A Beautiful DNF

I was locked into the sound of my breath, the trail under my feet and my desire to catch the sun from the summit before it dipped down below the trees.  While my legs were still working after 40 miles, I knew when I hit that summit, I was going to let my crew know my day was over.  My effort to set the first Fastest Known Time (FKT) by a supported woman on the Sunapee Ragged Kearsarge Greenway (SKRG) was coming to an end, about 35 miles short. 

My pacer and I hit the summit in time to see a beautiful July sunset from Bogg Mountain.  The day had been incredibly humid.  The sun was hot all day and the woods provided little relief from the heavy air.  My running partner had dropped at mile 33, leaving me to run to the next road crossing and pick up my pacer before heading up to Bogg.  Those seven miles left me yearning for this sunset.  I was not disappointed.  The orange glow brought tears to my eyes and a smile to my face.  I called my best friend, who was my crew chief for the day, told her I was done and would see her soon.  I was choked up.  She told me later she had to get off the phone so she wouldn’t cry.  I shot a text to my husband with a picture, letting him know I was tapping out.  He told me he loved me.  It was a beautiful DNF. 

There were a variety of circumstances that led to me making the decision to stop running on that July night, also known as a “did not finish.”   It’s important to note I am no stranger to long efforts, spending part of every summer chasing races and DIY events that last fifteen hours or longer.  I know how to manage my food, hydration and my body. I had trained for seven months for this FKT effort.  I rolled into it feeling strong and ready to grab it.  The SKRG is the home of the Ragged 75 (mile) Stage Race and 50K, held every year in August.  Not only had I completed the Stage Race in 2019, but I spend every summer doing trail work, marking and volunteering for this race.  I knew the entire course.  I had meticulously planned my effort.  That being said, anyone who trains long enough knows sometimes “race day” isn’t “your day.”  I am a process person… give me a training plan and I will embrace it every time.  I knew it wasn’t my day when I was sweating faster than I could replenish fluids.  I continued to sweat all day, but urination stopped.  This was a first for me and I spent hours checking in with my body and working through the gut wrenching decision to drop for the day.

I told my pacer on top of Bogg that I am willing to push soft tissue – my muscles, but I wouldn’t ever sacrifice my organs.  The nurse and ultrarunner in her was completely onboard with my decision.  We all have limits, and for me kidney function on that July night was mine.  I hadn’t urinated in many hours, despite replenishment by my crew every 8-10 miles.  My stomach, my legs, my body in general were all ticking along.  I also made this decision knowing I was only about halfway through the total gain of the course (7400 of 16,000 feet).  I simply could not justify continuing to test my body with 30 miles to go.  While writing this article, I went back to my Strava data for the run.  My watch reported 93% humidity for the day.  My elapsed time was over fifteen hours by the time I got into the car.  I should have been incredibly disappointed.  Here is why I wasn’t:

First, I chose this effort early in 2020 to celebrate the end of my law enforcement career.  I was ten days from retiring when I attempted the FKT.  The training for this kept me on track in those last few COVID ravaged months of my twenty-year career.  I felt grateful to have such wonderful friends and a husband who supported my crazy idea to go after this FKT.  I was happy to be shedding tears under a beautiful sunset in July, knowing many people had lost loved ones and their own health in the months leading up to my attempt.  My “why” was strongly intact.  I would have finished that thing… I don’t have a doubt in my mind.  I love that course and it will always be there. 

Second, I know making the decision to tap out is often just as challenging as making the decision to stay in the game, especially in the age of social media.  No one wants to have to say they came up short of their goal, especially one they have been training for and talking about for months.  I say get over the humiliation, and quickly, because this sport breaks everyone’s heart eventually.  Besides, non-runners will think the distance you covered was amazing!   It also takes time to learn your body.  What is normal for you is not for someone else.  Those aches and pains take time to identify and determine if it’s fatigue or injury.  There is a reason we call this an “endurance” sport.  It’s one we can do for years and quite frankly takes time to learn and grow within.  I may never suffer from this issue again, but I have not had a single regret in pulling the plug on that day.

My takeaway, for you to do your best to find the silver lining, even when it’s not your day.  This was not the first time I had DNF’d.  I took one the previous year after 30 miles on a 50K course that ran very long.  That was a training run and I got the volume I wanted.  That was not the same as this SKRG.  This July day (and night) was a celebration of how far I had come and the love I have for this sport.  The end result was lower on the priority list than the love I have for the sport, my friends and family.  I walked away uninjured, with no lasting effects from the issue that led to my decision and a continued love and desire to grow in the sport of ultrarunning.  I call that a win all day long!

Heather Cote

Heather Cote

Heather Cote is a lifelong outdoors woman, getting her start as a young child with horses. She discovered ultrarunning, long distance hiking and a love for all things trail in 2013 and hasn’t looked back. Heather is an active member of the local race community, often volunteering for aid stations and helping mark courses. She is lucky enough to call the New Hampshire White Mountains her playground and will be thru hiking and section hiking now that she has a little more flexibility in her work schedule. When she isn’t in the woods, Heather is spending time with her husband and fur kids.

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1 thought on “A Beautiful DNF”

  1. Good for you for listening to your body. No run is worth health’s sacrifice. As an Ultrarunner and mother, it’s the rule at hand I go by as well. I am good doing it, as long as it is working (and I am too). Great article!


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