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.

Let people watch you fail. It helps you both.

Nationals, Run 1
First Run at my first National Championship


One of my favorite parts of being a committed athlete is the social value that I get to pay forward.  You might ask, “what is social value, as it applies to an athlete?”  Let’s start with a colloquialism we all have heard.

“If at first you don’t success, try, try again.”

How often do we see our friends and family stop an activity when they fail in a grand way?  For sure, the one place where I watch it play out in real time is the façade of dieting and exercise.  Parents start fad diets and workout regimens, and they get results…but only for a time.  The hands of time take their toll during the battle, and their willpower is replaced with the patterns of the past.  Voila-they return to failure mode.  Failed dieting and exercise regimens are the true unwanted occupants in our kitchens and on our neighborhood walking trails.

On the flip side, I read some news that seems intuitive while also helping the next generation avoid the abomination of obesity that my generation is trying to normalize.  MIT published some research on Sept 21, 2017, in Science that demonstrated that parents who struggle and suffer in real time in front of their children are really doing a great service to those children.  By struggling and fighting a battle in front of our children we teach them that hard work pays off.

“There’s some pressure on parents to make everything look easy and not get frustrated in front of their children,” says Laura Schulz, a professor of cognitive science at MIT. “There’s nothing you can learn from a laboratory study that directly applies to parenting, but this does at least suggest that it may not be a bad thing to show your children that you are working hard to achieve your goals.”  Further, the study claims that “children’s persistence, or “grit,” can predict success above and beyond what IQ predicts. Other studies have found that children’s beliefs regarding effort also matter: Those who think putting in effort leads to better outcomes do better in school than those who believe success depends on a fixed level of intelligence.”

They designed an experiment in which 15-month-old babies first watched an adult perform two tasks: removing a toy frog from a container and removing a key chain from a carabiner. Half of the babies saw the adult quickly succeed at the task three times within 30 seconds, while the other half saw her struggle for 30 seconds before succeeding.

babyandtoysThe experimenter then showed the baby a musical toy. This toy had a button that looked like it should turn the toy on but actually did not work; there was also a concealed, functional button on the bottom. Out of the baby’s sight, the researcher turned the toy on, to demonstrate that it played music, then turned it off and gave it to the baby.

Each baby was given two minutes to play with the toy, and the researchers recorded how many times the babies tried to press the button that seemed like it should turn the toy on. They found that babies who had seen the experimenter struggle before succeeding pressed the button nearly twice as many times overall as those who saw the adult easily succeed. They also pressed it nearly twice as many times before first asking for help or tossing the toy.

We must struggle in front of others if we want to teach the next generation about grit.  Sure, there are feel-goods associated with showing off weight loss and body shape changes, and all those positive accolades can stroke an under stimulated ego.  Just look at Instagram or Facebook for evidence.  The real social value is not to you and your desire for attaboys.  The social value comes from fighting the battle, recording your efforts, documenting your setbacks and fighting hard the next time, when those you love are watching.

I love competing with family and friends watching, even when I lose.  The act of publicly going at 100% and preparing to go at 100%, teaches others other that hard work pays off.

Go fight.  Go fail.  Let your family and friends watch.  Just don’t give up-then, they will grow up and do the same thing.


Because boys will be men

In society, when a boys fails to be focused, a quick-to-throw-out comment we say is, “boys will be boys.”  The incorrectness of that comment is that it uses future tense (will be) to describe the present.  The truth is that in the future, boys will be men.  As an athlete and parent, I have a role to play in making sure that my boys become men.

The most blatant problem with men who are assisting today’s boys in their path to manhood is that they are quick to tell boys what to do and often are too time stretched to show them how to do it.  To further complicate it, they don’t lead by example.  We tell our kids that schoolwork is important, but we ourselves spend very little time learning new things that are mandated upon us.  We make poor food choices, right before their eyes, then we harp on them for being picky eaters. From my perspective, the reason men aren’t helping boys become men is that they aren’t practicing what they preach.

My youngest son is now 16 years old and is making the migration from boy to man.  If I parallel his path to that of a wildebeest, he is commencing on his first journey across the Serengeti as the monsoons of adolescence creep into his life.  My intentional response is not that of the traditional talkative dad who tells anecdotal stories to his son from his recliner and the dinner table at the end of a work day.  The use of words (or lack of action, whatever you want to call it) are known dysfunctional strategies that I actively discredit. He yearns for an example to emulate.  He needs not just a hero but a hero who is also focused on improving.  He needs another wildebeest.

Lead wildebeest is one of my jobs. As an athlete, I take responsibility over a regimen that makes me competitive.  My workouts, nutrition plan, recovery strategy and use of my downtime are all important to my success on the field of competition and in life. He sees me create and update training plans both for myself and other athletes every week.  He watches and helps me and his mom cook healthy meals for the whole family on Sundays, so we have great leftover/snack choices before we get hungry.

