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Dealing with a DNF

Did not finish. Three words we runners don’t want to hear. It’s certainly not something I thought would happen to me. I experienced my first DNF last year and was not prepared for the emotional rollercoaster that would follow. Despite the well intended, supportive comments from family and friends: “you did your best in that heat”, “you’ll nail it next time”, there is no other way to express what those three letters meant to me. I failed. Therefore, I’m a failure.

The race in question was 4 x 14km loops (56km) of hilly technical forest trail. Having come off two successful ultras that Spring, I felt physically and mentally prepared to take on this event.

A few of my more experienced trail friends who had run this race a few times (one had also DNF’d in his first attempt) had warned me about the difficulty of the terrain and the July heat. There was a cut-off time of 10 hours which I thought was generous for a 56km race. No problem. I would get this race done even if I had to walk longer stretches. Boy was I wrong.

Race day arrived and it was a stifling 30c when we started and the temperature crept up as the day went on, making it feel closer to 40c with the humidity. I quickly realized that I had not trained enough in the heat or practiced enough with my nutrition in those conditions. I should have known better.

Acclimatising to those temperatures takes time. Consistent training runs for up to 14 days prior to race day would have helped my body deal with the heat more efficiently. Similarly, on the hydration and nutrition front, I didn’t account for how much of an impact the heat would have on my performance and prepared for it as I did with my Spring races which were run in significantly cooler conditions.

On race day, it was apparent after the first lap, which took a staggering 2hrs, 27 minutes to complete, that I might not make it. It was at this point where my nutrition strategy fell apart. I couldn’t keep anything down, including water. I stopped eating and drinking and carried on. The second lap took closer to 3 hours and as I headed out for the third lap, I was feeling disoriented. I was still vomiting and my fingers started to swell. I was also running out of time. There was no possibility I would be within the cut-off time to start the final lap, nor would I likely be allowed to carry on if I did make it to the end of the third lap.

Unsurprisingly, I didn’t make it past the first aid station on that loop and my race ended there in lap 3. I was devastated. This had never happened before in any races. I wasn’t going to experience the finish line euphoria. I had let myself and others who support me, down. There was also the shame of having those three letters after my name in the finishers results.

I also felt I had nothing left to offer my fellow runners. Supporting others is something I enjoy and once I’ve crossed the finish line, I stay on to cheer in the remaining runners. On this occasion, I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. I was physically and mentally shattered.  

In the days that followed, I was up and down. I poured over every detail of that race, analysing what went wrong (everything), what went right (I didn’t have a bear encounter!), and what I could have done differently. Yes, the weather played a significant role in why I failed. Ultimately though, the reasons I failed were down to me. I know how hot it gets in July. Had I trained smarter for the conditions and spent more time practicing my nutrition in the heat, the outcome may have been different.

After accepting the reasons behind why I had failed, I began the process of restructuring my training to adapt to the seasonal extremes we experience in Ontario, Canada. This was critical if I were to enter more ultras during the summer months. I also experimented with my nutrition to determine which food items I could digest on the move in those temperatures. This aspect of my training continues to be a challenge but I am working on it. I did bounce back from that DNF by entering and finishing another ultra the following month.

As the seasons changed and I completed a few more races, I thought I had put the DNF behind me. However, five months on from that event, I came across the unworn race shirt while sorting out items for the donation bag. There it was looking up at me and for a few minutes, I was back in that forest again, mulling over the “what if” scenarios.

I had planned to return to Limberlost this year to put it right, but like most races this year, it was cancelled due to Covid. Maybe next year….

Has anyone else experienced a DNF and if so, how did you deal with it? What advice would you give others to help move on from it?

Author Ruth Johnson, Ontario, Canada