Three little letters

I was worried. I was worried you were going to show up looking terrible and want to continue and I would have to tell you to stop. You have no idea how relieved I was when you were adult enough to pull yourself out — Dad
I wonder if this is where they get the starter's gun
I DNFed a race. The big one for the season. I suppose it was inevitable. You do enough endurance races, and at some point it won’t be your day. How did we get here?
Before I get into it, a quick thank you to everyone who supported me going into and coming out of this race, especially my dad who traveled ~20 hours in total to watch.


My dad and I started driving to Hagerstown Friday morning. I drove the first 5 hours or so, he finished off the drive. There wasn’t much to say about the drive (other than that having company for it) was excellent: pretty much all interstate all the time. We arrived in Hagerstown, picked up the race packet, and went to a local Italian restaurant (Dolce, which for anyone doing JFK 50, is fantastic. Cash only, but cheapish and delicious). Put my bib on my Racemenu singlet, watched a bit of tv, shaved and went to sleep.

The run starts in downtown Boonsboro and heads south out of town and uphill towards the Appalachian Trail. After 2.5 miles, you reach the first section of trail, which lasts for less than a mile before you hit a climbing road again. I conserved a bit of energy on this climbing road by walking some steeper portions of it… after all, it’s going to be a long day and I’m going to need my legs later, right?
Calm at the start
I’m not sure I’ve ever had more fun running than I did when we were cruising through the Appalachian Trail portions. My mind was laser focused on the rocks in front of me (but not so focused that I didn’t mention to other racers that this portion should be called the Sylvester Stallone section, cause it’s Rocky!) and in general there was no time to think about how far we had gone, or how much we had left inside the woods on the trail. Occasionally I would glance at my watch, but pace really meant nothing, and each glance risked disaster. More than once I tripped over a rock and nearly came face to face with the dirt but saving myself by contorting my body to stay upright. I also rolled my bad ankle on one rock, but there was no lasting damage or pain. I’m fairly certain that I could have run all day in those woods. We descended once into an open field for an aid station, and one of the mountain goats who runs the race just hauled ass past me on the descent. We then climbed back into the woods and spent another 5 miles. Eventually we reached the “switchbacks” (after a long shallow descent over many tiny rocks) which were as gnarly as the warnings suggested: steep corners, roots, rocks, [reggae], and some of the early starters (who were incredibly supportive and gracious in letting us pass) were negotiated. Perhaps it is here that I blew my race? I didn’t try to descend too quickly, but maybe I did? Once near the bottom, I tripped and once again contorted myself upright.
Bottom of the switchbacks
Someone told me on the switchbacks that we were only 15 minutes back from the leaders (it was more like 20). I don’t think this was possible, so I suppose I went out way too hard, I guess. I passed my dad who was there with my bag of stuff in case I wanted anything. At the moment, I was feeling good, so I said I was good and didn’t need anything. Over the next 10 miles, I’d regret that, but I’m not sure what, if any, impact a gear change would have made.

First checkpoint: 2:22

The next 26.3 miles would be on a tow path that follows the C&O canal and the Potomac river. This is what I knew would be the most difficult section for me. Mentally this year I’ve been very weak, and if I was going to mentally break during a race, it was going to be on this desolate section. I started running and immediately knew two things:

  1. I was very cold
  2. I really needed to use the toilet

I was trying to run at a pace that I knew I could maintain for the next 26 miles: 8:10, and I was doing a good job of it. Physically I wasn’t too fatigued, but mentally I was already losing it. The run in the woods was a bit mentally draining because of all of the focus on the rocks and changing shadows and glare from the sun shining through the trees. These are not excuses: every racer had to deal with this. I made it to the 19ish mile aid station in 2:51 or so, and walked up the hill to the toilet. I had to wait a bit for a portapotty to open up. Left the aid station after getting a bit of solid food in me (two pretzel sticks) and continued down the path. By mile 20 though, I knew something was wrong: my back had tightened up significantly and I was very cold and feeling exhausted. I tried to keep going but I slowed to a shuffle, and then a walk. And every time I tried to start running again, I got closer to the knowledge I wasn’t going to make it to the finish. I wouldn’t say I was ever distraught, but I was definitely displeased with how the day was going, and with how it was going to end.

And in my mind, I questioned what those three little letters mean. DNF. Was I dropping because I was bored? Was I asking too much of my body? Could I handle it? How would my parents react? How would Macy react? Would they worry that I quit because it was too hard? Was I quitting because it was too hard? Or was I quitting because I was in a bad way? For some of those questions, I know the answer. But I don’t know the answer to the bigger question of why I dropped out. I don’t know if I dropped because it was too hard/I was undertrained (I probably was) or if Saturday was just not my day to run 50 miles and by stopping myself I was protecting my body for future races. But I want to get things right next time (and I’ve pretty much decided that there will be a next time, maybe not at JFK, but at some other race… after a few more marathons and 50Ks). So I’ll have to think about it a bit more and try to figure out where I went wrong and where I can improve.

Have you DNFed? What do you do when you DNF? How do you bounce back from it?

  • Greg

    You said it perfectly “it wasn’t your day” that’s all you need to think about. I find it hard to believe that you were “undertrained” for this event knowing it meant so much to you and is something you’ve wanted for a long time.

    As endurance athletes we all have those days, weather it leads to a DNF or just a sub-par finish it doesn’t matter. You clearly listened to your body and made the right decision at the time. You weighed the decision (very heavily, I’m sure) and you decided to save your body for another day. End of story.

    I know you’ll get back out there and get that 50m finish you want and deserve. Proud of you for making the most of the day, and if anyone will learn from something like this, I have no doubt it will be you.

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