DNF – Did Not Fail

The more races I run and the faster I get I find myself getting closer and closer to those seemingly far off, superhuman-esque Kenyans, with their bird legs and caution to the wind running style. Earlier on in this whole running experiment I could say I ran in races with Kenyans, meaning I entered races that Kenyans entered and watched their backsides get smaller and smaller as they blasted off down the course and out of sight. Then at some point I started keeping them in sight more and more until suddenly I found myself either passing some who had started walking late into the race, fallen off pace considerably to a recovery jog or gaining and going stride for stride with those who were still making an effort to the finish. It was as encouraging as it was confusing as I had the perception that any Kenyan runner coming to the US was of marathon podium caliber and therefore it meant something if I was leaving them behind from time to time. Then I started to learn a little bit more about truly elite level racing perspective and what the challenge means to them, both Kenyans and Americans alike.

These runners have so much natural ability and such an extensive span of training within them that they climb to great successes, reaping the rewards of podium prize money, sponsorship and endorsements that afford them great luxuries and lifestyles that leave them with nothing but time to train. I have as much jealousy for them as I do adoration. I would kill for that talent and time. And I wouldn’t squander it.

So it came as quite a surprise when I started to learn about elite runners goofing around during races under the guise of “running free” or bailing on races completely due to poor performances (yes, these are both Ryan Hall references). But beyond that, I started to learn about elite runners outright quitting during races, which became incredibly apparent this last Chicago marathon when I watched runners literally step off the course in front of me. Some of them beaten down with fatigue, while others just done struggling unnecessarily.

I know, as runners, the last thing we want next to our names on the results board is the dreaded acronym DNF (did not finish). We’d rather have DNS (did not start) than the former. So, it seems odd that runners who spend so much time putting in so much effort for a particular race or two would seemingly squander it all away when the going gets rough. As it was put to me recently, “it kind of seems like a cry baby thing to do, doesn’t it?”. Well, yes and no…it depends.

What I learned about Kenyan runners specifically, is that they don’t always simply run for the love of running, the test of accomplishment, or any other altruistic reason, but instead because from a young age they have learned that their way out of poverty is to run fast, come to america and run faster, score a couple big money marathon prizes and go back to Kenya and live well. It happens pretty often and often these runners make their big payday and then..get this….never run again. Not a step. Running, for some of them, is a means to an end and nothing else. So in their case, they come to the US and run and run and run and race and race and race, always desperately reaching for any prize money they can get. Any race with over a grand for a podium finish will have East Africans…it’s almost guaranteed. This, in part, explains why at times I’ll blow by crazy fast Kenyan runners as they’ve either started walking, slowed excessively or just plain gave up to cruise in. For instance, in my last 15k, of which I PR’d, I ran alongside a Kenyan late in the race, who then took off with a crazy kick at the finish. Only afterwards did I realize I was matching strides with Peter Kemboi, the 2oo7 Mombassa Marathon winner, of which he completed the race in 2:09. And here I was fighting him for the finish. It wasn’t because he was slow…it was because he was probably in the middle of a streak of racing, going for prize money, and when the day was not his he just turned it into a training run. This situation is relatively uncommon though.

What is more common are runners closer to my caliber dropping out of a race when the going gets tough, predominately at the marathon distance. Initially, I took the whole “what a crybaby” perspective, but the more I run and train and reach for a goal relatively off in the distance I’ve begun to understand the importance of “saving oneself”.

For those who have never run a marathon to complete physical exhaustion, let me just tell you from experience, it takes it’s toll physically. Last year I was so physically destroyed from my race that it took me weeks to begin to walk normally and months to completely rid myself of nagging pains and strains. Getting back to solid training for my next race involved a significant break that compromised my fitness more than I would have hoped. Now, for me, just finishing the marathon with a decently fast time was my goal, so exhaustion or physical damage or not, I was going to finish the race. This is still the mentality I harbor when I step to any start line. The DNF is never an option.

