Monday, August 29, 2011


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?


  1. I can't tell others whether it's ok for them to drop. I'm not too keen on it for myself.

  2. Tim: It occurs to me that my 6 lifetime 100s are pretty tame compared to what you're doing this year, which is an unbelievable accomplishment. Anyway, I'm not putting myself above a DNF. I'm sure if I run ultras long enough I'll DNF at some point, but it'll be because I'm physically unable to continue. I risked hypothermia at Leadville last year when I left Mayqueen in my state. I'm not beating on the elites per se. If I were an elite sponsored by a big company and a race was not going my way, I guess I'd be tempted to drop so I'm fresh for the next big race and can validate my sponsorship. But a big part of me hopes I'd be above doing that. I look at what Hal Koerner did at UTMB yesterday and I have huge respect for his result and what he did.


  3. I definitely am not saying I think dropping when you're not performing your best or just frustrated is cool. It's not. But that's just my opinion. It'd be nice to see dnfs counted in rankings and annual awards. I bet that would decrease the number of "oh, I'm not winning, so I'll just drop" dnfs.
    Whatever. I'm no great athlete but I'm finishing 6-7 100s this year (even if it takes me 44 hrs like hardrock), so there. ;-)

    Thanks again for the salt tab. I needed it!

  4. After losing WS in 2010 ( and not quitting)Killian said, " You learn nothing from winning." and then came back and ruled the race!

    He didn't cry, whine or otherwise make excuses,rather he put a new game plan together and then executed to perfection.. nuff said...

    I hope all these DNF's are the springboard to a new game plan?

  5. DNF for me at CP50. I was running on target for a sub 8 finish and feeling good. I missed a turn and ended up only running 45 miles.

    Could I have gone back and done the 50? Sure. It would have been a 55. I really didn't feel a strong urge to prove myself that way. Hence, DNF.

  6. Come to think of it, I have DNF'd a mile race once too.

  7. I feel pseudo qualified to comment given my experience on the matter just a week ago.

    I got home from the race and my daughter asked me how the "100 mile race" went. Not so good I told her. I didn't finish. She hugged my leg, said she loved me, and then instantly wanted me to go and swim in the pool with her. She had about the same reaction last year when I finished. No questions. All in all, nobody else matters. Its all how you feel about it yourself.

  8. Tim: My pleasure about the salt cap. Anything for another ultrarunner! Inside Trail is my new favorite website and I'll be promoting it on my blog.

    Brandon: I'm not in a position to judge another runner's DNF. Everyone has their own reasons. I do not think you DNF'd because it was hard. Seems like you had some medical stuff going on.

    George: I wish you'd stayed in the race, but I understand why you didn't. I missed a turn at Leadville in 2010 and it added 2 miles onto my race. It was mentally crushing. You should do Leadville in 2012!

  9. Thanks Wyatt.

    GZ, I would count that mess at CP as a disqualified for going off course. I did the same at Speedgoat in 08. Karl was like, "you could run back up to the top of that mountain and come back on the correct trail..." And I responded, "or, I could drink a cold beer here at the finish."

    Really, it's just running and races that mean very little outside of our own heads.

  10. DNF, not for physical or mandatory cutoff reasons, is hard for me to fathom. it basically is mental at that point.. ie you wont be fresh enough for another race (would you have been if you had finished?) or you just cant take it mentally because you went off course, or just didnt see the point any more. if its not physical or mandatory DNF = quit, and while there may be many reasons to quit, some good some bad, its all what the race is worth to you at that point when you make the decision.
    btw read your blog and hints about leadville and used them to complete my first 100 in 28:58 (yea!)

  11. Jason: Congrats on getting 'er done at Leadville. Glad to know my tips may have been helpful.

    One of the driving forces behind my post on "quitting" was the criticism--actually hate--directed at the CEO of Lifetime Fitness, who was accused by some of cheating his way to the finish of Leadville (some said he was pushed and pulled to the finish by his pacers). He finished the race beyond the 30-hour cutoff, but still finished. To me, that says a lot about him and how he feels about the town of Leadville and the race series. To hang in there and finish after the cut-off, to me, is really admirable, and so it saddened me to see the hate directed at him when he dug deep and honored what the race is all about. I'm inclined to believe he did it the right way.

    Then over the weekend I saw a huge number of "elite" American ultrarunners DNF at UTMB. My theory is that Kilian is so overwhelmingly good (as in Matt Carpenteresque good) that he's intimated his competition and basically robbed them of their will. The sport is changing and we're seeing that with Kilian and Team Salomon, which is operating like a wel-oiled machine, the likes of which we've never seen. It's like Team USPS (led by Lance Armstrong in the 90s) but for ultrarunning. Anyway, amid all those American DNFs, you have Hal Koerner, the two-time champ of Western States, finishing UTMB in about 40 hours. Hal hung in there and got 'er done. Same with Scott Jaime and a few others. I applaud those who stuck it out and finished.

  12. I dropped of the LT100 mailing list because of the hate towards the CEO.. he didnt have to attempt Leadville at all. but he did, so he should at least get props for getting to LT100 Run..
    As far as UTMB11, its amazing to me how people can talk crap about elite runners online. Like to see others attempt it, let alone at those paces. props to anyone who puts themselves out there..

  13. I've only run 2 ultras and never DNF'd (though Mesquito Pass gave me a long time to think about it!) so maybe I'm not qualified to comment, but I will anyway.

    For me, the race is just a battle with myself. If I quit, then I have to live with my own regret and that's enough to keep me going. Attempting to judge or ridicule someone's circumstances just doesn't help me grow as a runner. I love reading what others go through and how they feel about a race, but it rarely changes my own experience. And, I recognize that it is a different sport for "elites". Finally, I think some thought should be paid to how your family and crew feel about you. Brandon's mention of his family seeing him like that was powerful. I actually thought about whether or not I should/could put my family through it if I attempt LT100. I ran the Leadville Silver Rush race with a fever of 101.5 and my wife was worried about me the entire day. Is that commendable or stupid? I don't know.

  14. With a significant injury or illness, it is time to DNF; however, even when DNFing is the right thing to do, it will stick with you forever. For example, a few years ago I was running the Greenland 25K; quite a simple race for a hardcore ultra runner. After the first 8 miles, I pulled from the race. Nothing felt right, I knew I had a fever, had the chills, and was only going to make all of this worse with another 8 miles. It was the right thing to do but the DNF is always there and the thoughts are not positive. Another example of the opposite: In Golden Gate 50K two years ago, the ole bones were not having the best of days; no particular reason, just not a good day of running. I walked, plodded, crawled my way to the finish and am very proud of crossing the finish line in one piece. And that finish has served to push me to finish other races, whether having a good day or bad.
    Being an experienced runner, the key in DNFing is to know when it is the right time to pull yourself from the race and when to push through whatever it making you consider quitting.