What’s with the DNF?

It was pointed out yesterday on our Facebook page, the rather large UTMB DNF rate by elite runners and it got me thinking… Why was that? Are we seeing higher DNF rates generally among elite runners?

If UTMB is anything to go by, then yes we are.

Before we begin, let me state that this is not a witch hunt of elite runners in the slightest! I’m genuinely interested in this trend and why it’s happening as there could be some serious underlying issues that as a sport, need addressing, such as athlete health and longevity. It’s a topic that has been raised on other websites and forums, so it’s certainly of interest.

To kick us off, take a look at the number of withdrawals from the ‘favourites’ list in the men’s race at UTMB below. There was a similar story in the ladies too.

UTMB DNF

28 finishers, 10 DNS’ and 40 DNF’s.

That’s a 51% UTMB DNF rate of the total listed above, and a 58% DNF rate if you subtract the DNS’ out of the equation. That’s massive.

A caveat I would use here is that we can’t simply use UTMB as a yardstick as to whether or not elites are DNF’ing at higher rates generally, it is after all one of the most demanding races in the world and you would expect a higher than average DNF rate. It would take a lot of further research to understand DNF rates at other major races among the elite group, something that time does not permit for me right now unfortunately.

But, off the top of my head, we have seen some notable DNFs this year. Ryan Sandes has had a rather awful luck this year with a number of DNS’ and DNFs. One of the WSER100 favourites, Dylan Bowman bowed out having raced very hard at Tarawera and Ultra-Trail Australia (TNF100) here in Australia. And of course our own Andrew Tuckey, fell by at Ultra Trail Australia this year too. Now of course I accept fully that this is not a deeply insightful analysis of DNF rates among elites, but the feeling and general sentiment I see as someone who commentates on the sport is that it appears to be happening more often. And I’m not alone, elites runners agree.

But why?

What’s causing the high DNF rate?

First up, let’s hear from Brendan Davies, one of Australia’s leading ultra runners – he’s a sub 7hr 100km runner and has finished eighth and Western States in 2014. He has some very insightful views on this, and as a ‘serial’ racer for the last 3-4 years, he knows better than most what’s going on and why we’re seeing an increased DNF rate among elites.

Brendan Davies offers some great insights into what's going on with the high DNF rate
Brendan Davies offers some great insights into what’s going on with the high DNF rate

“You are 100% correct in that there are way too many races and runners are, I believe, overextending themselves by doing too many long events in a calendar year. It’s a double-edged sword, as a runner may have a great race or a couple of great races and then continue to ‘chase’ the glory – the habit of winning and the prestige and the attention that brings from sponsors. It takes a big woman or man to say no to racing a top event.

“But it’s understandable why they ‘chase’ the wins. The time at the top of the tree is what gets you the invites to other races and it makes it harder to say no. That though eventually leads to burnout and/or sickness as we’re seeing now.

“As far as the DNF rate in UTMB is concerned, it’s been happening now for a while. At TransGranCanaria this year there was a massive DNF rate, UTMF last year the same, even Western this year to some degree. The reasons for pulling are complex – there’s no one magic bullet here. But without doubt, the biggest reason I feel is that as elites, we’re chasing ‘race perfection’. But as we know, this type of race may happen a handful of times in your whole career if your lucky.

“Many take off like it’s a marathon, smashing it hard in the first half and then when the distance/intensity takes its toll, they drop back and suffer.  Do they want to get to the point where they don’t want to lose to weekend warriors or guys that have never beaten them? I don’t know. I’m sure it happens, but only those who have DNF’ed for that reason will truly know.”

That’s some pretty insight views from a guy who has been racing at the top end of the sport now for a few years. Another reason I’ll offer up and have seen on comments boards is that maybe the whole DNF thing just doesn’t have the stigma that it did years ago. I personally recall the whole DNF thing being quite a stigma. You just didn’t do it, not even at the top end. But it does feel more commonplace these days. A case of move on and head to the next race.

