Avoiding a DNF

DNF – those three letters are what every ultra runner dreads. Did. Not. Finish.
Most of us have  a few to our name and they are part of our sport. For some they represent failure, the end result of many months of training, and a bitter disappointment. For others it can be a valuable learning experience and a motivator to do better next time.

I have had two to date, one of them  was taken out of my hands, I had collapsed on the side of the trail barely conscious  suffering heat stress.  I needed help to get to the next CP safely and had to jump in a car so my race was over. This was a big contrast to the other DNF, many years ago, when during a 100km road race involving 2km loops I arrived at the start finish line after approx 50km and said to my wife – that’s it, I’m done for today.  My ITB had flared up and I didn’t fancy running another 50km on it.

Both were DNFs but under very different circumstances. Understanding the reasons behind a DNF can greatly increase our chances of avoiding one next time and be able to accept them if they happen in the future.

Two types of DNF

The first I like to refer to as an UTC DNF – unable to continue. UTC happens when you miss a cut off, or you are pronounced medically unfit to continue. You have no choice in the matter, the decision is taken out of your hands.

The second I call a CNC – chose not to continue. In this case there was a decision made not to continue. There are many reasons why one might choose not to continue – in my case I knew that another 50km would flare the ITB up to the point of wiping out training and racing for several  months afterwards.

Any time we have a DNF a lengthy post-race analysis usually follows that questions our decision to stop. You may wonder if you made the right decision. Could you have continued? Were your reasons to DNF valid? This questioning and rumination can be avoided with adequate mental preparation pre-race.

Pre-race DNF thinking

A way to remove the post-race uncertainty of the validity of a DNF is to define under what conditions you will accept a DNF before the race starts. What this does is take away any decision making in the race. When you get to a CP and feel like pulling the pin you mentally check your condition against your list and if nothing matches then you have no choice but to continue.

This is an extremely powerful  motivational tool you can use in the race so let me say it again. If you are not suffering any of the pre-determined conditions for a DNF then you have no choice but to continue.

How many times in a race have you thought to yourself I don’t know how I can finish this race? Using the DNF thought process it flips this thinking on its head – instead of wondering how you can finish the race you are now thinking – I have no choice but to finish.

Let’s apply this to some training sessions so you can see how you are probably already using this idea in training.

Let’s say you are doing an interval session – eg 8 x 1km reps. After 4 reps your legs are starting to feel it, after 5 you are in the hurt locker. How many times have you pulled the pin and said – nope I’m done, that’s enough for me today, and stopped at 5 or 6 reps?

Maybe once or twice, but generally you keep going and finish the session. The reason for this is you have subconsciously done what I have suggested to do above ie there are certain conditions under which you would not finish the session – eg if you strained a muscle or felt light-headed and dizzy. If you don’t suffer any of those symptoms then you know deep down that you have no choice but to continue. You know the benefit of the training session, you are motivated to finish it, so if there are no reasons to end the session. You continue and finish the last few reps even if you aren’t sure how you will do it.

We can do the same in an ultra.

Here is my list of acceptable reasons to DNF.

I will DNF only if one of the following situations occurs:

  • My health is at risk and I have been advised by medical staff not to continue.
  • If I have issues I will stay at a check point to resolve those issues for as long as needed or until I miss a cut off.
  • I am suffering an injury and continuing will make the injury worse to the point of affecting training and racing in the months to come.

For me that’s it, so come race day if one of those three situations hasn’t occurred I know I have to keep going.

Let’s discuss these in a bit more detail.

1.Your health is at risk

This might be heat stress, hyponatremia, hypothermia, hyperthermia, vomiting or diarrhoea – any one of which is a very valid reason to DNF. When one of these occurs I then have to look at my second reason.

2. Missing cut offs

If  I have something that puts my health at risk can it be resolved by spending time at a check point ?  For example if I am suffering heat stress can I spend an hour or more at a check point to cool down and then safely continue?

In my case I couldn’t make it to the CP safely and needed vehicular transport so this was never an option.  But too often I hear of people DNFing due to bad stomachs or they got too hot or cold and I wonder if they had just spent an hour or more at a check point getting themselves sorted out they could have finished the race?

3. Suffering an injury

I’m in a fortunate position that I have a good understanding of the human body so can in most cases determine whether an injury suffered in a race is something that will need a week or so to recover or a more prolonged recovery period is needed. Without that knowledge it comes down to your experience of injuries.

The next decision that should be made pre-race is, if you do get injured and it is likely to be serious enough to need a month or more off running, do you still continue or not? In some situations the answer may be yes and in some no.

