Friday, January 21, 2011

DNF's - A Year Later

About a year ago I wrote a post on this blog about dnf's. In essence, I was asking what I thought, at the time, was a simple question,

"Should dnf's be a factor in the UROY voting?"

However, after numerous comments to this blog and many sidebar conversations, it became clear to me that raising the issue in a public forum surfaced other unintended consequences well beyond the scope of the UROY voting. In the subsequent turmoil members of the ultrarunning community called me, among other things, self-centered, egotistical, judgemental, and downright wrong. I'm a big boy and, of course, I admit to being all of those things:) But, reflecting back on the post, the reaction to it, and the last year in ultrarunning and in my life I think there is more to be said on the topic.

No, I am not going to analyze the 2010 dnf's and call out certain elite runners (although, for the record, there were far fewer high profile dnf's this year than last). Nor am I going to suggest that I, somehow, think people who dnf are bad or unworthy of respect and admiration in the UROY voting and elsewhere. And, I am not going to suggest any change in the UROY voting. However, what I am hoping to do with this post is write a bit about the ideas around the dnf topic and what they have meant to me, personally, over the past 12 months. In addition, I think there are lessons to be learned by running ultras that go beyond the trail and the track and extend into our everyday lives. Lessons that can change the way we think and change the way we run.

I should start by saying that, as regular readers of this blog know, I am in a time of transition in my life. For reasons that are complex beyond the scope of this blog, I am in the midst of a life change that will affect my family and me for years to come. This is not a bad thing or a good thing, it is just life. And in life, as in running, you need to take what the Mountain gives you.

That said, when you think about it, this personal experience for me is not unlike the feeling that inevitably comes somewhere in the midst of 100-mile race. There comes a time, almost every time, as we close in on the Finish Line, when we ask ourselves; Why am I doing this? Is it worth it? Do I want to hurt this bad? Is the reward worth the risk? What would my mother think?

And usually, most of the time, in fact, facing those questions and grappling with our own inner angst, we pop a gel, put our heads down, and forge on down the trail with the grit and determination that characterizes just about every ultrarunner I know. That is what makes us special. That is what makes this sport different. That is what I love about my ultra friends. That is what makes us whole.

Do we learn from our failures more than we learn from our successes? Absolutely! And, as I have spent the last year speaking to people about dnf's it has become clear to me that everyone has their reasons. Everyone knows that they didn't start the race planning to dnf and everyone wants to do better, work harder, be more of themselves the next time. But, still, dnf's happen. They happen on the trail and they happen in the office. They happen in relationships, in families and in schools. In fact, these days they seem to happen more often in places they never happened before.

Clearly, as has become clear, I admire those people who push through to finish regardless of the result. I admit that bias. But, that's just me. And, as is often said about this sport, we only know what we know. We can only view the world from the perspective we have. At the end of the day, the meaning and purpose of our incredible sport is not really clear to the naked eye. Especially, the naked eye that drips with envy, judgement, and ignorance. What is clear to all of us may not be clear to the casual observer. Those on the outside who view us as obsessed, crazy, and self-absorbed don't, ultimately, understand what it feels like to be absolutely spent. Those folks simply won't ever grasp what it means to dig deep and crawl into the Pain Cave one more time. They won't know how hard it is to get up off that comfortable cot at the Highway 49 Aid Station and hike it in.

All of us, on the inside, however, get it. And, I dare say, we live it and love it.


GZ said...

In case anyone needs a visual on what AJW is talking about here ...

I thought the conversation was a good one a year ago. And this is a good next step on it.

Brett said...

It is always good to stir the pot, whether you are right or wrong.

Scotty K. said...

Excellent stuff.

To touch on the question that you started off with, I think if I were a voter I would take them into a consideration, but not in a negative sense. I wouldn't hold it against anybody for DNFing, but I certainly would give more credit to those that pushed on and finished XX number of races without dropping. I mean a big part of this sport is perserverance, and pushing through the pain and discomfort, right?

Greg Bomhoff said...

Maybe my favorite of all your blogs so far AJW. I don't think this post is at all about why sometimes we don't finish an ultramarathon. This one is about why we start it.

Craig Thornley said...

AJW, I agree with Greg. This may be your best post ever. BTW, the cot at highway 49 is not that comfortable.

Rogue Valley Runners said...

This is a nice post, although I entered with trepidation knowing your history with the subject.

Judging DNF's, it's hard enough covering the scope of ultra-runners, races, performances, competition, etc. Although I do believe the voting at the top was solid.

Keep up the good work.


Hank Dart said...

Great post with a great scope, Andy. With my one, but as you know, highly inglorious, DNF, I know It can be tough to find perspective when you're at the nadir, and it's always good to step back, take some time, and make sure all sane options have been exhausted. I will say that my DNF at Teton likely propelled me further down the ultra road than I might have otherwise gone - with my wanting to exorcise the whole experience. Probably not the desired course. It's just the one I took.

Jeff said...

Jay Cutler DNF'd on Sunday...

Koz said...


Great post. I oftentimes find myself thinking that life itself is meaningless except for the meaning that we each give to it individually, which in turn defines how we interact with others, and so it goes with running, whether it be miles on Hayward Field or the WS trail.
Got a good laugh out of RVR's comment as I was thinking the very same thing after reading the post title:)
By the way, as regards your query "What would my mother think?," well I asked my mother and here is part of the dialogue that ensued:

"Jizzle Wizzle? You really know someone who goes by that name?

"Well, yeah, but he also goes by 'Tan Mitts.'"

"What? I don't know about this, Jeff. It all sounds really perverted."

"Come on mom, it's just, well, it's just what we do as runners with all that time on the smack and give each other ridiculous nicknames."

"Don't you guys have anything better to think about, like your careers, your future?"


"You know, you ARE 36 now. How old's this guy?

"I don't know. 40s or something."

"WHAT? This is no way for a 40-something to behave. Is he PROUD of these nicknames?

"Oddly enough, I think he is."

"Well, for his sake, I hope he's at least be running around with crazy names like that."

"Yeah, he's no Speedgoat but he's won some 100s. Even came in 2nd to the Jerker one year at Western. Of course the Jerker could have had a quality cannonball session off of No Hands with the Dustball and still gotten to the track first."

"Jerker? Dustball? Jizzle Wizzle? Tan Mitts? This sport sounds likes it's full of questionable characters without much directi...wait, did you call it 'Western?'" Even I know they call it 'States' after staying up all night crewing for you while you walked it in from the river."

"Yeah...sorry about that mom but I spent too much time reading blogs last spring and didn't get the miles in. But I HAD to finish. You see Jizzle Wizzle has this Christmas card list and if you DN...ahhh, nevermind."

Okay, that conversation didn't really take place but it could :) ...the future's a meaningless blank slate, get after it and put your stamp on it!

Scott Dunlap said...

When the UROY voting came around this hear, I found myself thinking Anton may be the better runner BECAUSE he had a DNF at Leadville.

I mean, all the top runners are winning, but are they really finding their limits? It's nice to see one champion actually find their limits in search of a course record, even though they were 90 minutes ahead of 2nd place. That kind of DNF is incredibly inspiring, and gets a huge thumbs up in my book.