Lessons Learned from the Ultrarunning DNF
Updated: Apr 21
Find meaning and purpose in your DNF (did not finish). A DNF is not failure.
Photo by Mārtiņš Zemlickis on Usplash
The Unexpected DNF
If you have had a DNF (did not finish), you are in good company. The best elite ultrarunners in the world are members of the DNF Club. Even ultrarunning world record holder Camille Herron, ultramarathon man Dean Karnazes, and USTAF age group record holder Pamela Chapman Markle have DNFed. I’m an ordinary ultrarunner. Since 2005, I have completed 20 ultramarathons. I have placed overall female and in my age group. I have had 7 DNFs.
Each DNF has taught me about humility, picking myself up, dusting myself off, and plotting my next ultra. A DNF is not failure.
Although ultrarunning is a grueling sport, I find ultrarunning helps to heal the heart, soothe the soul, and overcome obstacles. One obstacle runners might stumble upon is the unexpected DNF. My DNFs have taught me valuable lessons.
Humility at Mile 19.3
After completing four 50-mile ultras, I decided to take it to the next level and tackle the 2008 Laurel Highlands 70.5 trail ultra. It was a hot, humid, cloudy, and misty race day 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.
But for the first time in my ultrarunning 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 first DNF - 2018 Laurel Highlands.
Photo by Jonna Gilbert
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 about 10–12 minutes and was bestowed my first DNF and humility at mile 19.3. The experience was very humbling.
Vomiting at Mile 55
Down but not out, I began training for the 2008 Great Eastern Endurance Run (GEER)100K) to take place four months later. The distance was greater than 50 but less than 70. I was pumped.
Running GEER along the Blue Ridge Mountains was appealing. But, once again, it poured the night before. The technically brutal trail was slippery and flooded in some areas.
I was feeling good at mile 40. Only 22 miles to go! But at mile 45 I was started to feel mentally wiped. My husband Jon began pacing me. He gave me renewed energy but I was worried.
It was 8:30 at night. The course was now all uphill. A grueling ascent of rocky terrain and boulders in the dark.
I felt chafing and a burning sensation underneath my sports bra. My feet were wet from running 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 powered through and made the cut-off at mile 56. It was 11:30 pm and cold. Not one star was twinkling in the pitch-black sky. Only my headlamp directed me to more darkness.
My blisters were stinging. A fungal infection was simmering in my toes. By now, I had already fallen five times on slippery rocks in flooded creeks. My knees, elbows, and wrists were scraped.
With 6 miles to go, I disqualified myself. My mind, body, and common sense dictated I would not make the 19-hour time limit. I didn’t want to risk injury tiptoeing and dragging my beaten body down a rocky boulder mountain road. I didn’t want Jon and I to risk getting injured scaling down the mountain in the dark.
The race volunteer radioed for someone to take us down the mountain. We hitched a ride from a guy who lives on the mountain. My body endured another beating during the harrowing 20-minute rollercoaster ride from hell down a rocky mountain back to civilization in the back of an unforgiving corrugated metal bed of a pick-up truck.
I was one of the 71 starters but not one of the 29 finishers.
Wheezing to Mile 69.2
In 2015, I trained for the C&O Canal 100. Race day morning was cold, cloudy, and damp. I ran with a cold, a sore throat, and tons of throat lozenges. I had had a cold for about a week. I was wheezing. I never wheeze. But my legs and my heart were strong. After completing the first 50 miles in a little over 12 hours, I was happy.
I had a little over 17 hours to complete the last 50 miles. Plenty of time to score my third 100-mile ultra finish. It was cold and getting dark. Then wind and rain, at times sprinkled with hail, came down for four more hours.
I dragged my wet and frozen feet across a flooded rocky creek. I survived the small climb up the slippery and muddy trail to the mile 60 cut off. I made it.
I ate some eggs and bacon and changed socks. 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 could not warm 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.
I was freezing and cold. I was coughing and hoarse. My wheezing was becoming worse. I was nauseated. I announced at the aid station I could not continue. The volunteer tried very hard to convince me to continue. I dropped out. I was shivering. It was 3:10 am.
At the motel, I took a hot shower, puked, and felt much better. Then I slept. Another DNF but this time with no blisters and all my pink toenails intact.
Three days later I was diagnosed with bronchitis, first time ever. My doctor as amazed that I was able to run one mile.
7 Was Not My Lucky Number
In 2018, I set off to tackle the Naked Prussian 50 mile trail ultra. The option of a 14-hour time limit and the $39 registration fee made it appealing. I finished the 2016 Dirty German 50 trail ultra with a 13-hour time limit and placed 3rd in my female age group.
My first attempt at the Dirty German 50, on a beautiful but chilly May day, was in 2013 and seven months after surviving three abdominal surgeries in a ten-week period. I dropped at mile 26.5 because my still healing body was starting to slow down. I would not make the mile 35 cut off.
But I was happy I covered 26.5 miles of trail, at times grueling, after surviving my medical nightmare. These miles were part of my healing journey.
The Naked Prussian 50 course was deceptively grueling with tough ascents and descents.
I never anticipated not making the non-negotiable mile 26 cut off. I missed it by 7 minutes and was not allowed to continue. Two male runners in front of me, who made the cut-off, dropped and did not continue.
I was ready to power through but my time was up. I was disappointed but all was not lost.
I dedicated this ultra to Jon. I was running for his healing. Three weeks prior to this run, he was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and I became a cancer caregiver.
Photo by Jon Gilbert
For my physical efforts and completing 26 miles, I received a glass beer mug, a pleasant and unexpected surprise just like the brutally deceptive course that stopped me in my tracks by 7 minutes. On this day, 7 was not my lucky number.
Lost in the Woods
The first 50K I attempted, I DNFed. I got lost in the woods in the dark not long after the start of the 2018 Batona 50K, a trail ultra, which is really 33 miles.The whole ordeal is a blur. I got lost about 2 miles into the morning darkness and went 1.5 miles in the wrong direction.
Along the way, I found Siri, another lost runner. We stayed together and missed the 21.5-mile cutoff. But I still enjoyed myself and left smiling. Nature and being outdoors does that to me.
And I did not suffer. No blisters! Only $30 to register and no t-shirt or medals for everyone. And I made a new friend.
Lessons of a DNF
There are conditions and variables we cannot control. In an ultra, weather and terrain will impact the mind, body, and spirit. Getting lost, slips and falls, dehydration, stomach issues, and other unanticipated factors can bring your miles to a screeching halt.
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. Sometimes we are physically and mentally strong and want to power through but the clock and cut-offs will nip our determination in the bud.
Not finishing is OK! For me, a DNF also means ‘did not fail.’ A DNF is an opportunity for future success. You can always sign up again, conquer the miles, and cross the finish line the second time around.
I have placed overall and in my age group in a few events. But I hold a special place in my heart for my DNFs. They have never diminished my passion for ultrarunning. They are another life lesson.
Find joy in the miles you cover and embrace the lessons of a DNF. Dust yourself off, stay humble, stay on course, and plot your next ultra. Find meaning and purpose in your DNF.
Originally published in Medium Nov 24, 2019
Watch my YouTube video, The Ultrarunning DNF (Did Not Finish) is Not Failure.
I would earn my 7th DNF at the 2021 TGNY 100K. Read my full race report.
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