To DNF or not to DNF-that is the question

DNF stands for Did Not Finish.  It is written at the end of the race results next to each athlete who failed to reach the finish line.  For the first time in my Ultra Marathon career, I took a DNF.  It was the right call, but it sure was preventable.

Jeff LaughingEach time I race, there is a moment during the race when I must address feedback both from my mind and my body regarding mid race performance metrics.  My mind tells me stories and reminds me what I am feeling.  I speaks and shares that I am slowing/speeding/going to slow/going too fast.  The mind, though, doesn’t always give black and white directions as to how to address the issues as they arise.  It is more like a sports commentator or television newsperson.  They point out issues, with little ability to address the core deficiency or shortcoming.  One would think that the best way to address feedback that says, “you are going too slow,” would be to speed up.  But how do make adjustments is never discussed in the space between my ears.

Second, my body gives me similar messaging, but only uses imperative statements as to how to fix the problem.  Examples include, “I am hungry, Feed me!” or, “I am dehydrating, give me something to drink!”  The exclamation points at the end are intentional.  The conversation is only about my body’s current state, not its past of future state.  It is primordial.  I really like it, as it is never ambiguous.

This last weekend, I decided to DNF at mile 21 of a 31-mile Ultramarathon.  This year, I signed up for the US National Whitewater Center (USNWC) Ultra Marathon.  I have done this race twice before, and each time, I found the value of the event and the lessons learned to be worth in the investment.  I love that I can sleep in my own bed the night before and travel less than an hour to get to the venue.  Yet, this year, the race didn’t go as I had planned.

Upon arrival, I did my normal check in that includes setting up my own aid stuff at the end of each 10 mile lap.  That means I would place a cooler and a small bag that contains a couple of changes of clothes (shirt and shorts), as well as some Jeff-ific food that I know I can keep down and use as fuel when my tank is empty.  Since it was my third running of this event, I knew that there could/would be a few changes to the course each year for variety’s sake, but I didn’t know what that might mean.  I was confident that I could finish the race, based on my fitness and the assumption that the race directors would be taking care of us when we were out there running.

The changes to the race turned out to be catastrophic to my game plan.  The distance was the same, and the level of difficulty changed only slightly.  What WAS different was access to aid stations.  I was very much used to having the ability to get something to eat or drink every 3 miles or so.  This year, the first aid station didn’t occur until 5 miles into the event, and the second one was 4 miles later.  In the past, runners would see 3 aid stations during those first 9 miles.  Now, we were getting only two aid stations.

Once I finished the 2nd lap, I walked to the official race timer person and gave him my race number and told him that I was DNFing.  My mind was telling me, “you can’t possibly go 5 more miles with nothing to eat or drink, as you have already hit a stage in your hydration and fueling that has you fatigued.  My body was saying, “I am thirsty and hungry, please feed and water me more often.”  Both message sources lead me to the same behavior choice….stop what you are doing and do things differently.

I didn’t have it in me to go 5 miles till the next aid station at mile 26 before getting anything to drink.  Temperatures were going up, fatigue had set in, and I knew that injury was more likely when the body is under extreme stress like the kind of stress dehydration can cause.  And, I didn’t have a way to carry water with me for the next 5 miles.  I was done.

In two weeks, I am racing the Annapurna 100 Ultra-marathon. There was no way that I was going to let this local race and my desire to finish it and get a prize deter me from the real goal of successfully finishing Annapurna.  That race is a big-time fundraiser for The Nepal Project, and I will be travelling half way around the world to compete.  Finishing today’s race wasn’t worth the risk of a preventable injury.

I stretched a bit and walked to the showers to wash the dirt and sweat from my body.  I downed my recovery drink (yes, I love Endurox), before heading to my car to drive home.  Before I made it home, My body was already starting to recover and was saying to me, “I am hydrating but still need more!  Keep the liquids coming!”  My mind was saying, “you have stopped before you regretted it.   Wise.”

Of the two errors I made, one was exclusively on me.  My preventable error was that I didn’t review the placing of aid stations before the start of the race.  I assumed that the entry fee would have included just as much evenly spaced out aid as it had in the past.  Wrong.  The second error was my human decision to believe the race-director’s pre-race briefing when he told the runmers that there was plenty of aid on the course.  That turned out to be untrue.  Two pits stops in 9 miles, repeated 3 times, is less assistance than I was used to.  Had I known this in advance, I would have brought my running pack that would have let me carry water and food during the race.

This prompted me to review the spacing of the aid stations on the Annapurna 100, and I can see that there are 3 instances when I will need to go 5 miles without aid.  For those reasons, I am bringing my running pack to Nepal, and I will fill it with powders, PBJ sandwiches, power bars and maybe some gels that I know will make me happy during the final part of that race when all the climbing starts happening.

If that is the lesson that I learned by DNF, it was worth it.  The real name of this blog should be “To learn from a DNF or not to learn.  That is the question.”

I learned.

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