The ‘D-word’ – Is DNF’ing a good thing?

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 about helping runners.

This race has the highest DNF rate in the world... 99%
This race has the highest DNF rate in the world… 99%

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.

My first DNF hit me really hard. I felt like a complete failure and 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 seem to have more of an issue with 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 eight years or so that I’ve been running ultras.

1.) Acceptance

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.

imagesFocus 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 people also 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.”


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 wasn’t interested. 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? One issue I had with a DNF’ed 100 mile attempt 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 recently, 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 the 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.

Keep an eye on these things - bad feet can end your race
Keep an eye on these things – bad feet can end your race

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.

Claire Price one of Asia-Pacific's finest female runners always seem to have a smile on her face
Claire Price one of Asia-Pacific’s finest female runners always seem to have a smile on her face

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.

One last thing… remember, it’s only running.

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Dan on Twitter
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.

20 thoughts on “The ‘D-word’ – Is DNF’ing a good thing?

  1. Nice article Dan, based on everything you say, if you follow that then you shouldnt DNF at all ? For me the most important aspect is the fun part. Seen too many runners pile in with excuses about various things in advance or after their DNF eg aid stations running out of food, weather, poor crew/pacers etc and all the while being critical of things that quite frankly sit firmly with them and they let themselves rant and rave at volunteers. If you are not having fun go do something else instead. No excuses.

    1. Hence the paragraph about ‘irony’… the reality is that no-one is perfect. The above is a guide based on my experiences… embrace failure and deal with it.

  2. If you’ve never DNFed in your ultra career, well perhaps then you haven’t set your targets high enough? Personally and in hindsight I found my DNFs valuable since they helped me to improve over time.

  3. Love the bit about excuses and littering facebook.
    I’ve done a few lazy DNFs in my time. A couple of injury/illness ones, races I probably should not have started.
    I know a few people who have the “die before DNF” mentality. Most of them can’t run anymore.

  4. Great article. I’ve only been doing ultras now for a bit over a year and have not yet had a DNF. I’m raising my goals now and have been wondering about how I would feel if and when the calling card comes. You’re absolutely right about the Fun part though, I’m not sure I understand why someone would do this without enjoying it. I think when you first start doing the long stuff, you put pressure on yourself to finish, but I imagine with experience, you come to recognise when a pain is not going to go away, either physically or mentally, and the call to DNF gets easier to make.

  5. Great subject. I’d say the same principles apply to a DNS.

    Taking a DNS is among the top running decisions I ever made. It was tough after so much focus and dedication to the event but I was not in a race state physically (suddenly seriously injured) or mentally (just plain bummed out). Recognizing that was a nice early lesson that has changed much about my running today.

  6. Hey Dan. Long time reader, first time responder.

    Mate, I think everything you’ve said here is totally valid. However I have never DNF’d and I gain a sense of pride from this. Sometimes it’s the only thing that keeps me going when I’ve taken a wrong turn, twisted my ankle or tied my guts in knots.

    I’m on the fence here. I don’t judge anyone who has had to toss the race, because I know my time is coming. But I do think a lot can be learned from a failed race plan, as much as a failed race. I think you can learn plenty by just staying out there till the end, even when it gets so ugly or so late that the last place you want to be is in the hurt locker.

    I recently completed UTMB with 1500 of my best mates. 2300 starters were quickly reduced to a staggering mess of die hards. By night number 2, with a twisted ankle and a sore stomach, I had a lot of reasons to stop – not least of which were the kittens attached to the guys legs in front of me that kept on jumping about and meowing at me…

    I finished in the sunshine, next to Mont Blanc, in 44 hours, only 2 hours ahead of the cutoff and about 9 hours later than I wanted.

    In my opinion, the experience stops when you stop. I run for these experiences, for better or worse. My DNF is coming, but I hope it’s from injury, not from my need to stop the journey.

    No judgement man, just another opinion. I’m a big fan, so keep up the great work and thanks for welcoming the discussion.