There’s no denying that our sport has changed massively in the last few years and Brendan highlights this very well above. More sponsorships, more runners and more races. As a result, it’s fair to say that our top end guys and girls are racing far more than they used to and their workloads are high.

It’s not uncommon to see many of them string up half a dozen 100km/100 mile races in a year. That’s fine if you’re simply racing to complete like us middle pack plodders. But when you’re racing to compete, and the training is highly intense to go with it, there’s no question that the body is being placed under extreme limits – you have a shelf life in this sport, like you do in any other.

We’re also hearing lots about overtraining syndrome too. In a quest to compete harder and win, some of the training weeks you see elite runners do beggar belief. The shelf life of an elite runner now is probably in the range of 3-6 years, depending on how much and how hard you race. Rob Krar was at pains to point this out in our interview with him – he wants an extended shelf life. He was due to race UTMB, but in the end, didn’t. Why? Because his body didn’t feel right and ready for the rigours of what he was about to put it through. I think he made a great call there. As did our own Andrew Tuckey. He’s had a massive last 18 months, it’s time for the body to heal. While we may want to keep racing and racing, the body is a finely tuned machine. Abuse it and it will break. Respect it and it will continue to work. Sometimes making the tough decisions are what’s needed.

So body fatigue is perhaps one cause of the high DNF rates we saw at UTMB, in particular among those who’ve been racing hard all year and perhaps should have made the same call Rob Krar and Andrew Tuckey made.

Incidentally, the winner of UTMB, Xavier Thevenard had only raced twice in 2015 prior to UTMB, both races under 100kms. Go figure. He was fresh as a daisy. There’s a lot to be said for picking one big race each year. It’s nigh on impossible to race hard at Western States for example and then expect to be able to put in a similarly great performance at UTMB. US runner, Seth Swanson is the exception to the rule here, having finished second at Western States and then fourth at UTMB. However so many who have tried to do both have fallen by the wayside. There either needs to be a greater level of realisation about what is possible with the body, or sponsors need to take a more active role here.

Xavier Thevenard has had limited racing this year and it showed at UTMB where he smashed it.
Xavier Thevenard has had limited racing this year and it showed at UTMB where he smashed it.

Too much pressure to race?

With sponsors eager to have their athletes racing around the world these days – how viable is that and how much care and attention are sponsors placing on looking after their athletes and managing them too?

With so many races available to elite runners and a kind of ‘go hard or go home’ attitude, is the high DNF rate about self-preservation for the next race? Have the days of gutting it out disappeared in favour of making sure performance at the next big race is impacted as little as possible? Who remembers Hal Koerner’s 38hr epic UTMB finish a few years back – things didn’t go well for him, but he received huge respect for gutting it out and not throwing in the towel. It’s probably safe to say that he learned more about himself in that run than in other race he’s ever done. But why do people respect him so much? It’s because that race made him human. Hal is a hugely successful elite and UTMB broke him that year and people respect him for digging in and finishing among the weekend warriors.

Hal Koerner had an epic UTMB - taking over 38hrs to finish
Hal Koerner had an epic UTMB – taking over 38hrs to finish

If runners are DNF’ing because they’re thinking about then next race, then alarm bells should be ringing. Race calendars are clearly too full and I think we’re headed down a very slippery slope. Athlete management is required to ensure elites aren’t simply filling their calendars to the brim with a view of winning everything, then burning out within 2-3 years. It’s fine to race and agree varying levels of intensity for those races, but if there are pressures to perform and the calendar is rather full, there should be some questions asked and more responsibility taken by sponsors.

I say this because it impacts the average Joe runner. Races like UTMB and Western States are hugely in demand. I know, I sat on the Western States waitlist for three years with not so much of a nibble. I want a spot to race that epic just once in my life. Those spots are highly valued. The sponsors that have the privilege of gaining those spots fully appreciate that I’m sure..

