There’s No Such Thing as a Happy DNF

I wrote a whole blow-by-blow report about my first DNF, which happened at the 50K turnaround point of the March 28 Gorge Waterfalls 100K. Then I scrapped it because it was too boring even for me to read.

Here’s the main point: Quitting a race is, at best, bittersweet. It can feel like such a blessed relief when you call it quits that you may actually experience mild euphoria. Eventually, however, the reality that your body felt like crap because, for whatever reasons, you were not race-ready overshadows any relief you felt when you stopped.

So the take-away is: Don’t line up to race a hard ultra unless you’re prepared and committed. If you approach it ambivalent and less than prepared as I did, thinking, “Whatever, I’ll wing it! It’s a great weekend getaway and a chance for a hard training run; I’m OK with whatever happens because I’m doing it just for fun,” then you’re setting yourself up for a painful race and a high likelihood of quitting. And that’s not fun, no matter how good the hot shower and beer feel post-DNF.

Sarah after Gorge 100K DNF

This is me on the afternoon of my DNF. After showering and changing into my Gorge 100K/50K shirt — which I figured I could legitimately wear since I went the 50K distance — Morgan and I went for a walk near Cascade Locks.

Initially, I felt quite positive, even happy, about this DNF, as if it were a sign of maturity or a milestone in my evolution as an ultrarunner. On the trail, it was a relief to put an end to a mental game of ping-pong, going back and forth on the pros and cons of quitting, and then additional relief to get off the trail and give my body TLC. I had made a wise decision, because running with compromised, asymmetrical form through burgeoning pain, as I was doing from about Mile 20, could cause significant injury.

I even relished the prospect that my DNF would make a good story, since I have to write a first-person column for Trail Runner magazine every other month. I’d call it “The Happy DNF,” and I wrote the whole thing in my head from about Mile 28 through 30. (Note: If you ever find yourself composing a race report in your head during a race, especially one that weaves a clever narrative about all the reasons you did not have a great race, just put a lid on those thoughts and RUN. You are creating a self-fulfilling prediction that will sabotage your efforts.)

Nope, “The Happy DNF” wasn’t meant to be. My body felt beat up, and three days later I felt depressed, albeit wiser. Now I’m re-evaluating my training and racing plans, making some changes nutritionally, and coming to terms with anxiety around some obligations to fill, deadlines to meet, parenting challenges to navigate.

Please, don’t feel sorry or concerned for me—we’re spending Easter weekend in a little rental at Stinson Beach, and all in all, life is good! I slept 10.5 hours last night and then napped this afternoon. Certainly my body has been trying to tell me something—that I didn’t rest enough after Tarawera 100K (race report) in early February, and I had too much stress-related insomnia, junk eating and heavy drinking, and unfocused and lackluster training during March. Or maybe it’s just my body getting old! Probably a bit of both. In any case, I’m ready to bounce back and feel good again.

Stinson Beach

A shot from my run this morning, on the Willow Camp trail that rises above Stinson Beach.

Willow Camp trail

My run today was steep, misty, moody–just right!

p.s., in case you missed it—

A podcast show interviewed me about my background as a runner and traveler. We got off on some tangents I didn’t expect to talk about, but it was fun! If you like listening to podcasts, and you’ve been following my blog, then you might find this entertaining. It’s available here.

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