Once upon a marathon in 2012, there was a race that I failed to finish: my only DNF (did not finish). Yes, my biggest bellyflop in a race was in the full marathon distance. As I encounter more runners struggling with how to recover and bounce back from a DNF in a race, I’ve decided that it’s important that I tell this story especially because I empathize with the challenging struggle this presents as someone who has struggled with it.
Here’s my story: In 2012, my wife and I were running the Lincoln Marathon together: Mimi was running the half and I was running the full. Four years ago, I remember being slightly lackadaisical in my training and nutrition for this race. I definitely did not have the 20 mile runs in the bank that I know from experience I needed to succeed in a 26.2 mile race. Meanwhile, my wife was ready. She had run a few half marathons and was confident. To be honest, I was much more concerned about my asthma flaring up in this race than not being able to digest food/drinks. For some reason, I took this race for granted. Big mistake!
I remember the pace I was running was slower than expected. By the halfway mark, I knew this was not going well but I was determined to finish the race so I avoided the opportunity to “bag” the full as a slow half.
By 17-20 mile mark, my stomach was acting up and I was having major gastrointestinal pain. Started walking a lot. Many more walk breaks than I had anticipated. By the time I reached the 20 mile mat, it just seemed like an exercise in futility. My energy was sapped. My nutrition was gone. I couldn’t digest food. My stomach was flipping. My legs were exhausted. My lungs were out of air.
At 20 miles, I tried to text my wife to tell her I was struggling thinking she would have her phone handy. But I forgot that I had the car keys in my pocket and her phone was in my car. I thought she had her phone in her drop bag.
By 21 miles, I was done. My stomach was flipping even worse. I felt beyond tired at this point, a little bewildered and disoriented. Maybe I pushed the pace too hard too soon. But I didn’t test the Gatorade I was drinking during the race and I think that caused my stomach to flip. My food/nutrition was not tested during practice either. I was just eating whatever I had with me or grabbing from course volunteers. All that gastric acid was just too much. I gave up. I told the race volunteers I was dropping out. This was very difficult to do given that I had never thrown in the towel during a race before.
After giving up, I just walked around and sat quietly, angry and frustrated that I couldn’t navigate the last 5 miles home from Holmes Lake. I had negative associations with Holmes Lake for months after this and Holmes Lake wasn’t responsible. I was.
The “drop van” eventually picked me up and they gave me a slow embarassing and humiliating ride back to Memorial Stadium. We picked up others that dropped out of the race also. The heat and humidity were factors and knocked some of us out that day. It was very warm, warmer/sunnier than expected.
Finally, we reached the stadium and I had to find and meet my wife and tell her what happened. She was really surprised to see me not go through the finish chute and was very worried as I arrived back much later than anticipated. I had to wait a long time for the ride back since I couldn’t reach her.
To her credit, my wife finished the race. And I was very jealous of her finisher’s medal that I could not earn that day.
So you see my wife earned her medal and I did not. I even felt guilty wearing the marathon shirt afterwards.
So how did it feel? It felt terrible! I was angry, ashamed, humiliated, embarrassed. It was very painful! It stung! It was a flood of emotions-in-motion. Or emotions mobilized by my failure to move as intended on the marathon course. How do you explain to all your family and friends what happened after hyping a marathon before it happens?
You may or may not experience this but you will encounter people that do fail to finish races. Here are a few tips for how to handle it and recover strong and quickly:
First, failing to finish is not the end of the world. In fact, in my case, it was the smart thing to do. I couldn’t physically finish.
Second, strengthen your mental mindset to run the entire race. If you forget, it will unkindly remind you.
Third, don’t dwell on it. Forget it and Drive on! (as Zig Ziglar would say)
Fourth, tell your story, it’s important to release this negative event from your system as best you can.
Fifth, use the temporary failure as fuel for the fire. After this race, I got really fired up and was able to return to running full marathons and advance to the 50k ultra distance too.
Finally, failure is only as permanent as we let it be. Sometimes we simply have bad days and bad races. Use it as a life lesson and make necessary adjustments to prevent it in the future. Marathoners and ultra runners in particular encounter an occasional DNF. Sometimes it’s an injury, other times, it’s something else. Regardless of the cause, it’s important to move on.
If you have a terrible race performance, it’s okay. We’re all human. We make mistakes. We undertrain. We overtrain. We eat the wrong food or drink the wrong drinks. We err but we learn. That’s right: failure is fuel for your next wonderful success. It’s just a stepping stone.
Find a way to bring closure to the event. For me, it was simply running the 5 remaining miles of the race to “virtually” complete it in my mind. It took a few days as my legs were still recovering. But once I banked the 5 miles, I made the significant decision to move on to the next race.
Thanks to my family and friends for being so supportive of my running, especially in this brief dip into the valley of despair where agony descended upon me with a DNF.
One of the most powerful lessons I learned from this was to NEVER take any race for granted: especially the marathon distance or greater. If we do this, we are guaranteed to be humbled when we least expect it. Most of us can’t just “wing it” and succeed with marathon running. That doesn’t work!
You can overcome any challenge if you try and stick with it with perseverance and persistence. And there’s always a silver lining. For me, it gave me the ability to understand and be empathetic with people who struggle with this unpalatable event. Without this experience, I can only guess how a DNF would feel and taste.
We’re all capable of failure and we’re all capable of success. But remember success is built on a mountain of failures and that is the case for everyone, whether they publicly admit it or not.
Have you ever had a DNF (did-not-finish) race? If so, how did you recover from it? Any tips you would add?
Thanks for listening. Remember a DNF almost always turns into a finish in the next race. It’s a great feeling to bounce back in that way. Hopefully you will never encounter this in your running career but if you do, let it go. Shake it off and rise again. Like the Japanese proverb says: Fall seven times, stand up eight.
Final thought: As Alexander Pope wrote: “To err is human, to forgive divine.” Forgiveness includes forgiving ourselves for bad running and racing performances.