Hopefully we’re not seeing too much pressure to race and the high DNF rate is just a one-off year, but something tells me this is not a one-off. Under the surface, with more races, sponsors and money coming into the sport, it does stand to reason that at the top end, we’re going to see athletes burn out quicker and quicker – and it will take a strong elite runner to say ‘no’. Management of this is hugely important for those athletes, particularly if they want longevity in the sport, and we, the average Joe runners, want to see them racing to their peak and alongside us.

 

 

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Dan
I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

19 thoughts on “What’s with the DNF?

  1. Ultimately more of the elites racing at UTMB make UTMB their main focus (WS is probably the only other global ultra where everyone at the start line treats it as an ‘A’ race). That means harder training in the build up, more risks on race day and more chance of starting the race even if there’s a slight injury, rather than DNSing. I don’t think it’s anything more than that, really. The heat exacerbated this for all the runners too.

    1. ^ This guy also seems to be an exception. If you do a quality/quantity equation, I’m not sure anyone has had Ian’s last few years. Maybe Mike Wardian?

  2. Everyone probably remembers Geoff Roes Dan. Arguably over-raced at the peak of the sport and has been broken for 4 years. As an elite why continue on and trash yourself on a bad day (just for the sake of finishing) when you can save your body for another race?

    1. There’s a difference between finishing a race, arguably knowing you’ll need time to recover, and thrashing yourself through the process of running too many big races a year. Since the trend DNFing is at least in part accounted for by the fact that other races are coming up, and hence DNF make competing in these other races possible, they are actually part of the problem. The option of DNFing sustains the crazy pace at which runners are actually burning themselves out.

  3. Dan, you mention Hal Koerner at UTMB, Brendan’s sleep at Jindabyne during last year’s Kosci was another great example of an elite rejecting the call of the much easier DNF. Inspirational for those regular runners to witness.

  4. “…it is after all one of the most demanding races in the world and you would expect a higher than average DNF rate.” Would you? Or would you expect that to be balanced out by the harder than average selection criteria, designed to only select participants who have a good chance of making it? It takes two consecutive finishes at Alpine Challenge 100 Mile just to qualify for UTMB. Not necessarily disagreeing, just not sure that’s a sound inference.

  5. Good article, food for thought!

    This crossed my mind about a year ago when I raced a few european events. I definitely agree that ‘saving yourself’ for the next possible pay day is one factor, which in a way I can understand or at least, get my head around. Your point about the Western States waiting list is interesting. When us mortals enter our goal race, usually about a year in advance (if we manage to get through an entry process), book our flights and accommodation and kindly ask our family to incorporate a race into our family holiday (with leave from full time work restricting other ventures), does it mean more to us? During the race when times get tough, does remembering the sacrifices all round help us continue?

    I can’t speak for the elites, but because it is likely that you can get an entry to most races at relatively short notice, do you lose that desire of having that one opportunity to complete a goal? Is it easier to stop when the journey hasn’t meant as much? And there is another big race around the corner.

    Just some more thoughts. Thanks again for the article.

    1. Good points indeed
      Justin. Many of us weekend warriors only get a shot or maybe two (if ever) at a big race like UTMB or Hardrock or Western and we want to make the most of it. Perhaps motivation IS different. I know for a fact having had this conversation with an elite recently that for him, he really didn’t care about DNFs.
      Everyone has their own perspective and motivation so we can’t force our own views or expectations on others when they clearly have not only different abilities, but different reasons for doing what they do.
      Let’s all try not to judge too harshly when others don’t meet our expectations. That doesn’t just go for running ultras BTW.

    2. Excellent points made here. As a mere mortal who has just completed the TDS I know that sacrifices by myself and my family gave me the mental courage to finish.

