DNF – Who, what, when, where, why

One day, one marathon, three runners – no finishers. They might have been able to finish. They’ve all finished many marathons before. They would have missed Personal Records and Boston Qualifiers by miles. They would have surely needed months to recover. The entire racing season would be lost. With that realization and with their coach’s blessing they will live to race another day – sooner than those poor souls who held onto the false belief that they “had to” finish.

“DNF” – Did Not Finish. There is a stigma attached to DNFing. Some runners will persist with the misguided understanding that it is some sign of weakness not to finish a race. They would rather suffer mentally and physically in order to preserve some ideal in their minds. They would rather risk injury than to face the specter of DNF. They have what I call a trauma-drama thought pattern. If I don’t finish this race then of course this spells doom for me and all future races. Anytime things are tough I’m going to quit now.

If this is your stance, it is time to reevaluate

Elite runners know something that doesn’t get down to the everyday runner. The issue of finishing for the sake of finishing a marathon isn’t key. They know they could finish. The point is at what expense? If elite marathoners aren’t “in the money” they will often drop out (of course some refuse to). And here is why they do this.

One: They want to live to fight another day. It could be due to the course (slanted roads, etc.), your physiology (electrolyte imbalance, diarrhea, etc.) or your body talking to you (tightening lower back or calf muscles, side cramps, etc.). It doesn’t matter really. If the stars are not aligned for your “record attempt” it’s time to think twice about finishing.

Two: They always have Plan B and Plan C. They do not put all their eggs in one basket. They are not so singly focused that they do not have multiple avenues to get to there goals. You do not always control how you will feel on race day. It could just be a bad day. You do not ever control the weather on race day.

When you have a lot on the line – like running your Boston Qualifier, Olympic Trials Qualifier, setting the world record – then you need to have discretion over your attempt. If it is not in the cards for that day to run it – then you need to consider the DNF (or even a DNS – Did Not Start). There comes a point at which you must make an objective evaluation of the situation. You must determine – will you hit your goal? At what expense do I continue?

If you are running yourself into an injury; if you are running yourself into months of recovery; if you are running yourself into another “been-there-done-that-got-the-t-shirt” kind of run then you need to consider the DNF.

My word to those who tie emotional and psychological energy to not finishing something is this “GOI” – Get Over It. You are your own worst enemy. Mental toughness is not only about hanging in there it is also about coming back and fighting harder than ever on another day. One DNF does not beget another DNF.

The smart runner is the one who uses discretion with their running and racing. The best have learned this – so many others need to.


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - trailrunningclub.com. I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for Running-Advice.com. I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
This entry was posted in Running and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to DNF – Who, what, when, where, why

  1. Pat Monahan says:

    Good post. I almost walked off the course at Tucson this past weekend. I was ok with a dnf. But, after 5 minutes of rest I felt I could complete the last 6 miles without risk of injury. Luckily, during those 5 minutes, the shuttle picking up runners did not show up.

  2. run4change says:

    I have thought loooooong and hard on this topic regarding my 100 mile attempt in a couple of months. I can read my body well as far as being on the line of injury, but it is hard to imagine doing all the training again for this distance. I would prefer, actually, to finish and have months of recovery rather than DNF’ing and recovering faster. Since, at least at this point, I feel that this is a one time thing, I just want to get it done and prove victorious.

    DNF’ing freaks me out for this race because I have put so much time and effort into it, but I agree that staying at it despite injury and possibly ruining years of running later is not worth it.

  3. Dean Hebert says:

    Oh you hit that on the head. Sometimes, that onetime thing is indeed the time you tough it out. Unlike trying to qualify for Boston which can be done many places and multiple attempts are common your goal is the race. It would be like finally getting to the Olympic marathon and DNFing. No way. Time to finish it.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    I had a totally bad day at the Tucson Marathon (TM). I had a PR … for number of porta johns I had to use on the way! Apparently, the flu bug decided mile 5 of the (TM) was a good time to surface. I may not have continued if I wasn’t running with a running buddy who was running her first marathon. We had trained for months together and I did not want to leave her to do her first on her own. I made it all the way through mile 19 staying in front of the 4:30 pace group even with porta john stops and the “I think I’m going to be sick” moments. Thank God some of the girls from my running club who ran the half marathon were waiting at the 19 mile and towards the end so I could convince my running bud to go ahead for a decent first marathon time. I’m not an elite athlete and I’ve only started running less than 2 years ago so mentally, I think it was good for me to finish it out. The last 5 miles were super slow and I took that time to think about the next marathon.

    I would not recommend running a marathon with the flu. But if you’re just having a bad day, you still have the option to accept it and either drop out or if you’re close to the finish, it might be just as well to slow down and mentally move to plan B or establish a plan B. When I crossed the finish line, I had the where and when of my next marathon worked out. I’ll give the marathon another go early next year so I can put the bad one behind me. That being said, I’m glad I finished and I was very happy to see my running buddy waiting at the end with the “I did my first marathon” glow.

  5. Dean Hebert says:

    Way to hang in there!!!!

  6. Lisa Hayen says:

    I was running what I was hoping to wind up being my second 50-mile trail race finish in Fruita, CO. I was told that the course was very difficult (mountain ultra craziness), but didn’t quite get the picture until I was actually on that course. I should have gotten the hint when we first turned onto the single track, and there was a sign warning mountain bikers that the trail was rated ‘most difficult’. Right – and I was supposed to run that? 25 miles later, suffering bad leg cramps due to dehydration, and making the 1/2 way cutoff by only 6 minutes, I decided to call it a day. I doubted I could run the second half as fast as the first (required to make the final cutoff), and knew that any attempt to do so would put me out of action for quite a while. I had other races I’d already paid for coming up in the next few months (including my first 100), and had to figure out where my priorities lay. This was absolutely the correct decision at the time, but felt hugely disappointed for many days later. This blog, along with kind words from other people, are helping me out. Also, I’m taking that ‘failed’ ultra as a learning experience – how to improve hydration is #1 right now.

    • Dean Hebert says:

      About the only thing we can do post-DNF is to learn from it. I think you made a good choice. Now time to attack your next ultra with new knowledge and vigor!

  7. Pingback: It hurts me to write this. » Never Serious Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s