Thursday, 7 November 2013

DNF what happens and what we don't like to admit to!


that awful realisation that you have entered a race, trained forever and yet still managed to fail in finishing the damn thing. So why do we DNF (did not finish) in races when we have done all this prep and what goes on in our minds before during and after. Here I will describe my first DNF and how it affected me.

I entered the CCC race of the UTMB series but was unsuccessful in the ballot so I was offered the TDS as an alternative. Basically CCC is a 100k race staring in Cormayeur in Italy and running through the mountains to Chamonix in France, around 2000 people race. The UTMB a 100 mile race around the same mountains but a lot further and a different route. the TDS is a very technical 120k race around the same mountains but is often regarded as the toughest of the 3 races. They all take place in Chamonix at the same UTMB race week as well as the PTL which is a team race of 300k.

Being a bit of a dick head I though I would take the TDS place as after all I had run a 24.08 in a 100 mile ultra, done an 85 mile ultra, numerous Ironman Triathlons and a selection of shorter Ultra Marathons so how hard could it be.

It was a nightmare.

The weather was perfect, the mountains beautiful but dame were they tough bastards. At 30k into the race the first thoughts of dropping out entered my head. This is normal in Ultra marathons and I expected it. What I didn't expect was how many times I would have to battle with my mind to keep going. I began to think of excuses, reasons for dropping out, things that would sound plausible and that would get people to respect me if I did drop out.

I kept looking at how hard things were, how tired I was, how sore every piece of my body was. I began to rationalise the race at the last mountain before I dropped out. There were people asleep on the way up the mountain, people go to the top and looked at the decent and just turned around and went back down the way they had come instead of attempting the decent.

Now I had entered a mountain running ultra race, not a fucking mountaineering race, or is that one of the excuses I use. Anyway the decent was really scary, i have t be honest and say that I was very scared for my life, it was pitch black and holding onto a rope for best part of a 3k decent while looking at a direct drop to doom and certain death 17 hours into a race is not fun.

At the top I called my wife, she asked why it had taken s long to climb a 6 k mountain? Anyway she said it's only 4.5k downhill so I'll see you in a bit....3.5 hours later I emerged looking like a sack of shit. I was spent.

My mind was gone, I was still 10 minutes inside the cut off but I knew it was game over. My wife was calling my name to every person she saw in that darkness, desperate to see me. I clung to that desperation, that was my ticket out of the madness of this race. I couldn't put her through any more torture. So at the aid station I said the fateful words "Je Suis Termine"..... I Am Finished to the organisers. I had completed around 80k and beaten the biggest mountains but the really technical stuff lay ahead and I didn't have it in me.

I got on the death bus back to the race start, filled with other failures like me. There was no noise, it was like a funeral, but worse. We all had the same look of despair, the self hatred was kicking in. My wife and friends did their best to console me, listened to my tried and tested excuses and reasons why and I felt worse and worse about myself.

I could have carried on, I should have carried on. Yes I was in a mess but I have been through worse. On reflection it was a lack of respect for the mountains. I had never been on a mountain apart from 6 ascents and decent of Snowdonia 4 weeks before but that was only 1250m high. The smallest climb I had was 2000m in that race and the highest 2600.

I had to deal with the altitude issue.....another excuse

The food at the aid stations was not what I was used to or could train for....excuse.

I wasn't prepared enough.....excuse as I did a 100k 2 weeks later in 13.30 and came in 24th on UK soil. so I was prepared for the milage but not the terrain.

I was well versed in the stories we weave about races. I had compiled many over the years about how I had overcome an issue, ran through monster blisters the size of the palm of my hand, how I was dead and out and still completed. The story of how my wife walked out 4 days before an Ironman and 4 weeks before an 85 mile ultra and I still completed both. Cramping up in that Ironman and crying on the side of the road at my weakness and in so much pain, but I fucking well finished.

Ah the stories....I could tell you so many about the victories, the challenges I overcame and how I beat people I should never have beaten. But the story I hate most is my DNF story.

I created and rationalised superb reasons for my failure. Then I repeatedly told this story in various guises to friends, family, anyone who would listen in an attempt to make myself feel better about my failure and to get some sympathy. To hear "you'll do it next time" and other such words of encouragement when you know they are thinking WEAK! FAILURE! WIMP!

I used to take the piss out of other mates who DNF'ed in races. I even had calf guards on that said "Death before DNF" how fucking stupid was I to wear them.

But I kept them and will never race in them again. I will carry them with me when I return one day to that race and defeat my demons. I will tear across that finish line and burn them, tear them up, bury them at the foot of the finish line, run with a fucking big flag saying I beat my DNF, anything to exorcise this feeling.

S what to do when a DNF raises it ugly head and it's a damn ugly head that will torture you for many years.

If it is a medical emergency such as broken leg or similar then that is a legitimate reason. If you are timed out by a cut off and you have really tried you best then that is a legitimate reason.

I can't really see any other reasons other than excuses and we all know excuses are just bullshit wrapped up in self pity.

So when you find yourself immersed in self doubt, when your messed up mind is saying "Sod This! lets go home", when you feel like shit and are puking, shitting, cramping, crying at the side of the road, just take a break. Take it easy on yourself, it's not meant to be easy, if it was everyone would be doing it.

A friend of mine was messed up in an Ironman and sat down to watch some cricket, he loves cricket and his pain and hated for the race went away, he got up and finished the race.

I was in a real mess at the 70 mile point of the 85 mile ultra, remember my wife had left me, I had massive blisters, my torch has run out of batteries and I was a total wreck. So I said to myself, just make it to the top of that hill and you can have a rest.  made it, sat down, felt like shit, cried, ate and then attempted to get up. Fuck me that was painful, the getting up part that is.

I resolved to have more breaks when I felt I needed them. I say down at the last few aid stations for a bit while I felt sorry for myself. Then an old lady slapped my around the chops and told me she had just run lands end to John O'Groats and she looked about 90! That picked me up and I completed the race when I should have dropped.

So when you are faced with those hard decisions make sure your support crew know not to let you drop. Make sure that your fellow competitors help you, get the supporters to pick you up, beg the aid stations to give you some help but don't stop. Quieten your mind shout at yourself, scream if you have to, break the cycle of self doubt. Don't allow any self pity to take over and make sure you don't start creating the story before the end of the race, it's far too easy to live out that story.

In races it's the finish we want, yes we love the scenery, the talking, the challenge but what we really want is to finish. If we can beat our previous time all the better, or beat a rival. We don't want a DNF, they hurt.

The story of the finish against the odds is always far better than the story of failure, unless you back that story up with triumph over that failure now that's the story I want to tell.

To finish in a good wife and I are back together and very happy.

Comments and similar stories are great


  1. The section on DNFs is one of the largest in my book. Now you know why, much more analysis follows a DNF than a successful completion. There will be other days. rgot

  2. Great blog! The grammar nazi in me wants to go to town on you, but seriously, that was a great read. Can't wait for my first ultra this coming year!