If You're Lucky You Too Can DNF.

April 26, 2018


There are some who will never toe the start line unless they're ready and know they'll finish. And certainly not last.  There are some who believe discretion is the better part of valor and will stay on the sideline and cheer their friends rather than risk a poor race, or worse, a DNF.  There are those who will only do a race if they get that medal and picture at the end of the day: validation and acknowledgement of their accomplishment and effort and dedication to training. 

This article is not for those.  Move along.

I've long made the argument to runners that if they have not DNFed (Did Not Finish) they're not really runners.  And I've also made the long and unpopular argument that if you have not run the Boston Marathon as a bandit you haven't run the race. (Doing the same thing in triathlon is a little harder because of the logistics.)  My reasoning being part rebellious and also partly with what has become a culture of checking off boxes and forgetting why you're out there.

For the record I've run the Boston Marathon 25 times with my last being the slowest as I just had major eye surgery less then 3 weeks prior.  The day after someone reminded me I didn't really run it cause my pace was more of a walk.  I thought that was hardcore and I acknowledged it.  So let's make that 24.  And of those I ran it 4 times as a bandit; my team who I trained sneaking me into the start corral each time.  I am prouder of those 4 marathons than anything else including my Ironman.

When I finished as a bandit I was given the aluminum foil to wrap myself  then walked to the train or bus or my bike and headed home for a shower. No jacket, no medal.  One time I stopped for Chinese food before going home.  The reward was running with someone who needed the company of a coach the whole way and seeing other team members finish.  The reward was running the 26.2 without anyone on the planet caring or even knowing I was on the course.  It was just me, the training, and the singlet whatever organization had given me to train their athletes.  I didn't have the post race party and the next day I had to be at work.  The glory was covering the mileage, knowing you can do it, validating your training, and moving on.

I highly recommend it.  But if you want true glory: DNF.

I've DNFed twice.  Not in a triathlon, not in marathon or half-marathon.  I've DNFed two 5Ks.  Yup, those 3 mile races are brutal.  The first time I was taken out by a distracted mom pushing a running stroller.  Her kid dropped a toy and instinctively she turned to pick it up.  And took out at least ten runners on one side of the road.  Some of us got up and began running again. Some us she got into the gravel off the side of the road and were bleeding so bad the police called paramedics.  And for me in particular I had a badly sprained ankle and some ugly road rash.  She merrily continued probably not knowing she had brought so many to the glory of DNF.  As the EMT wrapped up my ankle and my then girlfriend promised to bring me home and make me forget all about it (God bless her heart) I pondered on this new sensation: I wasn't going to finish and I wasn't going to have a finishing time.  After hundreds of races I was a DNF.

The next day I limped into work.  "What happened to you?"  and before I could answer, "Do you have the TPS report?"  They cared but they didn't.  As far as I knew I was the only person on the planet that cared.  My girlfriend cared but that was a little like her job otherwise she was trying to get me to sign up to a chick-flick that Friday.  Of course the only people who cared about this kind of thing were the people I was training that weekend:

"What happened to you?"
"I was taken out by a baby stroller."
"Wow!  What mile?"
"Before the first mile marker."
"Did you finish?"  (Only another runner would ask this.)
"No, I DNFed."
"Oh my!"

There seemed to be a look of both admiration and awe in their faces which is odd because I was their coach training them for the Boston Marathon and I had already run something like 18 of them.  But THIS is what brought newly admired respect.  It was then I understood the validation of trying and gloriously being taken out or failing.  For years I had heard about the lessons we learn when we fail but I never expected it to induce awe.  In fact I share the story of my 5K DNFs more than I do my Ironman story.

But I understood inherently in this new lesson that failing to finish meant I understood what it takes to succeed.  And that would be the lesson in my next DNF.

My second DNF I walked off the course all healthy and strong.  I had started the race with a broken heart.  My girlfriend and I were just on the verge of breaking up and my long scheduled 5K coincided with a very tough talk on why we were not good together.  I got to mile one and the heart had no inclination to finish what was essentially an exercise in not wasting my $35 entry.  My body hadn't failed but my heart/soul/spirit/Chi had.  I walked away back to the start wishing a baby stroller had taken me out.

I am quite sure there are many runners, cyclists, and triathletes who have never DNFed in their lives.  I hope not.  DNF is glorious and a better teacher there isn't about how much heart matters.  But more importantly a DNF picks you up and lets you see how beautiful that finish line really is.

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