Let’s say it was UTMB, you tried 3 years to get in and finally got in, it is a once in a lifetime opportunity for you and if you don’t finish it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get back again. In that case, provided you could still move at a rate that stays ahead of cut offs, you may decide to limp to the finish – or you might decide no race is worth the risk of longer term injury . It’s up to you, but decide before hand, not during the race.

There are a few other reasons people might use as a valid reason to DNF.

4. Race will take much longer than expected

This really depends on the individual – for some elites who for example may want to finish UTMB in sub 24 hours, they might decide that if something went wrong and their finish time is looking more like 30+ hours to pull the pin.  A finish in a slow time is not important enough that it justifies the many hours of slogging it out to the finish and potentially negatively affecting upcoming races. There is nothing wrong with that thought process – we are all individual and race for different reasons. Just make sure you define them pre-race.

My own experience of this shows how different mindsets pre-race affect the decision.

In the race I DNF’d due to an ITB problem I was hoping to run sub 8 hours to qualify for the Aussie 100km team an although on track to run 7:30 at half way I knew that the ITB was only going to get worse and worse. I had no desire to limp to a 9+ hour finish and then sacrifice other races later in the year.

In another race I also suffered an ITB issue however I was leading at the time with 30 miles left in a 100 mile race and no way was I going to pull out when leading a race. I continued and won and took next month off to recover.

Same injury – different mindset – different outcome.

5. Not having fun anymore

Recently at the infamous Barkley Marathons John Kelly, a finisher of this race, pulled the pin at the end of lap 3 saying he just wasn’t having fun anymore. Which is a perfectly valid reason for a DNF – no-one is paying us to race. If we aren’t enjoying it then no reason to keep pushing. However you need to have a very good idea of what your idea of fun is or the post race DNF regrets will set in.

For John he knew exactly what the next 2 laps would entail and the thought of it didn’t excite him at all. Maybe for you the race is way more technical than expected and it’s not fun as it’s too far outside your comfort zone.  Maybe the race itself is poorly organised, not what it promised to be, and you really don’t care if you finish or not.

Define fun before hand – is it fun running in pouring rain for hours on end? Is it fun running in 40 degree heat?

Using your DNF reasons as a positive motivating force to finish

Once you have defined your reasons for DNF pre-race, during a race it can become a powerful motivator for you to continue.

As I said earlier – if the conditions for a DNF have not been met you have no choice but to continue . This is especially powerful in longer races like a miler. When the distance to go is still so far and you don’t know how you can finish and have lost faith that you can, if you haven’t met any DNF conditions then you have no choice but to find a way to continue.

Common DNF Regrets

There are two main DNF reasons that give the runner the most cause for regret.

1. Assuming you will miss a cut off

An athlete I coach left a checkpoint at UTMB to meet some runners returning to the check point he had just left saying they had been told they had no chance of making the next checkpoint in time so they were giving up. Fortunately he ignored them and pushed on, making all the next cut offs, sometimes by mere minutes, and eventually becoming a finisher.

The runners who gave up when they were ahead of my client most likely could have finished if they followed the basic rule of continue moving forward unless told by an official you can no longer continue.

2. Not giving yourself time to recover before giving up

In this scenario the runner is usually suffering stomach issues or is overheating or shivering. They typically given themselves 10-20 minutes to recover and if no better they pull out. Consider the alternative – let’s say you have a 14 hour 100km runner who arrives at a CP with dodgy stomach unable to eat or drink. They sit for 10 minutes and feel no better so DNF. Or they stay at the CP for an hour or 90 minutes , feel better and finish in 15:30.  Would you be happier with a 15:30 or a DNF ?

Of course you may stay at a CP for 90 minutes and still not be fit to continue but at least you gave it a chance. Alternatively if you were going for a PB, had done the race many times already and and no desire to just finish it then DNF is a sensible option to ensure you keep your enjoyment of the sport – but define this pre-race !

3. Getting lost

Too often a runner gets lost, spends an extra 20, 30, 60 minutes off-course and then DNFs. You should think about this pre race – if you get lost and your finish time is likely to be 20, 30, 60 minutes slower does that matter? Does finishing a miler in 26 hours instead of 25 hours make a difference to you? Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t – clarify this before hand.

Define your own reasons

There is no right or wrong here – you get to decide what’s important to you – don’t be influenced by others – we all have our own unique reasons and motivations for racing.  For some pushing on regardless and finishing in a slower time is far easier to deal with than a DNF,  for others pushing on will lead to reduction of enjoyment of the sport.

If you can define under what conditions you will DNF pre-race it takes away from making any decision mid-race which you will come to regret and actually provides more motivation to continue.