So I was surprised to see so many elite runners stepping off the course this past Chicago and more shocked to see so many more who hadn’t finished, but after completing the race in the manner with which I ran it, I started to understand why this happens. See, I went out to qualify for the Trials (like you didn’t know that!), which necessitated running significantly fast (for me) for a distance I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to sustain, which meant a huge expenditure of effort and energy. I knew, if I crossed that line under 2:19 or even anywhere close, I was going to be physically destroyed. But something else happened…..what I can only deduce was the rapid increase in heat, my heartrate and anaerobic systems became taxed so quickly that maintaining that strenuous physical effort became impossible and although I was sore after the race, I was unable to push myself to the point that I really damaged my body. So fortunately, I was still able to come across the line in a respectable time, but with minimal damage. No harm, no foul.

For the other elites though, they had gone out HARD and had put a lot of strain on their systems trying to achieve very specific goals, whether it was a podium finish, a top american finish, or some massive PR. So when things obviously weren’t going as planned and any Plan A or Plan B goal they had in their playbook wasn’t going to happen, they did the only sensible thing and stepped off the course, in effect saving their bodies from the physical strain it would surely have sustained to keep running after that initial effort. For them, the race lost all its meaning. There was no money to be had, no newsworthy finish time, no top american placement. There was only a final time on the results board and a significant time off from training due to the deep physical damage they did to their bodies. So for them, stepping off the course is a deliberate strategy in saving themselves for another day when conditions are more favorable, they are feeling stronger, or whatever.

I, on the other hand, have no delusions of big marathon prize money, top american finishes or what have you….I’m just trying to qualify for the trials. My stakes are not as high. So why did I keep going then, risking muscular damage that would take extensive recovery time? Well, for one, because I don’t have a lot of common sense when I’m in the midst of the race effort, fatigued out of my mind and holding strongly to delusions of grandeur, hoping for second, third and fourth winds. But also, and more importantly, because I see value in pushing to the finish, answering the “what if’s” that come later in the race, whether that is gauging how I feel that deep into the distance, knowing what happens to my mental game, or just knowing that when things get so damn terrible….I can keep going and still finish strong, no matter what. I’ll take the risk of forced recovery for the benefits of a completed race, the encouragement of accomplishment and one more notch on my belt of experience. That is how I prepare for future marathons, where others prepare by stopping running before reaching the finish line. I absolutely do not fault them, now that I understand they have financial security at stake within their performances, while I simply have an unparalleled sense of accomplishment.

Honestly, it would be incredibly weird for me to drop out of a race and the blow to my confidence might be worse than the benefits gained from saving myself physically, but I’ll tell you, I might look at things a little different if I was getting hooked up by shoe sponsorships and other endorsements, knowing my performances gain me continued contracts and bonus monies. Yeah, then I might not feel so bad about that DNF, knowing further down the line it might get me some big USD’s.

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3 responses to “DNF – Did Not Fail

  1. Thank you for this perspective. I am far from an elite runner and I race only myself when I run (and sometimes the grandmother power-walking next to me). i run because it is fun. Unless I was injured or sick, I doubt I would ever DNF.

    I have also never been in a position where I am dependent on a test of physical endurance to give me financial stability for the future. I can imagine that then to not get that paycheck can turn into a “why bother?” Or even a “save myself now so I have a chance at the paycheck in the next race.” I have never thought of my ability to run races for fun as a position of priviledge, but it is.

    • Glad you were understanding what I was saying (I wrote that haphazardly and over juiced on caffeine). I too run primarily for the love and excitement, so maybe that is a reason why I don’t DNF either. I guess it might be nice to make enough money running that DNF’ing wouldn’t be so bad….but that’s a pipe dream for sure!

  2. This really gives me a idea of elite runners outlook during races. For us fitness folks finishing means something entirely different. Now that you expressed it this way, I see it much like my career — if I was in a dead end job and had no chance of making money for my family I would quit as soon as I realized it, much like these elite runners. However, someone doing what I do for a job, as a hobby might see the issues as ‘challenging’ and not as bad..

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