Here is the ugly truth about having a DNF–a “Did Not Finish” on your running record–it is okay. Do you have to feel great about it or feel ashamed? No. The truth is that you have to accept it like you do the stages of grief. I am coming off/through another very painful DNF. I have had two years in a row now DNF ‘d the Cocodona 250, a 250 mile race that goes from Black Canyon City just outside of Phoenix, Arizona to Flagstaff, Arizona with an elevation gain close to 40K and a 125 hour cut-off. The first year I made it 100 miles before my lungs seized up, I couldn’t breathe, and I had to be pulled from the race by the medical staff. This year, less than three weeks ago, I had to make the call to end my race for the same issue having made it 115 miles. I can tell you I was beyond devastated. Year one, I went into such a dark place that I felt I didn’t deserve to be called an athlete, a runner. I didn’t trust myself to go out on a run on my own. I would only run with other people because I lost faith in my ability as a runner and it took months to come back. When it happened again this year, my friends, my husband, and my family felt the same devastation and worried about how I would handle this. For a race of this magnitude, it consumes your life and bank account. It is all I would think about. When I wasn’t running, I was planning and working logistics. For two years, I came home without a finish. How do you come back? It varies for each person, but I can share what I am doing and how it is going.
Let’s talk about the stages of grief first because in all honesty, you truly need to grieve that loss. You did the training, you made the commitment, the sacrifices of time and relationships, and YOU did everything to get to the starting line with complete confidence you would cross the finish line victorious. When that is ripped away from you by varied circumstances, it is a loss felt so deep that all the typical comments don’t help. You know you have heard them. “At least you went that many miles.”, “At least you are okay.” “You can always learn from it.” I could list many, and they are all meant and said with the kindest of hearts. Until you can accept it, though, nothing will help. I am going to use the 7 stages because I feel that is where I have been with it all and how I am coping.
Shock and Denial: I experienced complete disbelief and numbness that this happened to me again. I did all of the work and preparations just in case my lungs became an issue again. In the section before I fell apart, I was awesome. No cough, no wheezing, and no shortness of breath. I was strong, climbed a mountain, and was literally on top of the world feeling amazing. Less than 8 miles later I had to end my race. My heart rate was erratic, I couldn’t control it, I couldn’t catch my breath, and I felt I was having a heart attack and was dying. If you could imagine a panic attack that lasts 4 ½ hours, that’s what I was experiencing. I was on the side of a mountain with my pacer, a nurse, and we tried to do everything we could think of to make it better. Nothing worked and the only choice was to end the race. That decision needed to be mine. I sat on a rock and bawled my head off in the worst devastation I have ever felt. I was completely shocked and I denied any reasonable logic to why it happened although I have since learned I was having a reaction to the albuterol in my breathing treatments and medication I was taking to help “make it better.” There is nothing I could have done differently. If it had not happened there at that point in the race, it was realistically going to happen later in the race. It took three days for my heart rate to resume normal rhythm.
Pain and Guilt: We are the hardest on ourselves in any failure that we perceive to be a failure and a DNF is no different. I have never cried as uglily with so much snot coming out of my face as I have done feeling the pain of this disappointment. I have felt it in all of my soul. The guilt of, “what ifs, could I have, should I have”. The guilt of all the people I felt I let down. The pacers that took time off and trained to pace me. My husband, kids, family, friends, coach, the race director, and the volunteers. I felt guilty for letting everyone down and even more so for letting myself down. This one cuts deep and it takes time to come to terms with being comfortable with this pain and having it move me forward vs. continuing to cripple me. I have an amazing supportive circle that has comforted me and supported me and helped to find my way through this. I am coming to grips with the fact that I did not let myself down; I showed up and put it all on the course. I did exactly what I came to do and I did it the best I could. Those 115 miles were epic and it was a gift to experience them. I will not devalue myself and what I accomplished.
Anger and Bargaining: I went through this a lot. Why me? Why are my lungs doing this? Why am I not good enough? We are all familiar with that last question, right? It is the most loaded question we can ask and a DNF will make you question it all the time. Why did this happen? What can I do to get a redo, to do it over, to not do this or not do that? What can I do to change the outcome? Please just let me try to do it over. I can do it. I know I can. I was so mad at my lungs and my heart. Because the kicker is, I wasn’t sore. I had one stupid blister. This body was GOOD enough–kind of. I was demoralized, but I knew I had to start processing it. I ran some angry hard miles and I cried a lot. I ate some bad food. I watched crappy T.V. and I cried a little more. I drank a little wine. I watched a lot of silly tik-tok videos to make me laugh. I needed to let the anger flow over me and through me and accept the result.
