How to Avoid a DNF

Recently I went down to Malibu to race the Sean O’Brien 100K in attempt to get a Golden Ticket to the Western States 100 Mile Endurance run. I spent 4 months training specifically for this race, yet 20 miles in, I dropped out. But why?

For most of us it won’t be the weather or the vertical gain or the distance that is the biggest challenge in an Ultramarathon, but our internal battle. It’s unlikely you’ll avoid this battle because it’s natural for the mind to try to stop us from harming the body when you’re doing something that is dangerous and potentially damaging. Our brain is designed to protect us; to be overprotective and to get us home safe. Evolution may not let us avoid the battle completely, but you can certainly minimize the risk of letting negativity overcome you on race day.

My first suggestion? Choose a race that means something to you. You need to have a reason to finish these things. Choose something that excites you and gives you a reason to finish. A good reason. You have to be emotionally invested in what you’re doing or you’ll risk giving up on it. Emotional investment is key to success whether it’s in training, in racing, in a relationship, or at work – you’ve got to care. And not just about shallow things like notoriety, money and success – those things don’t hold up when the going gets tough.

When things do get tough (and they will) you’ll need to stay positive. You’ll feel fear, anxiety, anger, and maybe even a little sadness, but all of those emotions can be overcome with positivity. A good way to do this is simply to smile. Smile at other runners, smile at the volunteers, and if no one is around, smile for the sake of smiling. Studies have shown that smiling releases dopamine, serotonin and endorphins (1). This cocktail of neurotransmitters can help to reduce stress, lower heart rate (2), relieve pain, and uplift mood (3). So, next time you’re racing or stuck in traffic smashing your hands against the steering wheel, give smiling a try and see what happens 🙂

If positivity and your commitment to your “why” are not working, think about consuming some extra calories before you make a final decision. You know those Snickers commercials ? Well, there’s definitely some truth in the saying “You’re not you when your hungry.” Your brain’s primary fuel is glucose. It needs it’s fuel to operate and to regulate emotions. For evolutionary reasons we already have trouble controlling anxiety and anger, but given that some of the same hormones associated with these emotions are released when we’re hungry (specifically when blood glucose levels drop (4))  the feelings are often exacerbated until our brain gets what it wants and needs. This is why you may get “hangry” at the office if lunch is late and it’s also why you might not be thinking clearly a few hours into your race. So, before you make any rash decisions, try eating a few hundred calories at the next aid station, jog for 20 minutes, and then make your decision.

If none of these things are working then you need to be honest with yourself and ask “Is it worth it to continue?” In my case, I ignored the advice I give my athletes and picked a race solely because I had the chance of getting into Western States; a race I don’t really care about, but that would get me noticed by a shoe company and prospective clients. On top of a shallow “why” I’d been struggling with an injury effecting my sciatic nerve for almost a year. It was and is manageable, but once I knew I wouldn’t get a Golden Ticket I wasn’t interested in taking the risks associated with running 40 more miles through the Malibu hills. That was my call in the moment and I don’t regret it. I went home and filled my calendar with races that excite me.

We have this unhealthy “Death Before DNF”  mentality in Ultrarunning that perpetuates unspoken shame in those who do drop out of races. To put it bluntly: it’s bullshit. You should never be ashamed or embarrassed of dropping out of race, whether it’s due to a legitimate health concern or simply because you’d rather spend the afternoon on the beach with your family. And if you do find yourself in a situation where you’re considering dropping out of a race, don’t let the thought of what other people think of you dictate what you choose to do. Do what makes you happy.

Choose your races with passion.

Live your life with purpose.