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The First DNF is the Deepest

The good thing about using longer races as training runs, is you can experiment with a lot of factors to help make sure nothing goes wrong on goal race day.

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The bad thing about using longer races as training runs, is that shit can, and will, go wrong during these little experiments.

Sometimes it’s really small things, like remembering that there’s no need to wear a camelbak when there are aid stations every 4 miles that are perfectly equipped to refill your handheld water bottle.

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Sometimes it’s bigger things, like playing with your race morning nutrition and irreparably fucking up your stomach.

Sometimes, it’s worth it to push through the issues and still get the miles in.

Sometimes, it’s not.

For me, one of those times was this Sunday. So I didn’t push through my issues and dropped out of the race at mile 24.

That’s right.

I Did Not Finish a race. My first ever DNF.

The girl who will (sometimes foolishly) push through absolutely anything, did not push.

I didn’t even have all that horrible of a day this Sunday. Nothing serious happened. I didn’t limp off course or even feel a slight twinge of pain while I was out there. My legs were not overly fatigued. I wasn’t violently ill. It just wasn’t my day.

Let’s rewind.

When the race started on top of Mt Bachelor, a ski mountain in Bend, I felt great. The course was made up of gorgeous single-track trails and fire roads with A LOT of ups and downs and two major climbs. For the first time in a race, I felt really confident and strong on the descents. I was having an absolute blast exploring the forests one switchback at a time and kept thanking the mountain for giving me such great training for JFK.

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Unfortunately, that feeling did not last. The first issue of the day happened around the first aid station. I couldn’t handle the thought of eating anything. I’d played with my race morning nutrition and my stomach wasn’t digging the idea of food. So I didn’t have any. Figuring the next aid station would be soon (I knew there were 5 total, but I hadn’t looked up their exact spots on the course, WHOOPS), I kept running without fuel.

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By the time the second aid station came around, I’d been running for about 2.5 hours, and my last calories were over 5 hours ago. On a course with 5,000 feet of elevation change at a starting altitude of 6400 feet, I was bonking a little bit.

In addition to all of the fuel fun, it was snowing on top of Mt Bachelor. And not just a dusting of snow, but a blizzard of snow, sleet and wind. The snow was accumulating at a pretty impressive rate. Way too impressive of a rate for September, IMO.

When I passed the third aid station at mile 17, I started to think about dropping out.  Between the low energy stores and the the fact that I couldn’t feel any of my fingers, I was no longer having an absolute blast.

As the miles ticked away, I leaned more and more toward dropping out.

The main reason I wanted to drop was because I had no reason to run 31 miles that day and thought the risk of doing it might be outweighing the reward. I wanted a long training run, but there was no need to make it exactly 31 miles long. If anything, it should have been shorter considering what my recent weekends have looked like for mileage. The only reason I’d decided on 31 miles is because I’ve been a little like a kid in a candy shop with Oregon races, signing up for anything and everything so I can play around on new trails and explore new places. The distances of these races have ended up dictating the length of my weekend long runs, mostly for good, but clearly I reached a bit of a breaking point on Sunday.

The deciding moment came after I hit the second major climb of the course. I broke into some serious hike/running when I hit this ascent. And by “hike/running”, I really mean hiking with miniscule amounts of anything faster than a painfully slow jog. Between slowing down so drastically and the blizzardy conditions, my muscles were getting colder and colder. I knew that the last part of the course was all downhill and no part of me thought it would be a good plan for my injury-prone body to bomb down a mountain with stiff quads. So when I reached the next aid station at Mile 24-25ish, I asked a volunteer if it would be logistically possible to drop from the race at that spot.

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What happened next was not pretty. Asking to drop out of a race in front of spectators cheering in shitty conditions, and runners persevering through the tough day, and volunteers sticking out the gross storm, was one of the more miserable moments of my running career.

As much as I knew it was the right move. A smart move. The responsible move. The second that I stopped and asked for help, I broke down. I went from feeling proud of myself for making a good decision to a blubbering, sweaty mess as I choked out “how hard is it to get back to the finish from here?” while I watched everyone who wasn’t quitting run by me.

The very kind, super awesome volunteer managed to translate my pathetic whimpers and escorted me to warm truck. Once there, I had a good cry to another very kind, super awesome volunteer. I owe them both a lifetime of beer and gratitude for putting up with me that afternoon.

I was SO not expecting to have such a huge emotional meltdown just from dropping out of a race I was using for a training run. Racing frequently definitely has its pros and cons and realizing how attached I was to the need to finish  illuminated one of the potential cons for me. I pride myself on being a tenacious athlete above all else. I may never be the most gifted runner to toe the line, but I’ll work just as hard or harder than anyone else racing the course. While this is mostly a good thing, it clearly can be a little problematic when I have a slightly irrational breakdown after ending a training run a tad bit early.

