Eventually it happens to everyone. It can be from stomach problems, overuse injury or an acute injury, from mental exhaustion to just pure physical exhaustion. But whatever the reason, it sucks. It really, really sucks. The worst part isn’t when you make the actual decision, in fact, that might just be one of the best feelings. But give it some time, be it moments after you’ve handed in your bib, hours maybe, could be days or even months, but it will come back around to haunt you. The guilt of having given up on yourself, the self doubt and the loathing. Could I have continued? Did I have more in me? Why wasn’t I mentally stronger? If only I had rested for a minute and ate another gel, would that have made a difference? Did I not try hard enough? And on and on it goes until you go absolutely insane.
A friend of mine called me just after having dropped out of the TDS this year and told me that he wasn’t going to continue. “I’m completely exhausted, there was no way I could have stayed in the race.” His voice sounded weak and he really seemed exhausted to me and I insured him he had made the right decision. Not even an hour later he called me again and this time around it was a completely different story. “I don’t know why I quit, I feel fine now.” He told me and he sounded disappointed in himself. I can’t know that he made the right decision, I can only help him figure out what drove him there and what to do next time.
I think this is universal and I’ve had the exact same experience on every single one of my DNF’s. Even the once where I was completely sure I didn’t have any other choice, there was still this tiny little seed of doubt in me that kept on growing. It’s human to forget painful things fast, it’s ingrained in us. If not, we would never try to do something hard and painful ever again and our minds are remarkably good at distinguishing between good bad and bad bad.
In the end I think you do need to trust your gut but at the same time I think it’s healthy to challenge that initial urge to quit. The only way to get better at this is to look back and learn from your own experiences. And if you don’t have your own, maybe you can learn something from mine. So here’s the anatomy of my DNF.
Severe stomach cramps, unable to run neither up nor down, unable to get any food in and unable to sleep it off.
The first one is always extremely hard, you can always find a reason to why you could’ve continued so unless you’ve withdrawn for a really good reason you will regret it, even if it was the right decision. I still regret this one even though I tried to sleep it off for a couple of hours. I wrote about this experience here if you want to learn more.
Beskidy Ultra Trail 90
This is my most well executed race to date and it came right after my first and most devastating DNF. I was in the front or in the lead for most of the race and felt absolutely fantastic the entire way. A few navigation errors (and stolen course markers) probably lost me the win with a few minutes but there’s no point in speculating. I’m super proud of this race no matter what and it earned me my first international podium and a great big fire log trophy to show for it.
This is where I thought I was in the clear and the pattern had yet to become a pattern.
Costa Blanca Trails
Hip pain from recent climbing fall, forced to a slow walk and whimper, got way cooled down when it started raining.
After the first one it gets surprisingly easy, as a matter of fact it’s easier to find a reason to quit than to go on and if you’re not careful it turns in to a dark pattern real fast. I’ve seen athletes who go down this spiral of withdrawal never to return to former glory days. Even though this was from a somewhat acute injury it was troubling to have another DNF within a few months from my very first one.
Sprained ankle on the first descent, continued for another 40k before pulling the plug.
Some DNF’s seem like they should be more obvious than others but that’s not always the case. As soon as I heard the loud crack when rolling my ankle the fourth or fifth time I knew it was bad, but I chose to ignore it. I thought maybe it would be ok as long as I kept moving. After another 30k it was clear I wasn’t going to finish the race no matter what. Again, this was an acute injury but even more troubling that I now had three for four and this wasn’t the end of it.
Swedish Alpine Ultra
Not recovered from ankle sprain.
Sometimes you just want it so much you can’t help yourself even though you know the outcome even before the race starts, and sometimes that’s ok. The goal doesn’t always have to be to finish the race. Sometimes the goal is just to get out there and see how long your body can hold up, and turn around when it says enough is enough. This was now my fourth DNF but this was also the least surprising one. And maybe it was here something shifted in me, where I realized it’s not always a bad thing to quit.
Breaking the pattern for real. After I went out to hard in the 30 degree heat, and hit my first split spot on, my legs were shattered and from there on it was hanging on for dear life. I wanted to quit so many times and in my mind I found all the excuses, but non were good enough. I knew I had to push through all the way to the finish if not only for the sake of finishing. And that’s what I did, I finished way off my A, B and even C goal but at least I finished. I knew that if I didn’t finish this one it would be for the sole reason of giving up, I had no valid excuse and so I kept going. And if the previous race taught me that it’s ok to not finish sometimes, this one taught me that it’s not ok to quit sometimes.
So, is this the end of it? Have I made it over the DNF hump? I’m not so sure about that. I think once you’ve realized how easy it is to quit it’s always going to be tempting when things don’t go the way you want. But the only way to grow and learn is to push your mental and physical limits, sometimes you go over them and sometimes you won’t reach them. Eventually you will find that balance and know yourself well enough to make the right decision in the moment.
And hey, if you were to make the wrong decision once in a while that’s not the end of the world either.