Lessons Learned from My DNF

11 Aug

In racing, there are two acronyms that make participants cringe: DNS (Did Not Start) and DNF (Did Not Finish). The DNS sometimes does not feel *quite* as bad because there are lots of reasons why a person may not start a race: unpreparedness/lack of training, injury, illness, personal emergencies, etc. Things come up. It happens. The DNF, however, leaves a sting that most racers do not easily forget. I know this feeling personally.

This is a SUCKY feeling.

I have taken a DNF in two races, and those two experiences still haunt me. The first DNF I took was in a Thanksgiving Day 5k race about 5 years ago. I had just started taking my running seriously earlier that summer and now that November had arrived, I was approaching my first running winter. Running through summer seemed fine, and, honestly, I had not thought running through cold weather would pose any problem greater than having to wear heavier clothing. How wrong I had been! This particular Thanksgiving Day was unusually cold (about 25 °F – COLD for this native Louisianan), but I did not think much of it. I was ready to race! After all, it was *only* a 5k…

The race started out fine and I was running along as usual, until I hit the 2.5 mile mark. My lungs felt like they were on FIRE. I couldn’t breathe. I started panicking…which only exasperated the problem. Before I knew it I was doubled over, hands on my knees, gasping for air. I started to have a full-on panic attack over not being able to catch my breath. I started coughing and wheezing. IT. WAS. TERRIBLE. Doing my best to pull myself together, I started walking hobbling…determined to finish. Another ¼ mile down the road, I could *see* the finish. It was RIGHT THERE. So close.

I never made it. The gasping and wheezing started up again and I knew that if I did not stop, I would pass out. The cold, thin mountain air (I was living in South Carolina at the time) was too much for me. I had to quit.

As it turns out, I was later diagnosed with cold weather induced asthma. Lesson learned…run with my inhaler when the weather dips below 40 °F and never for one second think you are invincible. 🙂

Dear inhaler, I love you. You keep me running.

In hindsight, maybe that DNF does not seem quite that bad. Medical reasons prevented me from finishing. It wasn’t like I just gave up…you know, like my second DNF. I look back on my second DNF and all it does is make me angry.

A couple of years ago, I was gearing up for my first duathlon. After running for several years, I was seeking a new challenge. Not quite ready to increase my distance to half or full marathon status, I decided a sprint duathlon (5k run/14mi bike/5k run) was the perfect next step for me. I got a bike and started training. Running had become easy for me, and it turned out that I was a natural on the bike. This duathlon thing would be a BREEZE! For weeks before the event I practiced my bricks. By the time the big day arrived, I was ready!

On race day, I got body marked and checked into the transition area early. I laid out all of my gear and went over my mental checklist of what I needed to do. A slight case of nerves set in, but overall, I was doing okay. The race started with a bang! On my first run I made GREAT time…in fact, it is still one of my fastest 5k times ever. I was moving on adrenaline and I loved every second of it. T1 went smoothly and before I knew it, I was out on the bike. Half way through the bike leg, things started going downhill (no pun intended). I was totally unprepared for this ride. My training rides had been in a *slightly* hilly area. This race was an hour north of my home…in the mountains. BIG difference. Stubborn me was determined to keep the pace that I had trained for…even if it killed me.

14 miles later I pull back in for T2. I was exhausted. I threw off my helmet, put on my running shoes and started my second run. It was awful. Completely awful. My legs completely bricked up. Every part of my body was telling me that we were done. Finished. My head was spinning and I felt like I was running on broken legs. I had practiced this a thousand times and I just could not get myself together. There was absolutely no gas left in my tank.

I quit.

And I cried. A lot.

This feels miserable.

Mad. Frustrated. Disappointed. I should have known better. There was so much that I had done wrong. I had not hydrated well enough. I had not replaced my electrolytes and calories throughout the race. Most importantly, I had ignored my inner voice that had been saying, “Pace yourself.”

Looking back, maybe I could have finished. Maybe if I had taken a second, calmed down, collected myself, stretched, eaten a snack…maybe things would have been different. But I gave up. My competitive spirit overshadowed my best judgment and I got what I deserved…a big fat DNF.

Every time I try a new race distance or new type of race, these memories play out in my head. They make me more determined to stay focused and race smart, not hard, and complete the task at hand. As long as I can help it, there will be no more DNFs for this competitor.

Have you ever taken a DNS or DNF? How did it make you feel? What did you learn from it?

19 Responses to “Lessons Learned from My DNF”

  1. Alex Ross (@AeRoss) August 11, 2011 at 12:19 PM #

    I have never taken a DNF but you are right, that is one of the scariest acronyms I think of when running. I did my first ultramarathon last month, 50 miles in Leadville at 12,000 feet elevation. At mile 20, going down a loose hill, I did a swan dive in the air and face planted it while my knee landed on a rock. Sucked. Hobbled along back into a jog and mentally made myself forget about it. Until I started getting questions at the aid station 🙂

    Enjoyed your recap!