By the time I got down the mountain, I felt a lot better and was not regretting my decision at all (especially at the moment my car heater kicked in). There are plenty of times when I should and will persevere through a mild amount of issues to finish a race, but for now, I’ll save all that for November 23rd.

38 Responses to The First DNF is the Deepest

  1. Nice post, Emily. Good for you for knowing when to quit; that’s the hardest decision of all to make. P.S. I’m loving your Oregon photos. P.S.S. The snowy race photos look a lot like Alaska, hee, hee. Cheers and happy running.

  2. My first dnf, in a ridiculously long bike race (200 miles) still stings. I imagine yours will for quite a while too, but not as badly as you having to potentially sit out more races bc of injuries, though. Too bad it’s so much harder mentally to be smart than tough, and good job coming out on the right side of that line.

    • DNFing a small race is WAY better than DNS many races due to injuries! It’s funny though, you can know that you made the right decision (as I’m sure you do with the bike race) but it is still tough and stays with you. I cringe when I see stuff about the race on facebook and I can’t bring myself to look at the results. I don’t regret it at all, but it was still an emotional decision.

  3. I give you major props for hitting the brakes on the race. It takes guts!!
    I wouldn’t worry about being emotional after calling it quits. I swam competitively for 14 years and I would cry if I got disqualified in a race… there’s just something about not being able to finish a race the way you wanted.

    Good luck with the rest of your training. I’m looking forward to hearing how the JFK 50 miler goes!

    • Thanks! I used to swim competitively (at least against the clock) and totally get the DQ thing. I’d never thought to compare it to a DNF in running but that totally makes sense. I appreciate your reassuring comment!

    • Jojo @ RunFastEatLots

      Way to make the smart decision to DNF, even though it was a tough one!

  4. Sounds like you made a smart decision, lady. Those conditions definitely sound pretty miserable. And 24 miles isn’t shabby at all.

  5. Am proud of you , Em and my friends who made the decision to DNF in the recent TMBT (The Most Beautiful Thing). It’s a hard call to make but the smartest decision.

  6. Proud of you for calling it quits when you knew it wasn’t a good idea to stay in, it’s a hard thing to do.
    And snow….WTF???

  7. I think this is one of your best posts. I can imagine all the emotion of what you’ve been doing the past few months come pouring out at a time like that. You absolutely did the right thing for your body but as an elite athlete who “never drops out or backs down” I can’t imagine how tough that was. Thanks for writing this and for having the courage to do the right thing for the bigger goal. This will only make you stronger for Nov 23rd!

    • First of all, thanks for the super kind comment. Second of all, I’m way not an elite athlete but appreciate you calling me one! My mom probably took a screenshot of your comment and put it in an album.

  8. Good for you for making the right decision and for being authentic and sharing it here. It’s definitely something that any runner will have to grapple with at some point in one way or another. Best wishes for continued training and a great race in November.

  9. It’s never easy to make the right decision, so good for you. There’s no point in getting injured and potentially missing the JFK50.

  10. Sounds like a good call… But it still sucks!
    Good for you making the right choice, I imagine that I would have been an emotional mess too (we are all crazy like that :-))

  11. Sorry about the DNF. It is such a hard decision to make. I had one DNF and all I remember is wanting to slink off the course where no one could see me doing it (I didn’t, but you know the feeling). Sounds like it was definitely the right decision. You still got in a 24 mile run!!! In crazy conditions mind you!!

  12. I like seeing the emotional honesty here. It’s never easy to stop something you really wanted to finish, but it sounds like the pros definitely outweighed the cons on this one.

  13. I had to DNF my very first marathon after all the excitement that builds with training for your first one. It sucks, but then you run another and all is forgotten. Especially for you since you’ve successfully completed so many races and have so many more ahead of you. It’s a tough decision and you clearly made the right call.

  14. That’s rough but you did indeed do the right thing. At least you were able to get your frustrations out in the comfort of a secluded truck and not a mile from the finish line.

    Sunday was a brutal day, I was racing at Hagg Lake and there was no snow – just severe wind and rain. Welcome to Oregon – where sometimes the victory is just getting the courage to get to the starting line.

  15. Just as we need to practise prepping for, fuelling and drinking for, and then running long distances, we also need to practise tough skills like quitting. And as you’ve discovered, that can be as hard as(and hard on you psychologically) as completing a gruelling a race.

