Thoughts on the Run: What 'DNF' should stand for
“You just need to practice more, Uncle Andy.” Those were the words spoken to me by my niece after I dropped out of the Jersey Shore Marathon in 2003. Now in her defense, she was about 7 and probably hadn’t quite grasped the concept of the marathon. But still, those words stung just a bit.
My love/hate affair with the marathon has led me to 29 starting lines and 20 finish lines, including three Bostons. I’m batting .689. In 42 years of running and racing, I have only stepped off the course four other times.
DNF: did not finish. The DNF is typically not what a runner strives to achieve. In fact, I can tell you with some certainty that a DNF is worn like a badge of shame on most. And I know more than a few who, unless their leg is attached by merely a tendon, will avoid that dreaded moniker at all costs. Unfortunately, sometimes the costs are too much to bear and the DNF is the only choice.
I’d like to make a suggestion here and now that DNF no longer be considered “did not finish” but rather “did not fail.” But wait, if we don’t finish, isn’t that like failing? Well no, not really, unless you fail to learn from the experience, or you end up damaging yourself in some other way out of stubbornness.
I’ve often said that you can’t make the finish line if you don’t make the starting line, and that’s particularly true in the marathon. Training smart, staying healthy, and mentally preparing should be a part of every racer’s strategy. From the mile on up, to be successful (and success is defined by you and no one else), you need to be able to start in order to finish.
FINISHING! Yes, the obvious goal is to finish. In 2010, I traveled to Burlington, Vermont for a crack at the Vermont Marathon. I had been away from the distance for nearly five years, but the allure of VT pulled me back. I trained very well through late winter and early spring, did a few tune-up races, and felt ready for a crack at sub 2’50. I mean, I felt really ready…
That is, until race day. I walked off the course just past the three-mile point. Done. Mentally done. Physically done. Emotionally done. DNF. I sorta walk/jogged for a while until I met up with my traveling companion who was also having a rough go of it. We caught the broom wagon back to the finish line and headed for home.
But rather take is as a failure, and almost before the plane had taken off to bring us home, I started looking at the past few months of training and what the coming summer might bring. I was still fresh, race-ready, and anxious to go. It ended up being a great summer of racing. No failure! My DNF had brought me a great season after all.
One note of caution… this is not permission to start dropping out of races every time you “don’t feel like it.” Note that I’ve pulled out of exactly 13 races in over 42 years, and nine of them were marathons. Persevering is one of the things that makes you runners so awe-inspiring. My non-marathon DNFs were all injury related. Some days, pushing through the self-doubt and nay-sayers is exactly what’s needed!
Amid all the shutdowns, cancellations and quarantining of the past two months, runners are still out training. Back on a late March Sunday morning, I met a gentleman who was preparing to run 26.2 miles on the Castle Trail. The previous day, March 28, was supposed to be the DC Marathon. His training had brought him to this place, where for himself and himself only, he was going persevere and run 26.2 miles.
Flanked by grandkids, a daughter and son-in-law (alternating pacing duties on a bike) he took off at 9 am. I made my way home, showered, then drove back to give him some support on his multiple out-and-back passes. By mile 19, his wheels had come undone and he was dropping out. DNF. As we talked heading back to his car, he wasn’t deflated but rather upbeat. “I’ll be back in two weeks to try this again. I think my diet this past week wasn’t quite right.” He was on the plane, already working out the bugs. And not one of his grandkids said he needed to practice more.
I hope to see you on the roads, tracks, and trails.
Former standout Lock Haven University runner Andy Shearer is a member of the Middletown Athletic Club, the Greater Philadelphia Track Club and USA Track and Field.