  2. running on faith August 11, 2011 at 12:21 PM #

    I had a similar issue in two races, one in high school and one in college. I don’t know if it was the combination of the heat, not fueling properly, or just race jitters but I got to about 3/4 of the race and in both races as I was heading down the straightaway, I started to feel like I was in a dream and the next thing I knew I was on the ground. I never blacked out but I felt very close to it! To this day, I still have anxiety/fear about collapsing at a race, it is very hard to get over mentally! In high school, it was our state cross country meet, I was the first runner on our team to come in and next thing I knew, I was lying on the track. We wanted so badly to win state that year and we still came in second, but I had a hard time getting over it and was a total headcase! I STILL have fears of not finishing a race. I find that relaxing my breathing, staying calm, hydrating/fueling properly and envisioning having a strong race all help!

  3. Katherine August 11, 2011 at 12:27 PM #

    I have to admit that there have been so many times where I’ve really wanted to quit, but somehow didn’t, although I completely gave up mentally. Sometimes your body simply won’t let you do what you want it to do, and that is rough. I’ve had physical breakdowns in training before and I always get really down on myself for feeling like I’ve given up, although sometimes I don’t think there is anything I could have done better except stay with it mentally. It’s such a learning process.

    Can I also just say that I have exercise-induced asthma, and that I LOVE my inhaler? I wish Proventil were still on the market because it’s about the only one that really worked for me. The new CFC-free ones just aren’t the same. I often feel like someone is tightening the upper part of my lungs with a string.

  4. Renee August 11, 2011 at 12:41 PM #

    I have yet to experience a DNF. I have thought about it. I fear it. I assume it will happen at some point. I have had several DNS experiences, some much more difficult than others. I cried a lot last year when I had to pull out of the Chicago Marathon due to a stress fracture. There was no decision to be made. I was not going to start that marathon. I have pulled out of other races for all kinds of reasons and those haven’t been so bad. The Chicago Marathon DNS almost haunts me. It’s beyond frustrating when our bodies give out on us or aren’t ready physically for what we are mentally ready for.

  5. Brooke August 11, 2011 at 1:03 PM #

    never a DNF but i probably should have. i couldn’t catch my breath (blamed it on my EIA) so i walked a little but kept pushing. saw spots and everything. a month later i was diagnosed with severe anemia. doctor benched me, saying that i was getting so little O2 to my body i could serious damage my heart. i signed up for a sprint tri 2 weeks after that appointment and not racing that day is probably one of the hardest things i’ve ever done. i’d worked so hard to get to that point and a DNS was unacceptable (but inevitiable).

  6. Amanda @FancyOatmeal August 11, 2011 at 1:24 PM #

    I have had had a few DNFs and it totally crushed me. I took it as a personal defeat instead of my body saying, “can we just chill for a bit?” It taught me that it was ok to take a slight step back, reevaluate, and it didn’t make me a bad person.

  7. Stephen Barrouquere (@sbarrouquere) August 11, 2011 at 1:27 PM #

    Never had a DNF. I did come close during the PPA last year at Mile 10, and the last aid station. Mentally, I was drained. Had a good friend give me a pep talk, and I kept going. Good thing too. The only way off the mountain was to hike down 10 miles! I have a few DNS for various reasons.

  8. mikehamiltonadvisor August 11, 2011 at 1:58 PM #

    I almost had a DNF at my Triathlon last Sunday. I knew there would be a big hill on the bike ride and I had trained hills over and over again. The hill was about 3km into the ride and I was having trouble catching my breath from the swim. I got to the hill and it was wayyyyy steeper than I expected! I wasn’t even able to pedal up it. I got off my bike and walked….I got to the flat section threw my bike on the ground and sat next to it unable to catch my breath. I got lightheaded and dizzy and almost puked. I talked myself into quitting since I still had another part of the hill to climb. “I can’t do this!” I said “not today!” I hopped onto my bike and rode down the hill with my head hung in shame while the poor bastards headed the other direction still had to see why I was quitting. I was so mad at myself! I kept thinking of how I would feel after I got back and watched all of the other triathletes transition into the run. I immediately turned around and cycled my ass back to the hill. Tried riding up it but had to walk again. I finished the race with a terrible time. But I gained so much more from the experience. I learned what I was made of and that I won’t allow myself to give up.

    • katieRUNSthis August 11, 2011 at 2:01 PM #

      THAT IS SO AWESOME! Seriously…it takes GUTS and a mind made of STEEL to convince yourself to go on…after you have already convinced yourself to quit. Wow, I’m impressed! That hill sounds like a beast and you conquered it! WELL DONE! And forget about your “terrible time”…you still did it. How terrible would it have been to take a DNF instead? 🙂 Perspective, my friend. Perspective. I’m going to have to remember this the next time I feel like quitting. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Stephanie HIcks August 11, 2011 at 2:35 PM #

    Great post! If you can believe it, I considered a DNF at the Boston Marathon (my first)! I had been dealing with hip/glute pain for months and … like many …. went out too fast. If I had kept up the pace I had run during the first 1/2 for the whole marathon, I would have had a PR by 5 minutes. Pain seized me first and I slowed way down at mile 14. Then, I had a low blood sugar attack at mile 22 (I am type 1 diabetic). I looked over at the aid stations – they were full – and in my pain and confusion said to myself… “well, I guess I have to finish this thing.” Never saw my husband in the crowds, either. 4 hrs. 19 minutes later, I finally crossed the finish line. No happiness. Just extreme disappointment. It took a while to shake off the experience and focus on the next race. In fact, I gave myself permission to forgo another marathon this fall and just enjoy some 1/2s and 10Ks to improve my time. So far, its working!

