Sunday, June 23, 2013


It was my second year at the West Highland Way Race this year.  Last year I had finished the race but went much more slowly than I had hoped to go, so I was back to try for a faster time.  Unfortunately it wasn't to be--I dropped out at Beinglas (mile 40ish).

There isn't much of interest to say about my race, so I was struggling to think of anything worth writing a race report about.  Basically I was sick (nausea/vomiting) the entire time, and my legs weren't at all recovered from Squaw Peak, and neither of those are very interesting to read about.  But then I did think of something I wanted to write about:  DNFs.

Most of my friends have likely heard me say this before and thus can skip this blog and move on to the next thing to look at on the internet.  Now that I've got a blog, though, I can inflict this on the rest of the world...

The vast majority of ultrarunners have a "finish at all costs" mentality.  I can understand this mentality and I certainly shared it at one point.  But I think that for any runner to improve to his or her maximum ability, it's time for an attitude change.

The best way to explain this, I think, is to compare it to climbing.  In the UK, where I learned to climb, there is a strong "onsight only" mentality.  (As an explanation to nonclimbers, to "onsight" a route essentially means to climb it on your first try, from the ground up, without any falls.  A "redpoint," on the other hand, is a route that you climb successfully, but after you have previously fallen off it and worked on it.)  The idea among a lot of climbers in the UK, therefore, is that you should only do routes that you can onsight.  To them, if you fail and fall off a route on that first try (the climbing equivalent of a DNF), it means you weren't ready for the route and shouldn't have gotten on it.

The thing is, although this mentality is widely shared by average climbers, it isn't held by the best climbers.  Good climbers have figured out that to really improve, you have to temporarily fail, i.e. fall off.  You have to risk failure by trying routes that are too hard for you--at the time--but then work on them, train, improve, and come back to try again for a successful ascent.

As runners, I think we can learn something important from the fact that it's the average, not the best, climbers that share the onsight-only mentality.  It's time for us to figure out that sometimes it's good to drop out, and that being unwilling to drop out of any race will, in the end, hold you back.

There are two main reasons that I see for this:

1.  Learning your limits--so that you can run at them, not below them.

Let's say that a DNF is due to trying to operate at more than 100% of your body's capacity.  That means that if you are determined to finish no matter what, you have to give yourself a pretty safe margin of error.  You can't go at 99%, because you know that if any tiny little thing goes wrong, you'll be out.  So this means you're stuck at maybe 80%, or 90% if you're up for a gamble.

By being determined not to DNF, you've just given up any hope of achieving the remaining percentage.  You're never going to learn what 99% feels like if you don't make it to the tipping point past 100%, because what feels like 99% during a race generally isn't.  Depending on the race, that extra percentage between your failure-safe 80% and your true 99% could be a few minutes faster, or it could be a few miles longer that you're able to run without walking, or an extra hill you can actually run up even though you thought you needed to walk it...there are so many possibilities.

Obviously this doesn't mean I'm saying people should go all-out for a totally unrealistic goal and drop out when that doesn't work.  What I'm saying is to go for the best possible goal that is compatible with the training you've done.  Which brings me to...

2.  Training benefits.

Ultrarunners are, in general, not great at putting any kind of scientific or logical backing into their training.  The no-DNF mentality only adds to this.  At the WHW race this year, my goal was to do it in under 24 hours (I had done 26:30 the year before).  Because I had made a mistake with my training by doing Squaw Peak too close to the race and because I was sick, it became clear during the race that it wasn't possible for me to do it under 24 hours.  At mile 40 I had two options:  (A)  I could slowly run/walk the rest of the way and finish in 26+ hours, or (B) I could drop out.  Going for option A avoids a DNF but means a much longer recovery time--at least three weeks off serious training.  Going for option B means I just had a nice long training run and I can start in with easy runs whenever I want.  Option A might look appealing in the short term, or at least appealing aside from the prospect of enduring even more midge bites, but option B will make me a better runner a few months down the line.

In fact, the real mistake of my training leading up to the WHW was not dropping out of Squaw Peak.  If I had stopped at mile 20 or 30 there, who knows how the WHW would have gone...?  I might have had my 24 hour finish.

