I’m not sure about you, but I get the sense that the D-word is a little taboo in ultras. A sign of mental weakness that you’re not quite tough enough. I’m here to say that I think the DNF is a good thing and as a result, here is a rather personal account that was inspired by an article I read a few days ago from Ultrarunner Podcast. In short I’m opening myself up to scrutiny somewhat by relaying some of my experiences. But that’s OK, I’m comfortable with that entirely. There will be people who will disagree with what I have to say and the philosophy here, but that’s a good thing. We like debate here at Ultra168 – we’re not about soft articles and fluffy cool shit. We’re about helping runners.
The world of ultras surprised me a little when I first started. Here was this awesome community of people who really encouraged each other. But then I DNF’ed a 100 miler and I saw a fair amount of stigma against those that seemingly ‘fail’. Well here’s the fact. People do give up.
People who know me, know that I’ve DNF’ed a few races. My first DNF hit me really hard. I felt like a complete failure and to be perfectly frank, was made to feel like one at times. Mentally it really affected my racing and stayed with me for a number of years.
But here’s what I’ve learnt, the DNF is a good thing – as long as you learn from it. This is what all great sports teams, men and women do. They learn from their failures and take steps to overcome it to become great again. If you never fail, how do you learn? I’ve personally learnt far more about myself and what I can do as a result of my failures – this is true in all walks of life. From a stuff up at work through to a failed relationship. The funny thing is, other people seemed to have more of an issue with my DNFs than I do – what are they hiding? Their own insecurities about failure?
So if you’ve DNF’ed a race and you’re wondering how to break the duck or how to overcome it, I’ve pieced together four things that I’ve applied over the five years or so that I’ve been running ultras.
The first and most critical thing. Before you can go ahead and correct what you have done wrong, you need to accept it. Don’t be like me and spend years worrying about DNFs. It affects your confidence and your own ability to trust yourself that you will finish a race. You need to be able to accept in your own head that the DNF has happened and you need to be comfortable with it, but importantly, move on.
I spent probably next to two years dealing with my DNFs because I let what others said affect me. This is also about personal self-esteem too. Our society is screwed. We’re a race of people that is constantly being told to look thinner, exercise more, to love ourselves and aim high etc… etc… yet ‘society’ constantly tells us how great others are, pushes junk food in our face, tells us how fat and worthless we are.
Focus on you and what you can do to affect your own goals in a race – this is true in life as well. The only thing that matters is what you think and those close to you i.e. family. Everyone else can frankly go screw themselves. Listen to them by all means, but set your own path and trust in what you can do. Accept that you’re not like your friend ‘Mike’ who runs a 9hr 100km or doesn’t have any stomach issues when racing. Understand who you are, what you want to achieve and to hell with the nay-sayers.
There are also different types of DNF too. Some people genuinely pull because they injure themselves. Others simply blow-up and run out of steam. The problem is that there are no brackets after that ‘DNF’ in the race results. Others may cast a judgement without knowing the full picture, which is why it’s vitally important to reconcile this and be honest with yourself…
2.) Don’t look for excuses
The amount of Facebook status’ I see littered with excuses as to why someone didn’t finish a race is staggering. Yes, people do DNF because of injury, but I fear there are also a hell of a lot of people who reach inside the excuses bag and look for the first thing they find. Why? Because they haven’t accepted it.
“I had stomach problems” = I went out too hard.
“I got lost and did an extra 30kms” = yeah right, it was probably 5 or 6, but you couldn’t be arsed to carry on right?
“I twisted my ankle” = Yeah but you’re racing 7 days later, so was it that bad?
The list goes on and on. Be honest with yourself. If you gave up, just admit it to yourself. Don’t litter Facebook with excuses looking for consolation. In fact, stay off those damn social networks full stop. There’s a time and a place.