My son is also working with a private running coach and runs for his school teams.  Over the fall and winter, my son logged his miles running both Cross Country and Track. He got better, every month, from those efforts, but his school couldn’t provide enough of the elements that make the difference between good and great.  He and the other kids weren’t getting examples of how to put it all together-nutrition and recovery needed to be taught and on display as much as the workouts/training.

Now that he is in his “off” season from school practices, my youngest son is doing workouts that I am designing for him.  We use to create and log all of our efforts, and he is improving quickly.  In our house, my wife and I both eat real food, nearly all the time.  I have a nightly stretching regimen that is combined with core strengthening and stability exercises. He sees us, and he follows our lead.

Alex, my son

What is different?  To begin, he is sore a lot.  Too many mornings he walks down the hall looking like he has recently been stabbed in the thigh.  Second, he ends his workouts winded for more than a moment or two, as hard days are now really hard.  Third, he is getting more rest days.  During his sports seasons at school, he would end up with no more than one day off a week.  Now, he gets at least two and sometimes three days off a week.

I take him to the weight room with me and show him what a max effort bench press looks like before I tell him to do one on his own.  He sees me do an all-out 2 minute effort on the bike trainer before he is told to do one.


He is getting better, faster than he otherwise would at school.

Behind his success is simplicity of watching mom and dad lead by example and doing as matter of factual the stuff that makes us faster.

On to the punch line.  Two weeks ago, there was a local 10 mile race that I signed up for.  He and one of the top runners at his school also decided to sign up.  On race morning, conditions were great for a fast run-cold with no wind in the forecast.  Even though I had only run an organized race at that distance one time before, I was able to set a personal best, even after celebrating my 51st birthday.  It felt good to see that getting faster as I age into my 50s is not just possible but reasonable with a focus on holistic training.

My effort wasn’t nearly as great as seeing my son cross the finish line ahead of me. We ran within 50 feet of each other the entire race.  He pushed hard during his last mile and separated from me.  He can in 68th out of 1133 men.  I got 75th.

During some quiet time after the event, my wife asked me if she thought I could have beaten him if I had tried harder.  Perhaps.  But perhaps not.  I was pleased with how well I did.  I was elated to see how well he did.


Where we fail to lead by example, we create a future that isn’t as good as the present. Let’s leave the future better than we find the present and invest in the next generation by doing the right thing, in front of their eyes, first.

Dear Abdomen-Handling weight gain over the holidays.

Dear Abdomen,

I know I put on weight over Thanksgiving but haven’t stepped on the scale yet to put a number to it.  I just know that I did.  My clothing didn’t fit the same today as it did a week or two ago.  And, I don’t feel the same.  I feel bad about all the eating I did over Thanksgiving.  Maybe words like, “depressed” or “empty” are feelings associated with the knowledge that I gained weight.  Yet, I had a good time with family, and I know I  shouldn’t feel bad about spending time with my loved ones.  What can I do?  – Charlene

Dear Charlene,

There is a need to reconcile these extreme feelings.  Gaining weight between late November and early January is common in Western culture.  Although science has no defining study that says, “you gain weight when it is cooler,” there is a school of thought that makes us think that when it gets cold, we don’t sweat as much and we gain weight.  Too bad science doesn’t support this.

The evidence points towards two distinct events that are to blame for weight gain.  To begin, we introduce unstructured change into our diets.  The holiday foods aren’t aligned with what we eat the rest of the year.  After all, we don’t eat stuffing in May, nor do we have pumpkin pie in August.  We don’t know how to judge portions or frequency in which to eat these unknown foods. Secondly, we respond differently to the impact of an emotional disorder called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) that causes both depression and increased food consumption from darker, shorter days.   This disorder to so widespread and common that people specialize in the health care aspects of it.  SAD has a greater impact in polar regions, but it can alter eating and sleeping patterns in the continental US as well.  My family experiences a mild depression when we turn back the clocks in the fall, for we knows the days of going outside to work in the garden after dinner are over.

Those two explanations that blame a changing diet and SAD aren’t justifications, though.  Truth be told, a lack of self-control plays a role, as does denial and a lack of preparation for upcoming nutritional assault that you know you will face in the holiday season.

Thanksgiving is a flat tire event.  Do you fix the flat or blow out 4 more tires?

We recognize the pattern that arises this time of year.  We even coined the phrase 4 flat tire syndrome.  When your cars gets a flat tire (like blowing your nutritional plan when you overeat at Thanksgiving), the normal person would stop the car and change the flat tire to resume normal operation.  The tendency this time of the year for someone who lacks nutritional maturity is to get out of the car and pop the other three good tires, to really ruin the ability to travel.  Then you sit next to the car wondering what happened!