The training benefit part of this is especially true when there's an injury or a potential injury involved.  Ultrarunners love to tell stories about so-and-so-person who finished a race even though his broken foot was hanging out of his shoe, etc.  Yes...and how long until so-and-so was able to run well again?  How long did it take him to start improving again after the race?  How much more could he have improved if he had the benefit of that lost time spent on recovery?  I tried (and failed) to run the Sawtooth 100 on a broken ankle once, which I fully admit was a stupid idea, but what would have been even stupider would have been not dropping out.  Dropping out allowed me to rest up the ankle, recover in about three weeks, and be back running normally again a month later.

A few concrete examples of how an unwillingness to drop out can be a hindrance:  I remember back 5 years ago when a friend first told me about the Arrowhead race.  He was saying what an amazing race it sounded like.  I thought that I might like to sign up and asked him if he had ever done it.  He said no, he had never entered, that it was way too hard for him.  He's a much better runner than me, so that worried me, but I signed up anyway.  I didn't manage to finish it on three occasions, but then I did finish, and it was one of my favorite moments in all of my running.  My friend has still never entered.

Another example, also involving Arrowhead:  I mentioned once to a friend that I hate walking, so I was thinking that I'd like to try doing Arrowhead with mostly running.  My friend, who has finished Arrowhead walking and is a veritable ultrarunning machine, said something along the lines of that not being a good idea because it would be too hard and it would lead to a DNF.  But this was all in theory--he's never actually tried to run it, and so while he could theoretically do it faster next time using a run, he'll never know.

Me, I'd rather try and find out.


  1. I used to have the "No DNF" thing going for a while. The first was because I couldn't even walk (ankle issues) any more after mile 80 (McNoughton Park 100). I waited for too long before deciding to DNF - too much damage was done by then and it took me a long time to fully recover. But, waiting too long before DNFing was just the icing - the cake itself was starting the race with the injured ankle in the first place.

    My proudest DNFing moment was when I dropped out of Mohican 100 in 2010 - the first race I tried after that first DNF. It was a race to test the ankle. It went okay till about mile 45, then the ankle started to act up in a bad way - I knew I must drop out. I got to the next aid station and promptly dropped out.

  2. Excellent report Alicia, and I like the discussion on DNF's. I see what you're saying. We're a stubborn breed, no doubt about it...but I have some counter-responses. In the end, to each their do what's best for you. Personally, my philosophy differs from yours, and here's why:

    1) A reluctance to DNF is what allows you to find out your potential. Exceeding 100% capacity doesn't mean a means a finish time that is slower than 100% (because of some inevitable walking, or slow shuffling), just like running at 80 or 90% capacity results in a time slower than 100%. The more races you run, to the very end, the more likely you can actually reach 100%. I would say its important to avoid DNF'ing even if it turns out went above 100% because, by DNF'ing, you never really find out just how far off you were above 100%. Going the full distance, both above and below 100% allows you to hone in on that perfect race pace.
    2) Focusing on how you feel at the moment in a race is a recipe for disaster because you have no idea what's in store down the road. In ultras, and especially in the 100+ mile distance, your body is in a constant state of flux and there are countless variables in the race. These races are filled with extreme highs and lows, as you know...I felt miserable at mile 30 at Bighorn, but had a great second half. It was a rough patch, making that buckle that much sweeter. Starting a race on a broken ankle is an entirely different story, of course (I was there with you at Sawtooth!). But getting it done without injury allows you to have more complete knowledge of what you did right and how costly your supposed mistakes were. By DNF'ing, you'll never know if your best miles were ahead of you.
    3) Personally, I'd rather finish and lose a week of training (assuming I'm not injured) than DNF and have that extra week of training back. Training is largely mental for me. A DNF may affect one's psyche negatively for weeks or months to come! Also, the learning experience gained from finishing the full race is much more valuable to me than a week or two more of training runs are never above 50 miles, so it's a unique opportunity to see how my body performs at that red-zone distance, and that can truly help me prepare more prudently for the future.

    1. This is great! I knew you'd have something interesting to say in response:)

      1. I would agree with you here in theory. But in reality, I think people keep that "I can't DNF" thought in the back of their mind, and it influences what they do during the race. Even for me, who doesn't think it's bad to DNF in some circumstances, it was hard to get that thought of my mind during Squaw Peak and I think it was a factor in me continuing to the finish, even though I don't think it should have been a factor. But I think you've got a point that sometimes you can try hard, "fail" (i.e. blow up) and then still learn something from shuffling in.

