Decision, Not Failure
At mile 30 of the 2022 Black Canyon 100k, after being highlighted and favored to be in the top 10, I stopped my watch, hugged my crew, and took off my bib for the first-time mid-race in my running career.
In the sport of Ultrarunning, The DNF or ‘Did Not Finish’ is a much discussed and debated topic. This is my personal reflection on how my perception and interpretation of the crucible of the ‘DNF’ changed before and after it happened to me.
Rewind to late 2018 when I stood at the starting line of the Indian Creek 55k, full of trepidation but also ready to embrace the unknown and dive headfirst into the 34 beautiful and challenging trail miles of my first ultra distance. I joked that it had taken me two decades of running to decide to race beyond 26.2. I told my husband and family that it might be a long day, so I was as surprised as anyone when I had to yell at my dad as I approached the finish line under the previous course record time. The 'start easy' and 'eat bacon at the mid-race aid station' strategy earned me the validation and confidence that I was ready to enter the ultrarunning world for myself.
Kind of like when have kids and you suddenly become aware of how many people walking around the grocery store also have babies in tow, it was probably around this time I started paying more attention to the concept of the DNF and observing how others felt, thought, and perceived of this label both for themselves and for others in the community. I knew what a DNF was long before it became personal. I vaguely remember standing in Fellin Park in front of my childhood home in Ouray, CO when I was ten years old and watching as my uncle DNF’d HardRock. He was angry and in pain and frankly looked like shit. The next year he ran the race again and DNF’d at mile 76. But just like Walmsley, third time was a charm and in 1996, after having a woman he had worked with in Alaska fly down to Ouray and feverishly prepare a variety of dishes to have at the aid stations to improve his race nutrition, at the age of 48, he won the Hardrock 100 and finished with his token Mountain Dew in hand. It didn’t really resonate at the time but two decades later and now that I was running Ultras, I talked more about this with my dad and heard his perspective on seeing what his brother went through in these races. DNF’ing was now something that could happen to me. To be completely honest, at this time in my running journey I thought it was something I would never do. Why would I quit a race? That would be weak. That would show everyone that I was not mentally or physically capable. That would never happen to me, and I would never let it happen.
Now granted I was running 50k’s and the longest race time on feet I’d experienced to this point was around 6 hours. But the fact remains that I judged when I saw other athletes DNF. They couldn’t cut it. They broke. They gave up. These are all narratives that completely go against the mentality of people who do this sport – often Type A, High Achieving, overly ambitious, gritty, tough, extreme personalities. So, at that point in time and life, for me, to DNF was WRONG. I grew up with external and self-imposed high standards. Standards such as ‘straight A's always’ and ‘best your efforts every time you step on a court or start line’. Stereotypical 'success' through metrics or accolades or victories created in me a sense that anything else was a failure. There was no gray area, you either won or lost. When I sat in front of a therapist in my early 20's in a bout of severe depression, I vividly recall her asking me, 'what's the worst thing that could happen if you failed a class'. This question completely rocked me but started a shift in my previously rigid mindset. Yet years later and well into my adulthood, I held pride in the fact that I had never dropped from a race. I was better and tougher and special. Also, I had never had the feeling in the middle of a race that I wanted to call it a day. Sure, I had felt plenty of times that it was extremely difficult, and I was in pain, or I questioned why I was doing this but I never had the words ‘drop out of this race’ run through my brain.
Two years and six ultras later, I was just as uncomfortable facing the idea of a DNF. I wouldn’t say I was ‘death before DNF’ mentality but the concept was still on the periphery, something that I never got close to, foreign and unfamiliar. But I was running longer and when you spend 10 or 11 hours on your feet with few people around you, A LOT of thoughts roll around in your noggin. All-consuming and simultaneously fleeting thoughts like, "this is absolutely miserable and can't get any worse - oh wait, it just got harder" and "my teeth hurt so bad from the amount of sugar I've consumed in the last 8 hours that I may never be able to look at a gel again". And more overpowering thoughts like "why do humans choose to suffer?” and "what do I need to prove to myself here?”
As someone who previously said I would never run a hundred mile race, I, without hesitation, took a coin at the Leadville Marathon in 2019 and registered to run the LT100 in 2020. Due to the pandemic, that became a 2021 goal and there I was, surrounded by crew, family and support, ready to take on the hundred mile distance. At mile 65, I entered a foreign place; survival mode and my goal of running 21 hours turned into 'just finish' as I hobbled over the line only 3 hours under the course cutoff. I had finished though and after a lot of time spent processing, I appreciated that finish.