    I don’t want to sound like I’m snarking at the sidelines (especially since I’m sidelined with an injury and not running much these days), but I was wondering if one other lesson from your week’s DNF is this. Just because it’s a “training race” and just because you’re a super-experienced long distance racer doesn’t mean you should skip the pre-race research on fuel station locations, gear to pack (always present risk of snow in the mountains) and not pack.

    For example, not that it’s comparable to what you do at all but last weekend I ran the 5th Avenue Mile in NYC – about my 30th race in the past few years (and about my 20th NYRR race). I ALWAYS pack a little spare TP – in case they run out in the porta potties. But for some reason I didn’t bother doing so this time – after all it was just a mile down 5th Avenue and I’ve used the porta potties in the park dozens of times without a problem.

    Except this time – half the toilets were out of TP. There’s always a first time. Thankfully, I noticed BEFORE I sat down …

    Best wishes for the remaining training.

  16. A lot of times, the responsible choice is the one that sucks the most. Being an adult totally blows for this reason, but it shows a lot of maturity and restraint to go with what your body is telling you rather than what your mind has decided is the best course. You’ll be thankful for this move later when you rock the race.

  17. I would have also been upset, but it definitely sounds like it was the smart thing to do. Good job on listening to your body!

  18. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Races like this are for fun, to push yourself and as you said, learn new trails. I know I have had a hard time accepting that I am no longer a college athlete and that I don’t HAVE to push my body past its limits anymore. Pushing yourself too hard makes running a chore, not an enjoyable form of exercise. I think you’re amazing for doing 21 miles!! The farthest I have ever run is 8 km (4.9 miles).

  19. I was thinking maybe if you’d had beer in that camelback…

    FWIW I think your decision showed tremendous maturity. Sometimes working smart not hard is the way to go. Nice job quitting. And I mean that in the most complimentary of ways.

  20. Knowing when to stop is the hardest part of pushing yourself! It definitely sounds like you made the right decision and now you know more about what to do next…

  21. A friend once referred to once of his DNF’s as “Did Nothing Fatal” (http://stevequick.blogspot.com/2011/07/2011-afton-trail-run-50k-report.html). Sounds like yours wasn’t quite that dramatic, but it was at least a DNS (“Do Nothing Stupid.”) And those aren’t very satisfying at the time, but the good thing is that you won’t look back at this weekend in a couple months and say, “Man, I really wish I hadn’t…”.

    Argh. Being a responsible runner is sometimes very unsatisfying, isn’t it? :-)

  22. I totally agree with Robyn above. And I don’t think there’s any easy way to get over the anger/disappointment; just focus on how the setback can help you and what you’ve learned (fuel, knowing where fuel stops are etc etc). If you think you can learn something from this and use it to make you an even better runner, then I guess it’s easier to deal with. FWIW, it looks fricking cold! :)

  23. Great post Emily and the pain and frustration of not finishing will always make you mentally stronger to push yourself on new races.

  24. Every word you wrote reminded me that my decision yesterday was the best/hardest decision to make. Had my very first DNF yesterday and it sucked but I know I’ll look back and know it was the right thing to do.

    • I’m sorry, girl. I just checked out your post and it seems like you definitely made the right call. But it’s SO HARD to watch runners keep going after you drop. Keep making smart decisions and good luck getting back at it!

  25. Emily, I just went through the same thing. After 30+ races over 22 years I DNF an insane Flatrock 50K. The course was ankle deep mud and still raining – I was cold because I couldn’t run (to stay warm.) It was HUGELY emotional for me! I will not go back for redemption because it broke my spirit. Good Luck to you on your “real” race and it only gets better – right?
    And yes, I knew I could not survive another 4.5 hours of those conditions so it was the right thing to do.

    • Sounds like you totally made the right call, but I sure do get how emotional it must have been to drop. It’s okay to ditch that race for redemption as long as you’re ready to hit the next race with the same awesome attitude and love for the sport that has fueled 30+ races!

  26. [...] Sunday’s DNF on a rough course, I was surprised by how good my legs felt, which made me that much more thankful [...]

  27. You definitely made the right decision, and you’re still super hard-core for that crazy ultra training you’re doing. I’ll stick to my 26.2 miles and call it a day thank-you-very-much. I have to say, I’m enjoying Rock Creek Park’s trails right now, but I’ve got total trail envy from all these pictures you’re posting of OR. keep ‘em coming!

  28. [...] three weekends in a row of *just* one long run (24 mile DNF, 15 miles with the bro in town, 26.2 miles through PDX) it’s time for another weekend of one of [...]

  29. [...] DNF, taking time off after I rolled my ankle, incorporating a rest day into nearly every week, running [...]

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