      The problem here though is, that works for races you've started. What about the really hard races that you never start because you're worried you won't finish? That's keeping you from finding out your potential just as much as not running a race as fast as you maybe could.

      2. Definitely. But I think we're better than you give us credit for at figuring out what's going on with our bodies during a race. Especially you, with so much experience in hard 100s! I would say that the surprise recoveries are actually not a surprise if you look back and think about what you had been doing or not doing during the race before the rough patch--e.g. if you had been eating and drinking properly, and pacing yourself well, it's not strange that you might recover later. But if you had gone out way too fast and not been able to keep food down, there's only so much recovery you can have.

      3. Yes good point about the psyche. I guess that comes down to knowing how much it will bother you personally and whether that will be worse or better than lost training time. And actually one of the points that I considered in favor of continuing at the WHW was that I was wearing a heart rate monitor for the first time in a 100(ish) mile and I wanted to see what kind of data I would get towards the end. But ultimately that got outweighed by other factors like lost training time.

      Of course it's not really for me to say but are you sure training is that mental for you? You're an awfully strong runner with tons of experience--I would think you're at the point where you can gut through anything and could start focusing on getting faster?

    2. hey, i'm enjoying the discussion! ...
      1) sure, many of us have the "i can't DNF" mentality in their mind, and that results in a more conservative race. but i think as we get more experienced, and more confident, we don't think we'll DNF and we are sufficiently in-tune with our bodies to properly go for that >90% and <110% range. the more (complete) race experience we have, the more it results in an eventual narrowing of that deviation from 100%.
      this goes to your additional point about not starting certain races. i don't think you should start a race you don't believe you can finish. you should train for a race so you can at least finish...and then preferably continue to train harder so you can have a 'good' race. personally, i don't train 'just to finish' -- for a 36-hour cutoff race, i don't train to DFL and finish in 35:55...i train to have at least a few hours buffer. but for everyone, anytime you tackle a new distance, or more difficult terrain (e.g., more climb, more altitude, etc.), there's certainly a risk of DNF'ing because it's your first time doing that kind of race...but you should always do the training and have the preparedness you believe necessary to finish.

      2) i agree with everything you're saying here. looking back on the rough patches, you inevitably think "how could i have been so stupid to eat all that bacon at mile 65!" but how quickly you recover, and finding out what works in bringing about that recovery most efficiently, is all very useful knowledge that will you help you in future races. like i said before, i rarely do training runs over 50 miles...experiencing a bonk at mile 60 and learning how to troubleshoot it most effectively is truly valuable information. i'd miss out on that if i DNF'd, and it'd be a missed opportunity to make me a better athlete.

      3) right, to each their own. some people throw in the towel and they're totally fine, right back out there. i know for a fact it is quite devastating to others. i have yet to DNF in a race, but it'll happen one day...i'll let you know how it goes!!

      thanks so much for the praise. everyone knows you're tough as nails, and really an all-around gifted athlete. i'm sure you'd succeed in whatever endeavor you jumped into. well, i have thought of running a fast, i'm doing Lean Horse in August. it's super flat, but it's a hot, we'll see. my PR is my first 100 since i've only done mountain 100s since...but this is a chance to get a solid time, and i'm focusing on getting a little faster in preparation for it. i also plan to enter the lottery for that's a race where 'just finishing' would be fine by me!! as for running the mountain 100s faster...perhaps...but the additional training requires additional time away from friends/family that i'm unwilling to sacrifice. if i was a life-long bachelor, totally different story!

  3. I think DNFing is a personal thing. I would DNF if I were injured because I think it's stupid to run injured, but generally I try to finish at all costs. (Please note my longest race is a marathon, not an ultra.) I have only DNF'd one race, and still feel awful about it. A few years ago, I also ran an awful marathon where I had trained for a 3:20 and wound up running 4:15. I had been sick, slightly injured, there was a NorEaster during the race, and I had some severe asthma episodes during the race. I'm actually proud of that race. Finishing was really hard, and I wanted to quit so badly. And my recovery from that race wasn't bad at all (again not an ultra). That being said, I completely understand why some people prefer the DNF if they know they can't meet the goal. It makes sense, but it's not good for me mentally.

