DNF, three letters that strike fear into the hearts of runners. Did Not Finish. But my years as an endurance runner have taught me there are times when you have to quit for the sake of your body and your mind
I just pulled out of my VERY FIRST race. I never thought it would happen.
The fact is, when I sign up to a race, I always have every faith I will complete it. No question. I run through my checklist: what’s the distance, the cut off time is my training, nutrition and mind in a strong place and so long as I’m happy with the answers, I enter. I never say “I just want to get around”. For me, it insinuates I’m going to be pulling myself across the finish line broken and on all-fours.
I don’t want to just get around, I want to do the best I can put all my training and race experience into action. I expect to be strong physically and mentally at the finish.
But at the Pen Llyn Ultra, the wheels came off.
A 35-mile off-road race along the dramatically undulating coastal paths of North Wales, I was confident I could cross the finish line before the 10-hour cut-off. I wasn’t planning on spending all day out there!
But then came the rain. Monsoon-like and relentless. Not ideal, but I cracked on. On and on I ran through a section that had me wading through the ocean, through tight checkpoint times and a puncture wound on my hand from a barbed-wire fence.
What I didn’t bank on, was being last! Happily, I’m never last because I get lost easily! Being in the middle allows me to ignore my serious lack of navigational skills and follow the runners in front of me. But when you’re last and there’s no one in sight, your navigational plan is kaput! No matter how much I persevered and found strategies to keep myself moving forward, I ended up standing in a sheep field in the pouring rain. It was not fun.
Finally, I had to weigh up the whole situation. Did I really want to risk getting even more lost in the middle of the countryside with my headlamp for the ever-fading light and the rain still lashing down?
I love these ultra – challenges but this started to seem reckless. I finally found checkpoint two and bailed back to the finish.
But you know what, failing to finish this race taught me a lot. I learned that reaching the finishing line isn’t necessary to feel proud of myself. I gave it my best shot and ran solidly for 3hrs 47min. I covered 21km, used positive self-talk and strategies to keep myself moving. It confirmed my feeling that it’s more important for me to get up the next day, feel strong physically and mentally. I know I did my best at that time. A medal isn’t worth a week or more laid up with injuries.
It also taught me that my training weakness is navigation. I can be fitter than ever, but without the skills to find my way, I’m always going to end up back in a sheep field in the rain! And finally, it taught me about the nature of running itself. You see I love my ultras. And when I don’t love it, I’ll stop. I did that day, and I don’t regret it for a second.