Those dreaded letters….DNF. Did not finish. In the world of ultrarunning, or any endurance sport for that matter, it is usually only a matter of time before sooner or later, you see those letters beside your name on the race results page. Sometimes, you feel devastated by it. You’ve trained hard and long for an event, but then, for whatever reason, you are unable to complete it. The first time I experienced a DNF, I was devastated. My first DNF was hot on the heels of my dead last place finish at my first ever ultra…I did not get off to a good start in this sport.
It was at the Canadian Death Race, and I missed a time cut-off. Anyone who knows about the Death Race knows about this time cut-off after the third leg. It is a tough, arbitrary cut off time, in my opinion presumably made to make the race appear harder. A lower finisher rate = a race that seems much more difficult. Now don’t get me wrong, the Canadian Death Race is no walk in the park. It is a very hard race, but in many cases, mine included, people who could otherwise have no problem going on to finish this race often miss that cut-off, sometimes only by minutes. The CDR was my first really big ultra, and yes, I was totally devastated when I didn’t make the cut-off. I cried hard, ugly tears because I knew I could’ve gone on to finish the race. But, that’s how it goes, cut-offs are there and either you make them or you don’t.
The next time I DNF’d was still very hard, but not quite as devastating to me. It was at the Sinister 7 ultra, another really big race for me. It was a little bit easier for me because I made the decision myself to drop out, rather than someone telling me I had to drop out. I went into it with a hip injury, and then my stomach decided it was not going to cooperate with me that day. I went for as long as I physically could, but ultimately knew I wasn’t going to make it to the end, so I made the hard decision and dropped. I only cried a little bit that time.
Since then, there have been two other DNF’s at long, tough races. Once because I got injured during the race, and once because my mind gave up. Incidentally these were both at the same 100-miler, the Lost Soul in Lethbridge. The injury….well, what are you going to do? But the other, well, I keep looking back and regretting that decision. At the time though, it was the only decision I could make. People say ultra marathons are 90% mental, so when the mind gives up, it can be very difficult to get it back.
So, fast forward to last weekend. Last weekend I ran in the Grizzly Ultra 50k race. This is fresh off my finish at the 273km long Grand to Grand ultra, which wrapped up just a week prior to toeing the starting line at the Grizzly. So, to be fair, when I registered for the Grizzly, I had a calendar mistake and thought I had 2 weeks in between that and G2G. In reality, it was just a week, so I knew going into the Grizzly that it could go either way. It was for sure less than ideal conditions…my lingering fatigue from not only G2G, but from an entire season of long, hard races, blizzard conditions that almost caused us to turn back on the drive out there, cold, slushy, muddy trails etc. I know the trail conditions were the same for everyone, but in my fatigued state it seemed much more of a slog than it should have. At one point, I came across a downed runner and stayed there with her for awhile, long enough to become very cold, which I never really recovered from either. So, after 25k, I made the decision to drop out. This time, the decision was actually a pretty easy one. As I had been running a long downhill into the check-point area, my legs had simply been saying “nope”. My knees hurt, my hips hurt, and I just wasn’t having fun. Now I know that ultra running is not always fun, but to some degree it has to be, or we would never stay out there. This was no degree of fun. Cold, wet, tired, legs not cooperating? Totally time to pack it in. So, I made the decision and I actually felt fine about it. People were telling me they were sorry, but I was just glad to be somewhere warm. I didn’t even cry.
I think part of being a seasoned runner is being smart enough to know when to say “it’s not my day” and pack it in, and when you can push through and keep going. Yes, I probably could have gutted it out and finished the 50k, but that would not have been the right decision on that day. No point getting injured, I need to live to run another day. Other times, well, maybe I could have done something different and saved the day. It’s hard to say. It’s really easy to look back second guess yourself, but at the time, you are making the only decision that seems right.
I look at each race as a learning experience and try to take something away each time. Yesterday’s lesson was one I already knew going in…it’s too soon. Not enough recovery. I can’t do all the races, as much as I might want to. But, I’m still glad I went out and tried, because if we don’t try, we don’t learn the lessons. And there’s always next year.
Just keep moving forward.
photo credit to Julia Mitton