In late October 2021 yet another vantage point of the DNF decision was revealed to me when I supported my husband in his first hundred. After running in the top 10 all day, Graham came into Javelina Jundred Jeadquarters saying he’d been throwing up and was overheating. I started the 4th loop with him when he promptly pulled over and lost everything again. A mile and multiple vomiting bouts later, I witnessed him go from a strong, determined. powerful athlete to a hunched, sallow runner with so little energy he was getting emotional. He never gets emotional. After sitting at the next aid station for a good while we decided to walk out but a mile later, we turned around. He was stopping. He did not want to do what I did at Leadville just to finish. He was content with his decision to throw in the towel. I knew he was right and supported him as we made our way back to HQ. The DNF was now in our home, and we were living with it. It had become as real as the never-ending baskets of laundry scattered around the house. I talked a lot about it with Graham and he was at peace. He didn’t feel any less a runner because of it. I was in awe of his resolve and wondered if I would feel the same. He told me he would never run that race again. But now he’s signed up to race it in 2022.
After months of repairing my body and mind from my first 100 miler I was ready to toe the line again. I didn’t want my eight hours of death marching at Leadville to be the most recent thing in my mind when I lined up at The Black Canyon 100k so I decided to run a new race, The San Tan Scramble 50k, put on by my race team and the best in the business, Aravaipa Running. I had a blast at this race from the gun. I felt good, I ran well, I smiled and stuck out my tongue in an exhausted, puppy unicorn like state. I sprinted the finish to come in under the previous CR. Things were back! I felt like I had some speed again and confidence was building. Why our results impact our self-worth and the constant challenge to balance that alongside knowing we are enough no matter what could be an entirely separate, very long essay. Regardless, I was feeling confident and excited leading into Black Canyon 2022. Four more weeks of tough but solid training and I was pumped to stand at the Mayer HS track for the third year in a row and run off into the desert with the sun in my face.
This was my shot at redemption. I knew the course, I knew the distance, and I wanted to run sub 10hrs. That was my one and only goal and I was ready for it. A creeping stomachache the night before the race did little to dispel my excitement. I woke up and felt alright, but something was still off and not knowing if it was from the night before or just normal pre-race nerves and butterflies, I shook it off. The ache turned to cramping and an empty, pit like, anxiety inducing feeling that got worse and worse. My mind went negative, and I battled with trying to turn around the internal narrative for the next 10 miles into Bumblebee aid. I arrived at my crew unhappy and feeling ill. After a pep talk from my friends, I left wanting to give it the next 20 miles to resolve and hoping this was a low and an issue I would emerge from. Then it came, the thought ‘stop running this race’. It almost surprised me how sudden and decisive it was. Unwavering, clear, correct. I questioned it, wrestled with it, thought through a lot of scenarios but eventually agreed with it. My day was over at the Soap Creek Aid station, but I had volunteering to do on Sunday and 10 of my best friends to cheer on in the 60k race and I was not going to let this ruin my weekend. I told myself before this race that it would be a good day no matter what (something I learned from my brilliant coach Megan Roche) and it was, even though it was not the day I envisioned or wanted. Sub 10hrs did not happen. Instead, I ended up with my first DNF line under my name on Ultra Sign up.
I think my biggest take away from all of this is that we should never judge anyone (in life or in running) about the decisions they make. What I once thought to be a default response and something that unfortunately happened to my competitors may actually have been a decision and sometimes a smart one that they were making all along. Sometimes the choice is also made for us in the physiological issues that our body and brain must compromise on to preserve ourselves for our next adventure. Dropping from a race is intimately between an athlete and the trail and no one else. It is something that only the one experiencing it will ever fully understand. For me, this was something I chose to do on this day. I hadn’t been sick for at least a year and had even avoided getting COVID and yet I either ate something bad or got a bug just at the wrong time. It sucked, not gonna sugar coat it.
But let’s reframe the term. It’s not a Did Not Finish. It’s Decision, Not Failure. It’s part of our sport when we attempt to do extraordinarily hard things. I have a different opinion of the DNF now and I will always give grace, not judgment, to those who chose to make the decision for themselves. There are a million and one different reasons someone might get to that decision. Appreciate those finishes and take the DNF’s in stride. There will always be another chance and another line to toe.