak.’ I know most of the guys that dropped last week at UTMB and I can say with all certainty these guys are ridiculously strong-willed, tough and ready to handle adverse conditions. A bad race or a DNF does not define who you are as a runner, and all of these guys are going to bounce back, perform supremely again, and lead the sport of ultrarunning in the USA for years to come.

One last thought. I have raced almost 40 ultras, of which 9 have been 100 milers. I have yet to drop out of a race. There is a possibility that it will happen in the future but I do intend to never DNF. Call me stubborn but I would rather suffer all the way in (Like Hal did at UTMB) than call it quits. Smart? Not really. Although I have yet to drop from a race, I have decided to drop from the rest of the 2011 season. I had another race on the schedule for September 24th (UROC) but have decided to not race further in 2011. What is the difference between dropping out of a race and dropping out of a season? I would argue there is very little difference. In a race, when things are not going well and true exhaustion is setting in, you begin to weaken and if you keep fighting you may end up digging a bigger hole for yourself and eventually be forced to take a DNF for the race. Well, the same is true with my 2011 season. After a few months of fatigue, exhaustion, soreness, and other maladies, my body needs to drop out from racing the rest of the season or risk digging an even bigger hole for myself. I set out this season with one more race on the calendar and I am not starting that race. I did not finish my season. Seems like the same thing to me. 

USA ultrarunning is strong. It will get stronger. No doubt in my mind. Here’s to reflection and recovery. Thanks for reading the ramblings. Live well. Be well. DC

5 Comments

  1. John Clement said:

    I’m not an ultra runner, as you know, but I think a lot about the role of endurance in life itself. There must be a balance between the toughness of mind and body needed to endure in a race, and the wisdom to understand that no one race is everything. If a DNF avoids an injury that would affect more races, or a DNS allows for recovery physically and mentally that builds for future strength, then it is within the spirit of true endurance to not finish, or not start. Sometimes it takes greater courage to do the right thing, risking the ridicule of small minds, then to just press through the pain and call that courage.

    September 1, 2011
    • I do agree. Most of the time though the ridicule comes from within, not from others. Endurance takes endurance. No doubt about it.

      September 1, 2011
  2. You have a kid now, and that changes things too. My second is only weeks away and while I feel awesome, ready to race again, it is time for bigger things like supporting the family. I certainly can’t think of anyone in ultrarunning (USA) who has a sponsorship deal sweet enough to actually live comfortably on. I credit you for lining up to race Leadville, surely the run up to it was done on zero sleep! Enjoy the time you have with the little guy, it’s gone fast!

    September 1, 2011
  3. Pat Shamblin said:

    Great article DC. It gets to the heart of the reality we ALL have to deal with regardless of what level we’re at. That is what I may call the balance of priorities. As I will turn 50 years old in 2.3 years, I ask myself the question of how some guys run well at 50, 70, 80 years old and some are washed up after high school. I think the answer lies in your blog here. It’s knowing how to make wise decisions on the grand scale or seeing the big picture as well as the details. Knowing when to rest is one of the most difficult things in the world, for someone who desires to run up hill with their hair on fire without ever stopping, ever! Knowing how to put together all the MANY pieces of endurance sports as balanced against the grand scale of things takes self control and wisdom. I enjoy and am blessed and I learn a lot from being able to watch DC as you do all these things and do it well, wise beyond your years! What a great sport and a great group of people involved!

    As for DNF’s? Weak? It sounds like that may come from people who may (excuse me) but may not have the depth of understanding that DC has, even though, ironically, he hasn’t DNF. I’m nobody, just a weekend warrior, but I haven’t DNF’d either but I’ve, like DC, canceled races. Maybe it’s better planning, knowing myself etc. But I’m not going to judge those who DNF, my time may be coming but for me, when I hear of someone DNFing or finishing farther back than what was hoped. I chalk it up to the toughness of the race itself, not the weakness of the runner. : )

    September 1, 2011
  4. Willem said:

    Some of these races are hard to get in to. I dislike people who start without having the intention to finish (just to be a part of the experience or something). Now the pro’s have a difference perspective of the race. They’re there to win, If a win isn’t possible I see no reason why they should beat up their body and continue (apart from their sponsor requiring it of them).

    Apart from that, an ultra is supposed to be hard. It wouldn’t be as much fun if anyone could do it. You should try to finish, but should be smart enough to know when to quit.

    September 2, 2011

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