At the Pineland 25K last weekend I did something I’ve never done before in a race: I did not finish.
And I have no regrets.
Not one ounce of disappointment in my DNF.
I feel completely at peace about it because I know that it was the best decision for the day. I’m not exactly a DNF expert (who wants to be?), but I know a few friends who dealt with regret and disappointment after not finishing races.
I’ve had many times in races where I’ve wanted to quit for various reasons: it’s hard, it’s not going well or I’m far off my goal. I’ve always been able to bring it back around, finding reasons to keep going and the value in finishing. Yet at mile 5 of the Pineland 25K I could find no reason to keep going. Was I disappointed? Yes. Was my body tired? Yes. Was I physically capable of finishing? Yes. Was I emotionally capable of finishing? No.
A mental storm of self-imposed pressure, fear and doubt clouded every thought. I was so mentally weary of wrangling the negative thoughts and trying to combat them with positive ones, that I just stopped, stood on the side of the trail and cried.I wanted to be swallowed up into the darkness of my closed eyes and transported to anywhere but that trail.
I’d signed up for this race to have fun. It wasn’t a goal race, it wasn’t a part of the NE-USATF Mountain Series, this race was supposed to be for me…for the enjoyment of running and racing. But it wasn’t fun at all and that’s when I decided it was OK to drop out.
I stopped crying. Regained my bearings and tried to figure out the best way to drop; which was to run another 4.5 miles into the start/finish area. I came into the finish area and instead of heading back out for another 5 miles, I stopped my watch, lifted the course barrier, ducked under it and walked off the trail.
In hindsight it was the best decision I could have made and here’s why:
- I learned more about myself by DNFing that race than I would if I had finished.
- It highlighted some mental ‘demons’ I needed to deal with.
- The self-imposed pressure I’d put on myself came to a head and played out in a non-goal race, which is great! I got that baggage out of the way! Now I can be in a better place mentally for the goal races that really matter.
- It highlighted doubt and fear that I’m working through.
- I gave myself permission to fail. Failure is really just a refining experience that can be a great teacher if you let it.
- I gave myself permission to stop pushing. I’m all about the push and the grind and the hustle, but sometimes you have to give yourself a break from that…even if it is in a race.
- Instead of draining my further physically and mentally, I’m feeling hungry and fiery and ready for my next race.
So when is a DNF a good idea?
- There are times when not finishing a race is absolutely the right call. Either to prevent injury or to preserve yourself physically and mentally for a future race.
- You are injured or would further injure yourself if you continued.
- When it is NOT a goal race and finishing jeopardizes your goal race.
- When your heart is not in it and you aren’t having fun and the answer to the question “Will I regret this?” is “No.”
When is a DNF a bad idea?
- When it becomes harder than you thought it would be.
- When you realize you won’t achieve your goal and the disappointment becomes overwhelming.
- When the uncontrollable (weather, other runners, etc) “ruin” the race.
- When it is your goal race that you have dedicated an entire training cycle to and everything that could go wrong, has gone wrong.
Of course there are exceptions to these: think Abby D’agostino at the 2016 Rio Olympics, she tore her ACL in the 5K, but still hobbled to the finish. Or Des Linden in the 2018 Boston Marathon, if she had decided her heart wasn’t in it and walked off the course at mile 4 or 5, like she had planned, the opportunity to win would have never presented itself.
We’ve all had times in a race where we have wanted to quit, what we do with that thought is important. It is almost always better the finish the race, but ultimately the decision is yours and you have to go with what feels right in your heart. Whatever your choice, whether it is to finish or not try to find the lessons in your experience and apply those to your next race.
Have you ever DNF’d a race? Did you regret it? Or did you walk away with no regrets?