Coach’s Corner: DDNF . . . How To Ensure You Don’t DNF

1.  Introduction:  Ultrasignup, DNFs, and the Tao of Taylor Swift.

Note #1:  I usually write this weekly article on Thursdays, but I’ll be in Arizona later this week for the Javelina 100.

Note #2:  While originally I was going to write this week about weightlifting and what role — if any — it should play in running, I decided to bump that to next week, due to Ultrasignup’s recent decision to start listing DNFs on each runner’s “results” page, and the buzz that decision has created in the ultrarunning community.

Obviously, the subject of DNFs invites a LOT of strong opinions/judgments, ranging the spectrum from “DNF is a mortal sin,” through “we should finish what we start,” all the way to “it just means ‘Did Nothing Fatal'”.

I have no interest in debating whether some sort of outside judgment/morality should be attached to someone else’s DNF, because to me, that is an easy question with an easy answer:  we all run for our own reasons/motivations, and judging others on their decision to stop running at any particular race seems silly (at best).  Personally, re DNFs, I suggest we adopt the attitude of noted poet laureate Taylor Swift, and simply “shake it off” when dealing with the acrimony that tends to surround the DNF discussion.


(“Just think.  While you’ve been getting down and out about DNFs in ultrarunning, you could’ve been getting down to this. sick. beat.”)

So let the haters hate (hate hate hate hate).  Personally, I’m much more interested in exploring the ideal mindset to ensure that when you toe the line at your next ultra, the only thing “DNF” will stand for is “did not fail.”

This article assumes that you place great value on finishing your next ultra, and want to ensure that you are successful in doing so.  So we are going to discuss what mindset is best suited for that goal.  (Note:  I’m also assuming that you are properly trained physically, which leads to the “rational confidence” necessary to complete the race).

As many of the GFOB’s (“Great Friends Of this Blog”) know, I have a very good friend who has a “no excuses” rule when it comes to races; he considers DNFs to be a “mortal sin.”  To protect his anonymity, let’s call him Flondrei Banana.  For Flondrei, if you break your leg at Mile 5 of a 100-mile race, you are a failure if you do not still finish the race.

Literally-speaking, Flondrei is correct:  you either finish the race or you do not, and if you don’t, you failed in finishing the race.  His core belief, though, is that there are simply no legitimate reasons to stop short of the finish line at an ultra.

church of andrei

(“I tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones.  I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan.  I know things.  I believe in the Church of Flondrei.”)

By the way, for any of you living in or near South Florida, the Church of Flondrei meets every Saturday and Sunday morning, all morning long, at the Rickenbacker causeway to Key Biscayne.  BYOT.  (Bring Your Own Tire).

I’m not going to go in-depth into Flondrei’s point about breaking a leg and still continuing, and I don’t really have to, because almost no DNFs are caused by acute physical injury, but rather by the wrong mindset, namely a lack of proper motivation to finish the race, coupled with listening to that very rational voice in your head telling you to stop.

In other words, the best raceday mindset to ensure success has two very simple components:  (1) a strong motivation at the start line to run and finish the race, and (2) a “no excuses” attitude during the race . . . dropping out is just simply not an option open to you.

Let’s now discuss both of those, mainly through the lens of my own past DNFs.  (After all, this is a coaching blog, and one of my primary goals in coaching is to pass along the things I’ve learned/experienced in this sport — both successes AND failures — so that others can hopefully gain a tip or two as well as avoid a pitfall or two).

First, though, as an aside, I really love the mental image of Flondrei at the steps of St. Peter’s Pearly Gates pleading his case to get into heaven despite his “mortal sin” of a DNF 🙂

St. Peters

(“But it was only ONE DNF…”)

2.  DNF Case Study No. 1:  Motivation and “Carnal Knowledge . . . Of a Lady This Time.”

In 2012, I had somewhat of a “breakthrough” year in ultrarunning.  I completed my first race over 100 miles (LOST 118, 2nd overall), I finished in the top 10 in both the Palm 100k and Keys 100, and then a few months later I lowered my 100-mile PR into the “17’s” (at the Beast of Burden 100 in Buffalo, New York, which I jokingly call “Leadville East,” as it’s traditionally run on the same day in August, and is basically the exact opposite of Leadville (BoB is completely flat and run along the Erie Canal Towpath…)

In other words, up through August, I already had a good year by most objective standards.  So why did I find myself at the start line of the Javelina 100 (called the Javelina “Jundred” or “JJ” for short) out in Arizona just two months later, around Halloween?  I didn’t have anything to prove out there, and, to be honest, I wasn’t really all that motivated to run anyway.  But yet, there I was.

Well, the honest reason I was out there is that I lived in Phoenix for six years before moving to Florida, I hadn’t been back for a while, it was Halloween weekend in Scottsdale, and I was excited to see Tony, one of my very best friends in the world.  On top of all of that, my favorite college football team — Notre Dame — was playing in its biggest game in years . . . a road contest against top-10 Oklahoma.  Talk about a great weekend . . . I just thought I’d combine it all with a run as well.