3.) Train like a Mother
This has been said before, but it’s so true. So many people DNF through lack of preparation. This has happened to me on a number of occasions. Most recently at the GNW 100kms a few years ago. I thought I could get away with a few weeks of training. Hey, I’ve done loads of ultras before, I should be able to get through this. Wrong. I got to halfway and was pooped and wasn’t interested. I could bang on about how wonderful it is to be at one with nature and running through the bush, but the truthful answer is that I didn’t want to spend the next 11 hours going through a suffer-fest. I had better things to do, like be with my family – that was more important and I was happy with that. I was being honest with myself.
Training is everything and it shows. The more you do (and the right type) the easier the race will be. But don’t forget the mental training too…
4.) Mental preparation
We all spend so much time doing the physical side of training, but what about how you mentally prepare? Part of my issue with my DNFs at 100 mile attempts is that I hadn’t actually spent the time to consider that I would be out running through the night and into the next day. In short, running for over 30 hours was not something I’d given much thought about. So when night time came and I was a little tired and over it all, I’d mentally given up and wasn’t interested.
Mental preparation is vital. Let’s face it, things go wrong in ultras. It’s very rare that you’ll have a race where everything goes to plan. Those mental demons are going to pay you a visit at some point. It happened to me the other weekend, 75kms into my 100km race. It was hot, I was hurting, my pace was slipping and my calorie intake wasn’t what it should have been. I was slowly talking myself out of the race – but I was in third freaking position for crying out loud!!!! What was going on?
The problem is that in our minds we set out an ideal of how our race will pan out. That race is pretty and all smelling of roses. We majestically glide through the trails, we hold down our food and fluid, our feet never hurt and we feel great. We all know that’s a load of bollocks. What we need to do is work out how to deal with those situations. What course of action are you going to take? What parts of your training can help you replicate those times that are bad? Put yourself in the hurt locker.
Whether you’re training or racing, go through all of this in your head – I call it my five ‘Fs':
Food: Am I eating enough? If not, what do I need? Solids? Liquids? At 80kms into my race last weekend I’d stayed exclusively on fluids and was bonking big time in the heat. I had to get some solids down me at the next checkpoint to sort myself out. Ask yourself what do you feel like?
Feet: Do they hurt? OK… do they really hurt? i.e. do I need to sort something out now? If yes, do it. Don’t leave it. Change your shoes if you have to, do anything to sort it out – make a change.
Fluids: Am I drinking enough? Am I drinking too much? Be really careful here, Hyponatremia is far more common in ultra runners than dehydration.
Feel: Am I OK? I am really OK? You may feel a little shit, but are you holding it together? It’s very easy to talk ourselves into feeling worse and worse. Every ultra runner has been through it I’m sure. It’s that hole that gets harder and harder to climb out of. One thing you have to trust however is that you will get over it. It might take 10 minutes, it could take 10 hours. I’ve been in some horrific holes as I’m sure you have too, but have faith that things will get better. Afterall, this is the reason we do it yeah? Those low points are the very thing that make us feel great about how we dealt with the situation afterwards? That we can sit down with a beer and think, “man that was tough”, but I did it.
Lastly and perhaps the most important thing…
Fun: If you’re not having fun, what’s the point? Of course you can carry on and show the world how much of a man (or woman) you are by going through one big suffer-fest, but if you’re not enjoying it, what’s the point? I’ve asked myself that a few times, and it also falls into line with the above around ‘feel’ and having faith that things will get better.
Only you can judge this and make that call, but also being comfortable with that decision too. Remember, it’s not about what others think, it’s about you being honest with yourself. We’re all different and that’s what a lot of people seem to forget sometimes. If you’re happy and OK with your decision, then that’s all that matters.
The irony with this article is that I’m trying to communicate a way of dealing with DNFs so that they don’t happen. A world where we all finish in line with our goals and have an amazing experience. The reality is that things go wrong. We will fail at some point, but it’s only through failure that we learn how to become not only better runners, but better people too. Despite my ‘failures’, last weekend I ran a 100km trail time that I never thought I could possibly run and that I’m proud as punch of. Why? Because I accepted and learnt how to deal with my failures and used that to my advantage.
One last thing… remember, it’s only running.