Runners have their own unique brand of lingo: FKT (fastest known time), bonk, negative split, the dreaded DNF (did not finish).
And then, there’s DFL (dead freaking last). Three little letters, a whole lot of meaning.
I’m a back of the pack runner, through and through. A few years ago when I still ran on roads and flat dirt paths, my pace was in the 10-11 min range, slow but pretty mid-pack.
I really dove into trail running at the start of the pandemic and fell in love with the desert trails around me. Those trails brought new challenges — pokey cactus needles to avoid, rattlesnakes to keep an eye and ear out for, hills and lots and lots of rocks. My pace was slow but my stoke was high.
However, due to an ankle injury in 2021 and an undiagnosed issue that’s made me more prone to tripping and falling on uneven surfaces, my pace has slowed even more since my early trail days in 2020. The slow down has been frustrating when I consider all the training time I’ve put in but I’ve come to embrace being a back of the packer. Party in the back!
I ran my first ever race in the summer of 2022, just a few days after turning 30. Of course, I went for something very challenging — the Tushars Marathon in the mountains of southern Utah. 26.8 miles with almost 8,000 feet of vert. Coming from the Arizona desert, I wasn’t used to the high altitude mountain terrain that awaited me, but I had prepared myself as much as I could. I trained for months on my local (much smaller) mountains, aiming for the same amount of elevation gain in my race every week. I slogged through sweltering long runs in the AZ summer heat, and even spent two weeks at the end of June running on a gym treadmill after getting stitches in my knee from a particularly bad fall. When I toed the start line, I was ready as I could be. But I was very nervous. I had no race experience and felt like I didn’t “deserve” to be there with all the other more experienced runners.
I started the race at the very back after a rocky descent right out the gate. Rocky downhills are not my strong suit, but soon after we started climbing and I began passing people, which gave me a mental boost. Maybe I wouldn’t be dead freaking last!
And I wasn’t. Definitely solidly back of the pack, but ahead of 7 finishers, and 5 others who had to DNF.
My next race was a 30K in March 2023. I was using it as a supported training run for my upcoming first ultra a month later. I still went into it nervous but tried to remind myself that I was just using it as a long run, not a race. Again, I found my stride on the big climb starting in mile 6, passed some runners and ended up finishing third to last (plus one DNFer).
The 30K was also a tough course, but I was hopeful it would prepare me for my ultra, the Whiskey Basin 58K in Prescott, AZ.
The last month of training flew by and suddenly it was race week. I was full of nerves again, knowing that I would soon be tackling my longest distance to date. I still wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it, but I tried not to get too much in my head.
Race morning arrived dark and early…and cold! While temps in my desert home were already well into the 80s by mid-April, the race course 2 hours north and 3,000 feet higher was only in the 30s to start the day. I was prepared though with plenty of layers. As I and fellow 58Kers loaded onto the warm school buses to be shuttled to the trailhead where we would start, I continued to try to calm my nerves. Before I knew it, we had arrived at the start line and were off!
After the conga line that always seems to happen at the beginning of races, I found myself in the back of the pack, with one woman behind me. I kept pace with an Instagram friend of mine who was also running the 58K and we chatted a bit and stayed fairly close for the first few miles, before he took off and I found myself alone. I’m used to running solo so I fell into a groove. Barely 6 miles in and just about half a mile out from the first aid station, I was passed by the first 91K runners, who had started two hours earlier. I knew a lot of the 91Kers would be passing me throughout the day and reminded myself to run my own race.
I caught back up with my friend at the aid station at mile 18. I grabbed a slice of watermelon from another friend who was volunteering there, and headed out for a big climb. It was after this point that I started struggling more physically. My feet were so sore, but I knew I had to keep going. There wasn’t much running at this point, but I kept moving at a pretty consistent pace.
When my watch showed I had gotten 26.2 miles, I felt like I could cry from joy. Everything from here on out would be my longest distance ever. Yet I knew I still had 10 miles to go. I was more determined than ever to finish.
I stayed well ahead of the cutoffs at all aid stations, including the final one 6.5 miles from the finish. Once I passed through there, I knew I was basically done! Those last few miles were completed in the dark, which was a new experience for me. It was a bit creepy, not knowing what kinds of critters were out there, but I was just ready to be done.
Crossing the finish line, with the sounds of cheers and music, felt surreal. My parents, who had come up to support me, had arrived just minutes before I finished, which was incredible timing. I was so so happy to see them, to finally stop moving, to be an ultramarathoner! I was so sore, but I felt amazing.
I stuck around at the finish line for about 45 minutes and happened to see the last runner of the 91K finish her race. It was then that I realized that I was DFL in my race. The woman who had been behind me at the start had dropped about halfway through the race. A small part of me felt embarrassed about my finish time, but a much bigger part of me was proud of the effort I had put in.
I never gave up, I kept moving even when I was in pain or struggling mentally. I ran my own race and didn’t let the voices in my head make me feel bad about my pace. I finished what I set out to do, and I felt good about it!
What I love about the trail running community is how accepting it is. The speedy 91K runners shared so much encouragement as they passed me, not judging me for being much slower than them even though they had 20 miles on me. And DFL seems to carry a certain badge of honor in trail races. It means you didn’t give up, even when you wanted to. It means you finished, even if it took you longer than everyone else.
For all my fellow back of the packers, please don’t fear the DFL, embrace it! Your finish time is just as much of an accomplishment as the podium runners. You did the best you could, and that’s all that matters.