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How to Deal with a DNF

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If you have been running for a while, chances are that you know what DNF is. You have either been there yourself, or you have a friend that Did Not Finish a race somewhere along the line. DNF, along with DNS (Did Not Start – the lesser talked about cousin of DNF) are dreadful little letters no runner ever wants to see next to their name on the scoreboard. But, we runners like to push our limits and test the waters beyond our comfort zones. Sooner or later we may find ourselves facing the unplanned and unthinkable: The end of our current abilities.

Whether it happens due to injury, illness, exhaustion, too slow pace or a lack of drive, to end a race early is a tough blow to anyone. I was there recently. For many years I have been dreaming of running the Marathon du Mont-Blanc. It is a tough alpine trail in the south of France capped at  2000 runners. I was very happy when I got a spot in the race, and trained harder than for any previous race. I felt ready and up to the challenge. Yet, after five and a half hours of brutal mountain running, I missed a time cut off by five minutes. As I crossed the timing mat a race official cut my number and I was out of the race. It was over, just like that.

If I have to confess, my very first feelings were that of relief. I was injured and exhausted and found it hard to imagine completing 14 km with another 1000 m ascent to reach the finish. But after about five minutes of rest I felt better and a wave of devastation hit me. After all the dreaming, training, preparation, traveling and effort up to that point, there would be no reward. No finish line music inspiration for the final kilometer. No crowd clapping and cheering. No medal or finisher’s photo. Not anything that you usually experience or receive after finishing a tough race. But of all these what you miss the most is the feeling of personal accomplishment. You may feel that you have nothing to show for all you put in, and that (I found out MUCH later) is very far from the truth.

How you deal with a DNF very much determines your approach to future challenges, in running but also in life. If you choose to sweep the experience under the rug, you miss a valuable opportunity to grow. Should you choose to face it head-on, you may see the value in it and eventually be grateful for the experience. Here are some pointers on how to deal with a DNF.  


Take care of yourself after the race. Even if you feel you don’t deserve to, pamper yourself and love yourself. Cry if you want, talk if you have someone or don’t if you choose. Have a beer or a bath or both. Don’t expect anyone’s permission to be kind to yourself. Just because you didn’t reach the end goal doesn’t meant you didn’t work for it. Love yourself enough to reward yourself, at least with some good rest and refueling.

During this time, reflect on the race itself. Focus on your achievements, not the lack of them. Focus on the highlights of the race and happy moments you experienced during the run. Think of how far you came, and what your reasons were for not finishing. Could the DNF have been prevented? Were you overtrained or undertrained? Did you experience an injury or did you save yourself from a massive injury by not continuing?

If you feel up to it, discuss this with a loved one or write down your findings. Reflecting on previous post-mortems will be invaluable in future race approaches. Maybe you choose to share your experience on social media or even a public blog. You may be surprised how sharing can help you heal. Also, you are perhaps your own worst critic. Hearing from others how they admire your efforts may have you rethink your ‘lack of success’.

Just because loved ones aren’t runners doesn’t mean they won’t understand. Everyone have goals and dreams that aren’t always fulfilled (the first or second time around). Sharing your experience may mean the world to someone else.

How to deal with a DNF


In the weeks after the race, focus on resting and recovering completely. After not reaching a goal, we have the inclination to immediately want to go back out to try and prove that we have what it takes. This is the best recipe for injury or eventual loss of interest. Give yourself time to heal properly, both physically and emotionally. When you feel ready to return to training do so gently and cognisant of the stress that you put your body through for the last race.


Rethink and redefine your reasons for running and why you entered that specific race. Do you still love running for all the right reasons? Do you have moments during a run when you feel happy and boundless as a puppy on the loose? Or is it perhaps time to make adjustments in your approach to running, training or racing? Consider the place running occupies in your life. Are you willing to sacrifice more to train harder or longer, or should you focus on different types of races? If possible, talk to an expert in the field. Ultimately just be sure to follow your own heart and not the (sometimes ill) advise from someone that is not in your shoes.  


After all the retrospection and introspection is completed and filed in the Beautiful Life Experience folder, it is time to refocus. Running should be fun, otherwise there is no point. Pick or reaffirm a running goal that suits and defines YOU and no one else. Write it down and stand by it. Do you want to give that unfinished race another go? Then sign up as soon as possible. Want to never set foot on it again? Then make your peace and move on. After all, it is just a race and really no matter of life and death.

Robert F. Kennedy said “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly”. Success can never be as sweet if you haven’t tasted failure. You can’t save yourself from life. Put yourself out there and let life mark you. It may be beautiful and ugly and lovely and brutal. But it will always, always be worth it.

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