Bad idea.  I made it a grand total of 50k before I decided I’d rather watch the game with my friends at a packed Scottsdale bar . . . in costume of course:

Dave and Tony

(“Daverick” and Tony . . . as a member of the band Lonely Island)

Dave and Alex

(“I don’t know, Tony.  The bet doesn’t seem fair . . . to you, I mean.  But Alex has lost that lovin’ feeling.”)

In addition to hanging out with Alex and Tony, there was that little Notre Dame/Oklahoma game on as well.  In kindness to Oklahoma native and Zwitty runner Jon Kevin Cooper, I’ll just say I don’t remember how that game turned out.

Okay, that’s a lie.  It was a 30-13 drubbing by Notre Dame that catapulted them into the national championship picture while simultaneously wrecking Oklahoma’s chances.  Ah, memories.  Sorry, Kevin 🙂

Here’s my point:  with my true motivation for being out in Arizona — which had ZERO to do with running — I simply had no business signing up for JJ in the first place.

100-mile races are hard enough on their own, folks.  It is absolutely crucial that you show up at the start line with the right mindset.  In other words, you need to be motivated to (a) be there, (b) run that day, and (c) finish the race.  If you lack the motivation, you will likely not “find it” out on the course.

3.  DNF Case Study No. 2:  Badwater Blues and the DNF World Tour.

MC Hammer

(“I’ve DNFd around the world, from London to the Bay…”)

If the first half of 2012 was good to me, the winter and spring of 2013 was even better.  After that JJ DNF, I set course records my next two 100-mile races, ran and placed well in a few others, and then “won” the Keys 100 in May 2013.  (I use quotes because I won the “male” race; Brenda Carawan, a world-class runner from Texas, beat me by 14 minutes . . . which she will never let me forget) :).

All of that was leading up to my main race of the year, Badwater.  I had a good race and a great experience out there on one of the hottest race days ever (it got up to the mid-120s), and I finished in the top-15.


(It was even hotter out there than it looks in that picture…)

The recovery from a race as “big” as Badwater is not nearly as hard physically as it is mentally.  I went “all-in” preparing for the race last year, which not only comprised of a LOT of hard training, but also a huge mental toll of constantly thinking about the race in the months leading up to the race.  When the race was over, I was completely and utterly spent; I had a major case of the Badwater Blues.

Crying at finish

(Yep, I was openly bawling at the finish line; Badwater takes it out of you and strips you to the core!)

So what did I do?  Take some much-needed time off?  Nope, not even close.  I signed up for — and DNF’d — four consecutive races in the next two months, all the while hoping to somehow “recapture my motivation” or “find my passion” for running again during the races themselves.  My performance that year at Leadville East (Beast of Burden) was indicative of those DNFs.  I made it a whopping 25 miles before I said to Alex, “I don’t want to be out here right now.  I feel completely fine; I just don’t feel like running anymore today.”  In other words, I had my Forrest Gump moment.

Forrest Gump running

(“I’m tired . . . I think I’ll go home now.”  Great line for a movie, but not exactly the mindset you want to have during an ultra.)

4.  The Raceday Mindset to Avoid a DNF:  Bright Lines, Not Fifty Shades of Gray.

After my experiences in the fall of 2012 and 2013, I took some time off to regain my motivation for running 100s, and once I found it again, I adopted the stance that I would only start a race when I was fully committed mentally to finishing the race.  Today — having run 14 races of 100 miles or longer (sometimes much longer) — I don’t feel the need to “prove” anything to either myself or others, so that’s not why I’ve adopted the “if I’m not motivated, I won’t race” stance.  Rather, my position is pretty pragmatic in nature:  I have NEVER regretted gutting it out and finishing a 100-miler when I didn’t have my “A-game” that day, but I have ALMOST ALWAYS regretted a DNF to some degree or another.  (Well, except for that Javelina “50k” from 2012 . . . that was just a really fun night) 🙂

Anyway, the point is that in order to have a realistic shot of finishing an ultra — especially a 100-miler — you need to be “all in” from a mental standpoint when you start the race.  Anything less than total motivation/commitment, and you’re facing long odds.

But pre-race motivation is only one-half of the mental game.  What about during the race itself?  Let’s turn back to Flondrei and his “no excuses” mindset during races.  This is what legal scholars would refer to as a “bright-line” rule.  It’s black and white; no room for nuance or interpretation.  Either you finish (which is a success), or you don’t (which is a definitional failure).  His “no excuses” position means just that:  he QUITE LITERALLY sees no excuse or justification for stopping during a race as being legitimate.

In legal jurisprudence, the battle is often between a “bright-line” rule and a “reasonableness” standard, which takes into account all of the surrounding circumstances, the shades of gray, etc., that accompany any situation or decision.  Both schools of thought have obvious drawbacks.  First, bright-line rules, while easy to apply, can lead to absurd results (like calling someone who breaks his leg at Mile 5 a “failure” if he doesn’t finish a 100-mile race).  But the ease in applying a bright-line rule is also its strength:  it takes the guesswork out of all of the “gray” decisions (which, in ultras, are basically ALL in-race decisions).

