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  • Writer's pictureMiriam Diaz-Gilbert

The Ultrarunning DNF (did not finish) Is Not Failure

Updated: Apr 30

Although ultrarunning is a grueling sport, I find ultrarunning helps to heal the heart, soothe the soul, and overcome obstacles. One obstacle runners will stumble upon is the unexpected DNF (did not finish). I have had seven DNFs. Each has taught me about humility, picking myself up and dusting myself off, persevering, and plotting my next ultra. A DNF is not failure. An DNF is an opportunity for future success.

Humility at Mile 19

After completing four 50-mile ultras, I decided to tackle the 2008 Laurel Highlands 70.5. The course is very technically challenging. It was a hot, humid, cloudy, and misty morning. The air was heavy. It had poured the night before. The first 19.3 miles – the first cut-off – were tough. I had faith I could make the cut-off.

For the first time in my ultra running experience, I found myself out of breath, taking 10-second breaks, and mustering the strength to go on. I felt weak. My legs were running out of gas. I scaled and crawled my way up the massive boulders. I finally reached the first cut-off.

My husband and children cheered me on. The race volunteer also greeted me. “I didn’t make it, did I?” “No,” he said gently shaking his head and making note of my bib number on his clipboard. I missed the cut-off by twenty minutes and was bestowed my first DNF. The experience was very humbling. Down but not out, I began training for the 2008 Great Eastern Endurance Run (GEER 100K) another grueling trail ultra. The distance was greater than 50 but less than 70. I was pumped.

My fifth ultra and my first DNF - Laurel Highlands 70.5
Photo credit: Jonna Gilbert

Vomiting at Mile 55

Running GEER along the Blue Ridge Mountains was appealing. But it poured the night before. The technically brutal trail was wet. I was feeling good at mile 40. Only 22 miles to go! But at mile 45 I was started to feel mentally wiped. Jon, my husband, began pacing me. He gave me renewed energy but I was worried. It was 8:30 at night. The course was now all uphill rocky terrain and boulders in the dark. I felt chafing and a burning sensation underneath my sport bra. My feet were wet from running earlier through flooded streams, creeks, and jeep trail roads.

After mile 50, I found myself climbing up a monster mountain for most of the next 6 miles. I stopped intermittently to catch my breath. I was having the same breathing problem I experienced at Laurel Highlands. Under the starless night sky I vomited at mile 55, a first for me. I pushed through and made the cut-off at mile 56.5. It was 11:30 pm and cold. Not one star was twinkling in pitch-black sky. Only my headlamp directed me to more darkness.

My blisters were stinging. A fungal infection was simmering in my toes. I had already fallen five times on slippery rocks, in flooded creeks. My knees, elbows and wrists were scraped. I didn’t want to risk injury tiptoeing and dragging my broken body down a rocky boulder mountain road. With 5.5 miles to go, I disqualified myself. I would not be able to make the 19-hour limit. Jon and I hitched a harrowing rollercoaster ride back to civilization in the back of an unforgiving corrugated metal bed of a pick-up truck. My body endured another beating. I was one of the 71 starters but not one of the 29 finishers.

Not Strong Enough

Six months after surviving a third abdominal surgery and my medical nightmare, I set my sights on the 2013 Dirty German 50-mile trail ultra. Race day was a beautiful spring day. I was feeling good at mile18. Soon I was running a bit slower. At the mile 26.5 aid station, I had 1 hour and 30 minutes to finish 8.5 miles and meet the 8 hour / 35 mile cutoff. I was not physically strong enough to make the cutoff. I earned another DNF but I was happy I completed 26.5 miles.

Wheezed My Way to Mile 69.2

In 2015, I ran in the C&O Canal 100, my third 100-miler. I ran with a cold, a sore throat, and tons of throat lozenges. I was wheezing. But my legs and my heart were working! After completing the first 50 miles, I was happy. I had about 18 hours to complete the last 50 miles. It was cold and getting dark. The rain, at times sprinkled with hale, came down for four more hours. I dragged my frozen feet across the flooded rocky creek. I survived the small climb up the slippery and muddy trail. I made the mile 60 cut-off.

Jon began to pace me. The rain stopped. The towpath was muddy, slippery and a bit flooded. I was feeling sick. We made it to mile 66. At the aid station, foot heaters and sips of chicken broth warmed my shivers. The kind volunteer gave me his running gloves. Mine were soaked. My hands were freezing. I was sleep deprived. With diminished cognitive functioning and slurred speech, I shuffled my feet to the next aid station and to mile 69.2 with Jon by my side. It was 3:10 am. I was freezing, cold, coughing, hoarse, wheezing, and nauseous. I announced at the aid station I could not continue. At the motel, I took a hot shower, puked, and felt much better. Another DNF but with no blisters and all my pink toenails intact! Three days later I was diagnosed with bronchitis, first time ever.

Batona 50K, Naked Prussian 50 and The Great New York (TGNY) 100K

I had a DNF at the 2018 Naked Prussian 50 mile trail ultra. I missed the first cutoff at mile 26.5 by seven minutes. I had a DNF at the 2018 Batona Trail 50K. I got lost deep in the woods. And I had a DNF at the 2021 The Great New York (TGNY) 100K. Here's what happened.

Lessons of a DNF

There are conditions we cannot control. In an ultra, weather and terrain will impact the mind, body, and spirit. Although mentally pumped to conquer the miles, sometimes our bodies deceive us. Sometimes we are not as physically strong as we think we are for the grueling challenge. Not finishing is okay! A DNF in not failure; it’s opportunity for future success. Embrace the lessons of a DNF – stay humble, stay on course, and plot your next ultra.

Watch my YouTube video, The Ultrarunning DNF (Did Not Finish) is Not Failure here.

At age 65, I am now training for my 39th ultra - the 2024 Dawn to Dusk to Dawn 24-hr track ultra.

I am also the author of Come What May, I Want to Run: A Memoir of the Saving Grace of Ultrarunning in Overwhelming Times. Read excerpts, praise, and reviews, and order the book here from from the publisher, Amazon, Bookshop, or Barnes & Noble.

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