    3. In my experience, it seems there are a couple different kinds of “elite” athletes. Some of those people go into their races having trained well for them and with a strong desire to compete to the best of their ability, not just for themselves, but also because they owe it to those putting on the race who have afforded them the opportunity (and comp). They don’t take that kindness lightly and their end of the “contract” is that they perform to the best of their ability on the day, even if their best that day is far from their usual best. They don’t let ego get in the way.
      There are others who don’t do that. From my viewpoint, it seems they take for granted the opportunities afforded them and if it’s not going to be a good day, they’ll save themselves for another day.
      I’m not suggesting there aren’t good reasons to DNF. There are. But my experience shows me that some will DNF for the “right” reasons and others less so.
      This is based on my experiences and is solely my opinion. There are many gray areas and places for good debate and discussion.
      I’m frustrated by those who take their opportunities for granted. I have DNF-ed, but I’ve hated every moment of it, even when it was the right thing to do. Just because it’s right doesn’t make it any easier for me. I hate letting down those who believe in me and have afforded me wonderful race opportunities. People shouldn’t be condemned for it, but I agree that some people need to do a better job of preparing for and not overdoing the number of races in which they compete.
      This has turned into a non-direct response to your comment. Pardon my rambling thought-sharing.

  6. I reckon that some elite athletes, when they realise they are not having the “perfect race”, will pull out rather than trash themselves in a relatively poor performance. Thus they will recover more quickly and hopefully run their “perfect race” in the next event on their schedule. It’s a legitimate judgment call on their part which must balance all kinds of factors, many of them subjective and personal.

  7. Upon having some ‘local’ success between 2012 & 2014, the ability to continually get yourself ‘up’ in both racing & especially training has been the my greatest challenge. It’s not just the fine line you need to walk physically to stay injury free, but keeping the mental state required to continually push yourself is the most difficult task in my opinion.
    After a while your mind gets exhausted also I think

  8. This may sound trivial but there are elite runners and near elite runners that quit if they aren’t going to podium. I’m not sure how ultra sign up works anymore but that score matters to plenty of them.

  9. Another factor not mentioned which I think would apply (from both experience and observation) is what I call the “Red Line” effect. Top end runners aiming to compete rather than simply complete tend to push their performance right up to the limit of what they can achieve (the Red Line!). Being so close to the edge it increases the likelihood of getting this marginally wrong and pushing beyond that line. The end result, these being ultras, is likely to be a crash and burn at some point in the race. This effect is much more obvious and observable in flat ultras like 24 hour races, as hills, terraine and other factors are taken out of consideration.

    As a logical consequence of this a lot of top runners tend to swing wildy in results from brilliance to DNF. The fine line between triumph and disaster manifests itself in plenty of other areas (not just sporting) where performance is pushed to edge.

  10. I don’t really agree with Ian on this one. i think it’s correct that there are many races available and so when a (lets call them for arguments sake) ‘pro’ runner is not exactly on song (and there are many factors that influence a performance) then a lot decide to call it a day so they can race again soon after. If you drop after 6 hrs then you can race a few weeks later whereas if they go soldiering on to finish it will mean they’ll need months rather than weeks. i go by the rule that it’s easier to recover from a good race than a bad one so it’s kind of a commercial reality at the pointy end whereas the majority of runners want the amazing experience of running over all the terrain and completing it.

  11. It’s an interesting comparison to say that it’s ok or wise to DNS (like Rob Krar or Andrew Tuckey) but that it’s not good to DNF during the race when the underlying reason may be the same – some sort of overtraining syndrome. While awareness of potential overtraining issues before the race and a DNS are a good decision, in my opinion, surely coming to a similar realisation that may not have been apparent before the race but is apparent after 6 or 7 hours of hard racing is equally wise and justified?

    In the case of lotteries or places in limited fields that do not have a waitlist, a DNS has equally taken a place from a runner who would have liked to be at the event.

    It’s definitely tricky to make a judgement on whether a DNF was “justified” or not when the reason given by the runner might not be the full story either because they don’t want to share the extent of their problem or they haven’t quite figured it out yet.

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