  10. Jordan Trump (@trumpdabeast) August 11, 2011 at 2:59 PM #

    I admit, I fear a DNF. So much so that I have run some terrible races in order to prove that I could finish. Maybe I’m just too stubborn to quit. I know it’s definitely a pride thing…. but I just can’t bring myself to quit a race, no matter how terrible it’s going, how bad my time will be, and how worthless my finish will be. Regardless of my place, time, or physical condition, saying a finish ALWAYS has enough value to me personally that I have to push on. Okay, yes, I’m terribly stubborn. But I’ve never regretted pushing through and finishing a race that just wasn’t going well for me.

  11. David H. August 11, 2011 at 7:09 PM #

    I’ve had a DNF and a couple of DNS, but I have come away from those experiences learning more about myself than I would have had I pushed through it. I rarely look at it as quitting — it’s just another lesson learned on the running journey.

  12. Brandon Mulnix August 12, 2011 at 8:08 AM #

    Did Nothing Fatal… This is what DNF means to me. Last year I thought I was ready to run 50 miles. It seemed crazy at the time to even attempt it. Two weeks before I had run my first 50K in the mountains of California as a training run. (First Ultra). I did okay and felt horrible after the 50K. Something about running mountains made this Michigan boy tired. I thought I was ready for 50 miles. I was for about the first 16 miles. I didn’t race my own race, but ran with friends that I thought I could keep up with. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I was dizzy, nauseous, and couldn’t get any more water in. I had heard if you keep going sometimes it goes away so I kept on walking. I was dead. I managed to walk the remaining 9 miles into the main Aid station, and they caught me before I passed out.

    I felt so stupid for DNF’ing at first. I cried as I laid in medical and rehydrated just trying to feel normal. It was so disappointing to me… and only me. I didn’t let anyone else down. They believed in me, but it was in me, not the fact I could run 50 miles.

    I toe that same line in just two weeks. I have ran a 50 and a 100 miler since, but that doesn’t matter. I have a date with this 50 to kick its butt.

    The best part of a DNF is the fact there is always next year! The worst part is having to burn the T-shirt!

    • katieRUNSthis August 12, 2011 at 8:32 AM #

      DNF: Do Nothing Fatal. I love it. I will definitely have to remember that! Its true though…as runners, we can be so competitive and so determined…even to a fault. Sometimes we think so short-sightedly that we don’t even think about how continuing on could really affect our bodies. Remembering the overall goal of being a lifetime runner and keeping my body injury-free is a big lesson I have to learn.

  13. Jeff August 12, 2011 at 8:28 AM #

    I haven’t DNF’d but I’ve DNS’d and definitely had some BAD races. Those are the races that I seem to grow the most – learning to be flexible, learning how to pace, and learning how to keep my head when things go wrong.

    • katieRUNSthis August 12, 2011 at 8:30 AM #

      At the end of the day, I’ve realized that learning from the experience…even a bad one…is the important part. 🙂

  14. Elise August 12, 2011 at 9:36 AM #

    I haven’t had a DNF or DNS, but there are times where I should’ve, and I’ve actually regretted NOT listening to my body. Case in point: February’s 5k where I was on a ton of antibiotics, and ended up throwing up for that reason around mile 2.5 — but I forced myself to run to the finish because I couldn’t fathom not finishing. Later that day (and week), I regretted finishing, because my body was weak and I got sicker. I know it can be frustrating, and hard, but sometimes — sometimes I think our bodies are trying to tell us something, like “slow down.”

    I have my first triathlon (an olympic tri) this weekend, and though this is the first time I’m admitting it: I’m definitely terrified of a DNF or a disqualification.

    • katieRUNSthis August 12, 2011 at 9:41 AM #

      DO NOT psych yourself out for your Olympic triathlon this weekend! You will do great! Just remember to hydrate and refuel at T1 and T2. If you are pushing it hard, your body will need the calories/energy to keep going. Don’t be terrified. If you have been training, be confident and rock it out! Just do it!

  15. Sarah M. August 18, 2011 at 5:27 PM #

    I had my first DNF last month during a century ride. It wasn’t a race, so technically I didn’t get the DNF label, but I knew it. While I was disappointed in not finishing, I actually started the ride knowing there was a chance I wouldn’t finish. The combination of being 5 1/2 months pregnant, and riding in 90+ degree heat and humidity added up to me calling it quits at 77 miles. I guess knowing that it wasn’t just my health at risk that made the decision easy (or at least easier).

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