Updated: Jun 4
I believe that a DNF can be a positive decision that can dramatically improve the training and racing of an athlete, and not just when health and injury are at stake. Our athletic culture has gone too far in prizing the 'death before DNF' mentality.
The Problem with 'Death before DNF'
I'm sure most ultrarunners have heard this phrase! There is most certainly a social attitude and pressure that, regardless of your ability or fitness level, it's better to crawl to the finish line than to leave the race unfinished. Why is that?
Because even if you're an elite runner, there are others out there far longer than you? Perhaps. When so many are struggling solely to finish ahead of cutoffs, it can be seen as selfish to quit just because it's not your day. To be sure, simply finishing a long race is an accomplishment that few achieve. That doesn't mean you should feel shame for setting your goals higher.
Certainly there is something to be said for setting aside your ego to finish well later than you'd planned. However, health/injury issues aside, there are a few drawbacks to that decision, and I believe strongly in the fact that sometimes a DNF is the smart decision.
I believe our athletic culture in long-distance running and ultrarunning in particular, sometimes prioritizes the 'struggle of mind over body' rather than actually having a strong race. In fact, I have seen runners deliberately under-train for races, because they believe that proving their mind is stronger than their body, via struggle, is the most important part of ultrarunning. I'm not going to tell you what should fulfill you as an athlete, but read on for some thoughts on why you might rethink it!
When it's 'Not Your Day'
When you sign up for a race, you know (hopefully!) that there are a wide variety of things beyond your control that will affect the outcome. Whether you have a breakthrough, mediocre race, or poor performance at any given fitness level comes down to a wide variety of factors that you may not be able to predict, measure or even understand. In fact, there's are plenty of things that science doesn't understand that affect performance.
Note that I'm not talking about when obvious and identifiable mistakes are made, leading to poor performances. Things like going out way too fast, under-fueling, eating bad food the night before, etc. I'm referring to those unexpected days where everything just feels hard or falls apart, with no explanation, and vice-versa those days where everything feels effortless and perfect.
I like to view racing as a bell curve. Assuming a given fitness level, preparation, taper, etc., the majority of possible races on a given day would be mediocre, a few would be amazing breakthrough races, and a few would be terrible.
The important thing to realize is that the bulk of the bell curve is not where your fitness level is. By definition, your fitness level is your maximum capability on a perfect day.
That left side is your theoretical perfect performance where the stars align and you go on to have a breakthrough race.Those perfect days represent your true fitness level.
The fact is, most days won't provide you with the circumstances for that. Most will be decent performances, a few will be terrible.
The factors that cause this variability aren't well-understood. There are hormonal and other internal fluctuations, life, travel or race-day stress, minor weather fluctuations, and more. The takeaway here is that sometimes, it's just not your day.
That unknown, I think, is part of the attraction of this sport. If it was a simple equation of total training as an input and race performance as an output, it would lose its charm pretty quickly.
It's important to note that any decision shouldn't be made lightly or quickly. Particularly in longer races, athletes will go through inevitable tough moments, followed often by feeling great again later in the race. Even in the marathon, the 'second wind' is a well-known concept. In ultras there can be third, fourth or fifth winds. But I think everyone who has done a fair bit of racing has learned to recognize when a good race is pretty clearly not in the cards that day.
I'm also totally ignoring the times when pushing on to finish a race is a legitimate health or injury concern. Those situations are real, and unfortunately not uncommon. Use caution. The phrase DNF has also come to mean 'did nothing fatal.
Impact on Training
Let's say you're at mile 14 of a marathon, and things are not going well. You're struggling to maintain a pace that feels normal to your legs. The thought crosses your mind: "Clearly this isn't my day... maybe I should DNF and get a ride." Immediately another thought: "What kind of runner am I if I can't even finish a marathon? There are people out here who'll finish in 5+ hrs, who am I to quit just because I won't break 3:30?"
These are tough thoughts to grapple with, especially while struggling in a race. I won't tell you there's a single right answer. However there is more to think about than just this particular race.
An important core philosophy of mine is that training is not for a specific race. Training is to improve your fitness. We may be keeping a specific race in mind to give you an opportunity to showcase that fitness, but the fitness is there, regardless of a race. It will be there after a race too.
This became more obvious to a lot of people when so many races were cancelled in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Training was going well, but now all of a sudden they had no race. Did that fitness suddenly disappear, or become worthless? Of course not! They built on that foundation so that their next training block (and race) was even better. Effective training and building fitness does not require racing – it's just an opportunity to showcase it!
You can also let this guide your decisions about whether or not to DNF a race. In this case, if you go on to walk/jog/crawl to a finish that is much slower than you planned, you'll need significant recovery. Potentially even more than if you'd had a great race, due to the biomechanical stress of moving at a different pace than you're used to, and compounded by being out for much longer than you intended. So not only do you have a taper, followed by some damage to your body, you now need to take several weeks to recover.
Alternatively, if you choose to DNF at mile 15, you've now had a mediocre long run after two down weeks. In all likelihood you can jump back into training the following week like nothing happened. (Note this may not be possible if the poor race was due to intrinsic factors like illness, overtraining, injury, etc.) Certainly by any measure you will be back to normal training much sooner than if you choose to suffer through the rest of the race.
This means that you could potentially find another marathon 3-6 weeks later, and hopefully have a far better day running closer to your fitness level and ideally smashing your goal! You almost certainly could not do that if you suffer through another 12 miles of torture.
Is that a guarantee? No of course not. But I have seen it happen many times, sometimes leading to massive breakthroughs.
Impact on Racing Mentality
There's another important benefit that I've seen, and that's the impact on racing mentality. If you go into a race mentally shutting out any thoughts of failure, you do yourself a disservice. Sure, on most days you'll still have a decent race. Some days might be tougher, and some days might be great. But what about those near-perfect days? By having a fear of failure, you may hold yourself back from your true capabilities. If you are running 'safe' to prevent a blowup or having to DNF, you probably won't ever find the limits of your fitness and ability.
By being open to the possibility of failure, you've allowed yourself the freedom to take risks. And with risk, can come reward.
Instead, be open with yourself. Believe that you can do this very hard thing, and that you will have an amazing day. Run like you are having an amazing day, but with the mental awareness that it's okay if that's not the case.
I realize that this opinion runs counter to what a lot of runners believe, which is finish at all costs. And that is entirely valid. Everyone realizes self-fulfillment through different means. Perhaps you are fulfilled by training your best, and finding a race that gives your fitness a chance to shine. Perhaps you are fulfilled by mentally being able to push your body through dark places, against its wishes.
I am not going to tell you whether you should or shouldn't DNF your race. But I hope this has provided a few reasons to consider the next time it's just not your day.
The most important thing to remember is that you are not your race results. Nor is your race result necessarily indicative of your fitness. Nor does a lackluster race necessarily mean you did something 'wrong.' Sometimes, it's just not your day.
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