    1. Nice perspective Tristan and appreciate your response and I like to hear the other side of the fence too. Naturally everyone has a different perspective and I think the beauty of it all is that I do believe there is no right or wrong. Only what you personally want to do. My reason for writing this article was not to validate DNFs, but moreso to provide some perspective. I personally encountered quite a lot of, how shall I say, ‘teasing’ through a number of my DNFs – those people know who they are. But hey, that’s cool and looking back I don’t really care. We all do this sport for varying reasons – some to run quickly, some for relaxation and enjoyment. I look back at my so-called ‘failures’ and they don’t bother me, because I know they have made me the runner I am today. I run because I want to see what I’m made of and what I can do i.e. I ran Glasshouse 100kms last weekend to see how fast I could do it in. I know that I could beat pretty much most people that tease me about my DNFs, they also know it too… that’s why I don’t care. Maybe they don’t really care… who knows. Part of that mocking has driven me on to run harder and faster… I take the positives out of it.

      I think the key to all of this is to believe in your own convictions about who you are and what you want to be. This is the very core or essence of this article. My purpose is not to tell people what to do, I want to facilitate discussion, but also provide a guide to help runners too.

      Far too often society gets caught up in trying to tell everyone what they should be and we constantly compare ourselves to others and those around us – social media is a bitch for this. I use this philosophy in my own life too. I see far too many people I work with and manage comparing themselves to others, with little time or regard on themselves. This piece is more about getting people to understand who they are and what they want to do, not to be judged by others and not to try to lead someone else’s life, or in this instance race. How many times do we see people running other people’s race? 🙂

      Appreciate your comments mate, and feel free to keep adding to the debate… look forward to meeting you sometime too.

  7. Great article Dan.
    Certainly no shame in a DNF. My one and only ultra DNF so far was at Stromlo 100km in Feb. I just wasnt mentally prepared for the 1km loops, i went out too fast and i looked for an excuse to stop, which I did.

    i certainly dont regret it, you only learn and get better after you fail.

    I’m sure there are plenty more DNF’s in me. We only live once so lets push the envelope and see what we can really achieve. A really hard fought finish where you have had to dig super deep is a million times more rewarding than a comfortable ultra-plod. And more risky too with a greater chance of a dnf. but thats the fun of it!

  8. I’m not even sure that DNF is an appropriate term anyway, apart from the the results sheet.

    Take GH100 two weeks ago. I knew I wasn’t in shape to put a good run in but was in no doubt that I’d run/walk it within cut-off. I was exhausted and starting to get sore, but with 120km gone, I experienced for the first time, something that I’d heard/read plenty about, the inability to keep awake. I managed to get to the next checkpoint, revive a little and set off again but within a few km I was wandering all over the place.

    I got to the next CP and quit (in hindsight, that’s what I did). No injuries, a bit nauseous most of the day maybe, but In the moment, I just couldn’t think straight and couldn’t deal with something I’d never experienced before and saw no other option. So I just gave up. But DNF? On paper, of course it was.

    I’d rather think of it as a DNFWiP (did not finish where I planned), but after 127 km it was no failure.

    Though I have to confess it’s eating away at me now and I know I won’t put it away until next year!

    Now, DNF at the 100km mark of a 100 miler because the RD allows you to record a 100km finish, that’s a different matter. You can’t choose which race you enter halfway through (you know who you are) 🙂

  9. 100% agree but knowing all that when you injure yourself during a race it makes it a bit harder to take.
    I am just saying to myself that it was not my fault and I will be back eventually.
    Got to walk again before I can run.

  10. I’ve rapped about this elsewhere, so I’ll let the pros take the floor: “Don’t worry about it, when you give your best- one-two, one-two, this is just a test.” The Beastie Boys.

  11. Two more types of dnfs:
    Some runners don’t want to allow the dnf into their pyche for fear of making that choice to easily when the going gets tuff. Same people believe that 1 choice to dnf leads to another.

    Some elite runners drop when they realize that they are not going to win or place top 3. This is not one of my excuses.

    For a back of the pack guy like me- the stars have to align (in addition to proper training) for me to finish 100 miler ahead of the cutoffs.

  12. My “best” (1 of 2) DNF…CP100k…made rookie mistakes including eating different food for the first time….went 93.5km of 100k….every step after about 10k horrible…mental and physical (throwing up)…. Never been prouder…i dug deep but knew I had no more, after knew I hadn’t prepared mentally and knew I’d been either arrogant or blasé in my approach….the best lesson….DNF not essential but certainly not a bad rite of passage..sometimes you need a DNF to tell you what you need to know….

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