The closest I've ever come to DNF'ing (note: DNF stands for "did not finish") at a race was the 2010 Leadville Trail 100. I've already recounted what happened in the Mayqueen inbound tent last year, so I won't go into it again. Anyway, as I lay in the cot at Mayqueen sick as a dog, the thought of one day explaining to my son that I quit Leadville because I felt bad just didn't sit well, and so I got back on my feet and got 'er done.
To date, I've raced 32 marathons and ultramarathons, including six races of 100 or more miles, and I've finished every one of them. The 2010 Leadville 100 wasn't my only race gone bad. In 2008, I limped into the finish of the Mohican 100 with a severely blown-up knee and wicked GI distress. In 2009, I ran a 3:46 at the Lt. JC Stone 50K with a respiratory illness that, frankly, should have left me in urgent care or, at least, in bed.
That said, I'm sure one day I'll DNF in an ultra. Maybe I'll break a bone or sustain a concussion on a fall. There are some good reasons to DNF and many tough runners have had to call it quits because of very bad circumstances that left them unable to continue despite their toughness.
One bad reason to DNF, in my opinion, is when you know you're not going to win a race or achieve some lofty personal goal. A lot of the elites choose to DNF when they know they're not going to win, or get on the podium, so to save themselves for the next race. That's understandable, for sure, since ultras are so physically demanding. But it still doesn't sit well with me, and I question what kind of example it sets for others. For that matter, in the mind of the heavily sponsored athlete with the pressure of performance constantly on them, does example even matter?
But not every elite DNFs when things go bad. In 2004, Matt Carpenter walked the last 30 or 40 miles of the Leadville 100 after blowing up and was ridiculed. Guess what? He came back to Leadville the next year to set a record that will stand for years to come. What am I getting at? Maybe a bad race can actually be good for you in the long run. But you have to stay in the game; otherwise you won't grow as a runner. On the topic of elites and DNFs, there's some great commentary going on at Inside Trail.
At Leadville this year, about 45% of the field didn't finish. It was about the same for the 2010 race. I know there were lots of runners out there who gave it their all but missed a cutoff, forcing a DNF. A few of these runners, like the CEO of Lifetime Fitness (which owns the Leadville Race Series), still hung in there for their own finish. But I'm sure there were far more runners who just chose to call it a day because the race was too hard.
I'd like to put the following question out there for some healthy dialogue. Barring significant injury, of course, is it ever OK to DNF in a race?