Depression: I have never been the type to climb into bed and not come out but this made me want to do that. I thought that if I just crawled in the bed and hid, it would go away. But when I would close my eyes, all I dreamed about was running. I was on the course, in the mountains, and on the trails. I was with my pacers and friends. I woke up sadder than when I went to bed,though, because waking was reality. So how did I deal with this? I cried, of course, but I also made myself get out and run. I did some group runs. I wrote my blog about the race. I cleaned a lot. And, most importantly, I kept busy and found the beauty in what I accomplished and held onto it for dear life.
The Upward Turn: Making myself get out and go run and do a group run showed me I will be okay. We have a women’s running group here in Tucson called Women of the Sonoran or ‘WOTS’. We are doing a “race” series of a particular route that we run and try to improve on it each time we run. I am not a particularly fast runner and I can be quite easily intimidated, but I showed up. I am 50 years old, don’t have a svelte body, and I don’t run in a cute bra and compression shorts. The other women are strong, young and fast but I still showed up and we all took off. I was getting in my head as usual and told myself to shut the hell up and run your “race”. I was forgiving of myself, knowing what I had accomplished three weeks prior. I finished and behind my sunglasses, I had tears. I AM a runner and it is okay to feel all the feelings. I will not let the DNF define me. One of my friends said to me, “You are running royalty to us. We are glad you are here.” Me too, and am even more thankful to be part of a community of strong and supportive women.
Reconstruction and Working Through: I finished my blog and published it, which was a huge piece of putting ‘it’ all back together. Putting the puzzle of my broken heart back together. I want people to know there can be light in the darkest of times. I loved every mile I ran, I loved every second on the course, and I do not regret a single thing. I know I have to figure out what is going on with my lungs and with an allergist for what is setting them off, butI have a plan to figure it out and how to come back in 2025 with all the areas tested and with a stronger body. When there isn’t a plan, desperation comes into view. This is why we see so many people sign up for another really tough race following a DNF and it happens again and again. They didn’t process the DNF and figure it out from the foundation up how to fix it and how to move forward.
Acceptance and Hope: This last weekend I had an amazing trip to Colorado to do two pack burro races in Georgetown and Idaho Springs. Pack burro racing is a different type of sport where you run with a donkey , working towards making it a successful race for both of you. It is a ton of fun. For these races, I ran with my friend’s donkey, Leo, with whom I have run many races. I always say, “a day with a donkey is always a great day,” and although sometimes our races are not that great in the aspect of we finished last or we had some other issues, they are always fun and rejuvenating. This weekend, Leo and I had back to back amazing races, some of our best races together! I started the races feeling the weight of the DNF (not good enough, not thin enough, not fast enough, not a runner), but I reminded myself of my process and have accepted that I did everything I could. I will not let my own self deprecation take away my current or future joy in life’s moments. Right now, this moment is to climb this mountain with this sweet donkey and have the best day. We finished the second race in Idaho Springs and I hugged him and cried. I am going to be okay. I am and will always be a runner. I will have the finish I want so badly. I will come back and I am on the path of coming back stronger. I may not have that Cocodona 250 Buckle yet, but for now I have me with puzzle pieces gently put back together.
It is up to you to grieve or not to grieve the loss of your race, your DNF. I have tried not grieving it and not processing it (last year) and it took almost 6 months to even figure out how to process it. I have had other DNFs with other ultras (50K/50 mile) and I could deal with them differently. However, the Cocodona DNFs were bigger and more involved and hit me in a much more profound way. I knew I had to deal with them differently for both my mental and physical health. In my line of work, I have a lot of people who depend on me and I knew I had to get my act together so I could be the therapist they needed. I needed to work through this to be a better mother, wife, friend, and a better human! SO much ugly cry snot fell from my face. The choice is yours in how you deal with it. Bottom line though–you are good enough and I am proud of you. Look in the mirror right now and tell yourself that. Say, I will not devalue my accomplishment and value the body that took me there. Let this be your call to action when you deal with your DNF. Ultimately, nobody wants to deal with one and I really hope you do not have to have this experience. I share this to tell you, you are not alone and it will get better. Keep running, keep showing up and keep smiling through the miles.