    1. If you feel like it would be an accomplishment for you to "just" finish then yes, it makes sense to do that. But I think some runners, in particular many ultrarunners, haven't given enough thought to whether "just" finishing (and I use "just" really loosely because there are tons and tons of races I would be thrilled to just finish) is actually an accomplishment for them at any given race. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't, but having a blanket, across-the-board, assumption that it is isn't giving enough thought to it.

  4. In my mind, there is no shame in DNFing.

    The exceptions are:

    - If it's faster to just jog/walk to the finish (ie. the runner doesn't want a slow time on ultrasignup)
    - Any male, who DNFs for fear of being chicked or Alicia'd.
    - once-in-lifetime races, where time/place don't matter
    - DNF to avoid DFL

    1. Good list. And Divesh has started training for real this year so he doesn't have to worry about being Alicia'd any time soon:)

  5. As a humble marathon runner - and a slow one compared to all of you - I cannot even think of not finishing the race. DNF is a very scary thing for somebody like me. Thinking of the time taken from the family to train, the money, the travels, the shame.... Have had some shitty races, definitely! But finished them with all the pain etc. Recovered ok - which of course is a definite sign that I could have done it much much better!
    To give it all and then maybe not to finish - where would I get that kind of self confidence. Better to stay slow and safe in the back of the pack.....
    Yeah, I know. Not a good attitude.
    How about having the DNF's during training, then the worst case scenario would be taking the bus home after burning out somewhere far from home? Or do you think that it's only possible in races because we do not actual train the whole distance and will then never know the 100% for that certain race distance?

    1. I understand wanting to make the time away from your family worth it, but do you think your family would really want you to finish if you didn't want to or if it wasn't the best for you? I bet they just want you to be happy and run well!

      Yes, for marathons to ultras I wouldn't ever race very far in training (no more than a half marathon), so the DNF would have to only be a race. Or in a training half marathon that goes really badly!

  6. Very interesting blog post Alicia.
    I used to subscribe to the finish or die philosophy but through experience it doesn't work at all.
    I totally agree that if you are knackered with miles to go then you should DNF. I have pushed through many races and then taken months to recover. The thing is that training is about consistency. How can you improve if every time you race you wreck your body and have to spend 3 months recovering. Once I accepted that DNFing is all part of it my performances improved remarkably.
    I did the WHW one year and pushed and pushed. I was a complete wreck by Glen Coe but pushed on. I finished in 23 hours but was ill until October that year.
    I had blood taken and they thought I had liver issues and I couldn't get life insurance. This maybe a unique case but I don't think so because i have seen many people do the whw and then you dont see them run for ages afterwards. So for 4 months I did only basic training because I would be ill everytime I pushed. When finally I could train it was like starting from scratch again. I think I lost a year because of it.
    Last year I signed up for a marathon. Training before it had been hit and miss but I was confident when I started it. After 16 miles I was in second place but not feeling great. I pulled out. The marshals couldn't believe it but I knew that this was not going to help me. The next day I was training as normal but my fitness had totally exploded. I had my most successful winter race season straight after that marathon and still look back at it as being the catalyst for races that I am doing just now including the WHW. Perhaps if I had continued to race the marathon I could have held second or even got first but I would have required and extended recovery time and this would have affected all the rest of my races. So in short DNFing one race has made me have 10 other fantastic races.

    Hope this wasnt too boring. Really should have just said I agree with you. :-)

    Sorry you had to drop out at Beinglas but you know it was the right decision. I told my support this year to pull me from the race if I slip behind schedules or start to hate it. It's not that I can't do it, it's cause I want to do it well and it is always there next year.

    1. Not boring at all!! Congratulations on your race this year. If somebody as fast as you agrees with me then that gives me more confidence that I'm on the right track:)

      I think your point about the recovery time is a good one--Vishal was saying above that walking/jogging to the finish might involve an extra week or two of recovery, but I think you're right that it takes a lot more out of you than that. If something's gone horribly wrong then you could be doing 30/40/50 "bad" miles, which is pretty brutal on the body.

      I hope your recovery goes well and the next race on the agenda is another good one!