As a teenager, I was a lazy runner. Most of my training runs were 30 minute jaunts around my local lake. I don’t think I even broke a sweat. The only time I worked hard was at track workouts because there was nowhere to hide.
In the Fall of 1990 I showed up to my club cross country meet and found out that, since I’d turned 18, I was now a “Senior” in running terminology and had to run the long course – 3 loops – as opposed to 2, which I had been running as an “Intermediate.” I remember feeling particularly unhappy about this change because I was unprepared physically and mentally to run this distance. I pleaded my case to the coaches and anyone else who would listen.
But there was no getting out of it and so I joined the other Senior women – one of whom was a teammate’s mother! – at the start line for our race. As I stood there I looked around and couldn’t believe I had to run 3 loops with all these old ladies…
In the first loop we crossed an asphalt path and I felt a spike rip off the bottom of my shoe. I told myself this was a stupid race and I should stop. At the top of a particularly nasty hill near the end of the loop, one of my male teammates, who wasn’t known for his complimentary remarks, sneered, “Hard, isn’t it?!!” as I slogged my way over the top of the hill. I started trying to think of ways to get out of this race. And as loop 2 began, I formed a plan.
As I crested the big hill for a second time, I deliberately launched myself head first down the other side. I landed in some bushes off to the side, narrowly missing a pile of doggie doo. I only had a few scratches and bruises, and certainly could have got up and continued, but I considered my work done. I limped (I fake it well) to the start/finish and declared myself a DNF (Did Not Finish) for falling down a hill. Then I sat and watched as everyone in my race came across the finish line, include my teammate’s mother, who looked exhausted but pleased to finish. And that’s when the implications of what I had done really hit me.
I had DNF’d because I couldn’t handle the pressure of the longer distance, the extra effort required, and the potential that I wouldn’t do very well. I saw a way out and I took it. I told no-one at the race that I had fallen on purpose because it was just too hard.
Later that evening I did confess to my boyfriend, also a teammate, that my DNF was deliberate and that what I’d done was eating me up. I thought he’d be mad or at least disappointed that I would do something like that but, instead, he gave me some really good advice that has stuck with me. He pointed out the people on the team who were serial DNFers…they DNF’d time and time again until it became a habit – a reaction to pressure or stress – they couldn’t break. He said it was more mental than physical and that, since I felt so bad about it, I probably wouldn’t do it again.
He was right. I’ll admit, there was one more DNF, but I had the excuse of a broken ankle (and this time the fall wasn’t deliberate) and a couple of DNSs in the following years. But I have never DNF’d again just to get out of a race. The experience and the disappointment I felt in myself is why, no matter how hard a race gets, I refuse to drop out. I had plenty of opportunity – and some would say good reason – to drop out of The North Face 50K June 2nd, but I refused to give in like I once did over 20 years ago.
Let me be clear that I don’t feel those who DNF should feel in any way how I did; everyone has different reasons for pulling out of a race, and there are times when pulling out is the best thing to do for health, wellbeing, and injury prevention. Elite athletes might DNF because they know they’re not going to hit a time requirement in a race and it would be best for them to conserve their energy for another attempt.
As athletes, we are our own hardest critics, and the only ones who have to live with our choices. I choose not to DNF.
Have you ever DNF’d? How did you feel after you did it? Did you feel it was the right choice?
If you haven’t ever DNF’d, have you ever come close or thought about it? What stopped you?