There is no shame in a DNF. No one wants to enter a race and not finish, but sometimes bailing out is unavoidable. Weather, injuries, wrong turns, missed cutoffs, allergic reactions to bee stings—these are all things that could prevent you from reaching the finish line. Regardless of your skill level, there is no guarantee that any ultramarathon will go smoothly. But if you give it your best you have nothing to be ashamed of, even if you must pull the plug before your goal has been reached.
However, something has been bothering me lately, and it’s that a growing trend of race directors are allowing runners to “drop down” a distance mid-race and still get credited with a finish. The most common stage for this is in a 100-mile race where runners sign up to run two 50-mile loops, only to drop after one loop but still get a finisher’s medal for completing the 50-mile race. I have also seen this at 100ks where runners were given the option to stop and finish at the 50-mile mark.
In ultrarunning, the value lies in the effort to push ourselves beyond our comfort zone and the rewards that come from overcoming the challenges we face along the way. This is not a sport for the faint of heart. Ultrarunning takes dedication, commitment, hard work and sacrifice. And the process, long before we ever toe the line, is what makes us better people on and off the trail. I would much rather see a runner give everything he or she had and DNF at mile 65, than take a medal for stopping when they were still able to continue.
Perhaps this is not a common occurrence, and there is a good chance you have never run a race that allowed this option. But should you find yourself in this situation and ultimately choose not to continue (for whatever reason), do not take credit for a finish. Instead, take pride in your accomplishment and that while you DNF’d, you still did something that most people would never have the courage or dedication to take on in the first place. And use your frustration with your DNF to figure out what went wrong and how you can do better next time.
Do you need to adjust your training or nutrition, or add more strength workouts into your weekly routine to prevent those trashed quads that kept you from running down hills? Whatever it is, look forward. Taking credit for finishing a race that you did not complete is fool’s gold. It might look good on paper, but you will know deep down inside this was not what you set out to do. Furthermore, it may discourage you from doing the things you need to do to improve. Your false satisfaction will likely act as a deterrent. You may check a box that should remain unchecked.
So, the next time you are faced with the option of stopping and taking a “finish,” versus pushing on — despite the pain, bad belly or the uncertainty that lies ahead (which will surely be less comfortable than the hotel bed that is just a few minutes away) — I urge you to keep going for as long as you safely can. Never push through an injury that could do long-term damage, or place yourself, crew or rescuers at risk by putting yourself in a dangerous situation far from an aid station.
Go until you can possibly go no further. For in that moment, when you must hand in your race bib or cut off your bracelet, you will know you did everything you could. You can be proud and satisfied. And that DNF on your UltraSignup page will not be a black stain, but a badge of courage that you left it all out there.