Don’t let the flat tire of Thanksgiving lead to a string of events that includes three more flat tires of crummy eating that lasts until January 1.  If you think your self-image is damaged now, wait until January 1, when you over-respond with a new gym membership and a diet that you know you won’t sustain.  A Canadian blogger named Michael Freedhoff recommends these strategies to avoid the Holiday/winter weight gain issues:

  • Cook meals from scratch. The processed junk food that somehow just “shows up” on our counter is a part of the problem.  This is like putting more trees and snakes next to Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden.  Instead, make food prepared from real ingredients and try to eat as many healthy meals as you can.  If it is in a bag or from an unknown source, replace it with something that is good for you, instead.
  • Cook as a family. After all, the people whom you want to see this holiday season are most likely to be near or in the kitchen with you this time of year.  Use that time to make good food together and not just eat it together.
  • If you think you suffer from SAD, fess up and get medical attention. There are treatment strategies that will create a path of hope.  You aren’t weak if you seek medical help. You are acting wisely to seek medical help.

Lastly, some weight gain this time of year is healthy for those of us who are extreme athletes. That all said, I too was impacted by Thanksgiving and put on some weight.  For world class athletes in the endurance sports like marathon and Ironman, winter is a time of weight gain.  Runners from El Doret, Kenya, gain up to 15 pounds each winter/off season, as many of them get to a very low percentage of body fat.  For you, keep up some exercise, despite what you think of the weather and lack of daylight, and adapt to the changing outdoor season.


Dear Abdomen, Issue 16-1

Dear Abby, (her real name is Abby Domen, but she uses the nickname is Abby),

I have been doing Yoga/Pilates for a year, and I can see and feel the difference in my strength.  However, I still carry more weight than I want to. I have tried to eat smart and healthy, but my efforts haven’t given me results.  What am I doing wrong?

Dear Lovely Woman,

Let me share a real story from my dear friend Alex.  Alex is a former Marine who fought in Somalia in the 1990s.  A few weeks ago, I asked him what he did the night before entering a known combat zone.  He and all of his squad members had a protocol that they would follow to keep healthy and alive.  Alex would check and recheck every piece of gear, and he would have a fellow squad member review every piece of equipment, as well.  For example, he would take apart his gun and make sure that it REALLY worked to specs.  He would also dump out his pack and confirm that he had adequate rations, ammo, clothing, communications equipment, and the like.   Although he wasn’t sure that he would be using all of his equipment to engage in combat, he made sure that if he did engage the enemy, he would be ready, and his gear would be dependable.  In addition, he had backups for items that were critical.

Combat situation for a Marine

My recommendation is to prepare like Alex.  The night before the start of what you know will be a busy day, pre-assemble your snacks and meals that you need to take with you on the road.  Take this activity seriously, as your family is depending on you to be strong and healthy.  You are worth a 5 to 10-minute investment every night.  In addition, bottle your water and put all the nutrition and hydration you will need in a special place where you can just grab it and go.  Maybe, you need a reminder the night before to do this.  Use your phone to remind you-it’s a free service on every cell phone to have an alarm with a message.

Too often, we wait till we are hungry to address need for timely nutrition.  Don’t wait till the enemy is upon you to see if your gun is loaded and ready.  Lastly, don’t pretend that a bottle of water and a packaged bar and a banana equals good nutrition.

The first few times, you need to go out on a limb and let a close friend who you trust review and provide feedback on your choice of nutrition and hydration.  You want to make the best use of your preparation and get the help you need, in the safest way possible.  Don’t hide any of your intentions, either.  If your plan is to hit the Chick-Filet when you are hungry, say that and tell them exactly what you plan to get.  Look at the nutritional information on your go-to meal and see if it is real food or not.   Get some honest feedback on your plan and listen to the advise that you get, in response.

Once you make this a habit, you should begin to see the results that has been evasive.  More often than not, it is not our intentions that get us into trouble.  It is the unanticipated combat that we haven’t prepared for that sinks our boat.  We need good calories, all day long, if we want to keep our metabolism running as God intended it to operate.

Finally, the real difference between you and Alex is that you WILL engage the enemy every day you leave home.  Roadside billboards, coupons in your purse for a new cereal, favorite foods that the kids like to eat will get your attention and wear away at your resolve to eat real, healthy food.  The enemy wants to destroy you and your image, and food is one of his tools.

Just like Alex does, you should NEVER leave home without expecting combat over what you put into your body.  The media and marketing world shall most definitely wage war on you, They will find a way to get their images into your eyes to convince you to eat something that you really don’t want to eat that happens to be in front of you.

Be like Alex, and fight for your body!