And that guesswork is the major flaw of the “gray” or “reasonableness” school of thought, as applied to ultras, because we are part of an objectively irrational sport.  Even if you are motivated at the start line of an ultra, you will experience many moments of low motivation, desires to stop, low energy, pains (both real and imagined), etc.  In a race as long as 100 miles (or longer), there are always many, many rational reasons to stop running.

So for runners — especially first-time 100-milers — who want the absolute best shot of finishing the race, adopt the “bright-line” mindset:  simply do not allow yourself to stop; take that option off the table, right from the start of the race.  If you are willing to allow yourself to individually weigh each and every reason for which you feel like stopping during the race — and there will be many — you’ll probably fail.  If you are open to allowing for the possibility of stopping, you will likely eventually come up with a reason that convinces you to stop.  Here are just a few of the actual excuses/justifications I’ve heard over the past few years by people who have DNF’d a race:

  • “I tripped over a dog.” (Presumably the same dog that ate his homework as a kid);
  • “I had to bail my son out of jail.”
  • “I was too cold.”
  • “I got too hot.”
  • “My crew was getting bored” (i.e., the fake altruism reason)
  • “Notre Dame is playing Oklahoma and I want to watch the game while dressed as ‘Daverick'”
  • “I just don’t have ‘it’ today; I’ll just pack it in and do better next time.”

Again, I don’t care to debate whether any particular excuse/justification is “legitimate” or not.  Remember, when it comes to judging others, don’t.  Just practice the Tao of Taylor Swift 🙂

Rather, all I am saying is that if you want to finish the race, the best mindset is the “no excuses,” “bright-line” mindset.  Don’t allow your mind to be open to the possibility of stopping.  Because if you are open to stopping for some really good reason, you will almost surely conjure up that “really good reason” and DNF the race.

Of that list above, the “I just don’t have it today” excuse is one of the most dangerous, for several reasons.  First, everyone feels like shit at some point during the race, and says to himself/herself, “I just don’t have it today.”  Second, there is always another race on the horizon, so it’s easy just to say “I’ll just try it another day.”

Don’t have that mindset.  Instead, be Eminem.  Today — this race — is your “one shot, one opportunity.”  There is nothing else; just this race.

Lose yourself

(“You only get one shot, do not miss your chance . . .”)

The only caveat I would offer for the “no excuses” mindset is the case of acute injury.  Obviously if you break your leg, stop running.  If you tear an ACL, stop running.  If your injury is severe to the point you risk your running future if you finish the race, it is foolish to keep going.  But that being said, the vast, vast, vast majority of all race DNF’s are not because of acute injury.

If you just keep one immutable truth in your head for the entire race — “no matter how bad things get, I can always keep going and I’ll push through and come out on the other side” — you’ll do great.

This is a very hard sport you’ve chosen.  This shit ain’t easy.  It’s not supposed to be easy. (That’s kind of the point, right?)  You will have low points during a race.  Sometimes those lows will be unimaginably low; lower than you’ve ever felt in your life.  Those are the times when you need to focus, recognize that immutable truth up there, and just smile at the absurdity of just how low you are feeling.

At the 152-mile Spartathlon a month ago, I certainly did not have my “A” game.  (I didn’t really even have my “B” game, either.) 🙂  I had heat issues, stomach issues, energy issues, etc. etc.  I had plenty of rational reasons to stop, not the least of which I felt like crap at Mile 30 and still had over 120 miles to go.  And the “lows” just keep on coming in that race.  (There is a fricking MOUNTAIN from Miles 93-100; I mean, seriously?)  But it is precisely at those points in the race — where you are feeling your lowest of lows — that you need to smile at how hard it is, put your head down, and keep moving.  Stopping is not an option.  Even though I felt like crap, I knew I would finish and kiss the foot of King Leonidas because I did not allow myself to entertain quitting as an option.

Finish at foot

(Pilots don’t only fly when it’s sunny outside.  As spent and tired as I look in this picture, I felt 1000% better than if I would have stopped before reaching King Leonidas…)

4.  Conclusion.

Motivation in training and at the start line.  A “no excuses” attitude during the race.  Combine those two and you’ll make it to your King Leonidas at the finish line!

On that note, best of luck to all the runners headed out to the Javelina 100 this weekend, especially those with Florida ties, including local speedster Luke Smelser (running his first 100-miler and being crewed by his lovely wife Lisa), Lauren Hadley (running her first 100k), Tony Portera, Bill Wenner, Jodi Weiss, Mark Mccaslin, and Tracy Connolly (all running the 100-miler), as well as several other FUR-bies that will be there to help, including Michelle Matys, Melissa Middleton, Sergio Radovcic, and many others I’m sure.

As for me, I’ll also be running the 100-miler this weekend, and I like my chances, as Notre Dame is only playing Navy 🙂

Until next time, I hope everyone has a great week of training and racing!


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