Zen & the Art of DNF

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post titled, “Oops…I overtrained. Again.” This post, a brutally raw admission of my constant struggles to maintain a balanced, healthy training regimen, was not easy to write. I had a really great autumn season this year, training for nothing in particular but coming off a rest-filled summer with the gusto and enthusiasm of a newbie. But suddenly, like a ton of bricks, a deep fatigue set in around the end of December–a fatigue that was all-too-familiar, and surely indicative of my overdoing it, yet again. I was met with a pervasive, intuitive sense that if I didn’t take a rest week (or two), I’d crumble. I’d hit a physical limit.

runner-quit (1)

It can be incredibly humbling to meet one’s own limitations, whether physical, psychological, or emotional. At the same time, it can be excruciatingly difficult to tease apart the subtle nuances through which psychology and emotion are intermixed with our physical capacity–especially in endurance sport. When was the last time you heard someone refer to an endurance event as [at least] “90% mental?” For me, it was only a few days ago. Anyone who’s run a marathon or done a long-course tri knows this as fact–and probably has this mantra engraved across his consciousness as gospel. And I tend to agree that the mind is the biggest player–for most of us mere mortals, at least.

But what about those times when the cold, hard boundary of our physical limitations is actually hit, head on? How do we know when to put our egos in our back pockets and keep soldiering on, and how do we know when it’s time to stop?

I have never had a problem motivating myself to keep going in a long race after “hitting the wall”–with enough pep talk, those last few miles, although painful, slowly begin to melt away. However, I have plenty of friends who hold DNFs to their names, and I expect my turn is coming soon. Most professional athletes also boast DNFs, but I think that’s a little bit of a different story given that many of them are attempting to defend titles and personal records; a DNF can be a good way to save face as a pro. That aside, I remain curious about age-group DNFers.

If I were a psychology grad student, I might make a dissertation out of interviewing DNFers to try to elucidate their thought processes when they decided to withdraw from a race. What physical limitations did they experience? How did they know when they’d reached the “point of no return”? Did the decision feel more voluntary, or more essential for survival?

Most importantly, though, would be the thought processes of these athletes. What algorithms did they use to weigh the risk-benefit ratio of continuing the race? Or was logic thrown aside because the physical suffering was too much to bear? Endurance athletes tend to be stubborn folks with few qualms about pushing through minor- to moderate-physical unpleasantries that others would balk at. Also, considerable research has suggested that as a group, age-group triathletes tend to have a much higher pain tolerance than the general population, and even other athletes. As such, I approach my theoretical dissertation with a wary eye.

I recently started watching a Discovery channel documentary series following a team of mountaineers up Everest. One of the crew members, an ultra-fit Danish triathlete with an incredibly endearing, humble personality, is attempting to summit without oxygen–the holy grail of Everest climbing–after three prior unsuccessful attempts. Despite a personal history of severe asthma, Mogens Jensen pushes on with vigor and a charmingly positive attitude. I imagine all audiences following this documentary cheering hard for this delightful Dane, who displays the classic “90% mental” attitude so characteristic of his endurance sport roots.

Unfortunately, Mogens decides–or is forced, rather–to turn back a mere 350 meters from the summit of Everest due to severe frostbite secondary to oxygen deprivation. Obviously this is a rather extreme example, but I wonder how Mogens came to the conclusion that it was time to turn around–especially after encountering numerous prior obstacles that would have sent anyone else scurrying back down the mountain face. How did he know he’d hit that “point of no return”? Plenty of mountaineers push on through frostbite; some make it, some don’t. But Mogens seemed to possess an uncanny ability to understand exactly when he could push on, and when he absolutely needed to stop. He was so close to clinching that dream–and after three prior attempts at that–but he knew that he had to relinquish it this fourth time.

Perhaps most indicative of this minor tragedy was the team guide’s response to Mogens’ defeat. Russell Brice, one of Everest’s most seasoned mountaineers and guides, notes that while he would have been extremely impressed by an asthmatic summiting Everest sans oxygen, he was considerably more impressed by Mogens’ very wise ability to sense exactly what he was dealing with.

This art is utterly beyond me, but I imagine with more experience I’ll have a better understanding of how to interpret the fine gradations of physical wellbeing. Until recently, there was little incentive to develop this talent; I’d always had fine success pushing through and finding comparable alternatives rather than stepping back. More recently, I’ve hit an obstacle that feels a little more concrete–a wall that won’t budge. For the first time in my life, I can’t simply charge through like a rhinoceros at full-speed: rather, I have to stop and turn around–or even better, find a creative way to circumnavigate the boulder blocking my path.

I think I’ll take up rock climbing. I hear it’s good cross -training.


7 thoughts on “Zen & the Art of DNF

  1. Sounds like you’re in a tough place. I hear you. I’ve certainly battled with training desires versus physical limits… For me, resting and immersing myself in other passions (art, music, etc.) soothes my soul and replenishes my desire to push my body again. I hope you find peace and strength in the healing process!


    1. So much truth written here. The hardest part, for me at least, is the psychological struggle that comes with leading a more sedentary life. A critical lesson in patience, I suppose. Ultimately it’s worth it in order to come raring back, full-force, chomping at the bit. Plus, I’m finally starting to learn how to play guitar! 😉


  2. Carrie, you write beautifully. I don’t skip any words when I’m reading your blog. Indeed you’ll enjoy rock climbing. It’s really a game of chess you play with yourself and the design of the particular climb. You won’t plateau and maybe you can run to the climbing gym and back when you’r ein the mood! Once again, thought-provoking writing.


    1. Thanks Stewart! I’m glad to hear my meandering words aren’t too esoteric–something of which I am constantly accused. 🙂 Climbing and yoga are my staples now–thanks for the inspiration!


  3. I just had my first encounter with a DNF. And it wasn’t a small one. My first 140.6 Tri that I had been slaving away training for for upwards of 6 months. It was probably one of the most difficult things I had to do.
    There was a large mental math equation that led to it also. My race was not going the way I wanted it to go, I was not going to finish in the time I wanted and I did not feel good. I was ready to push past the stomach cramps and every other type of pain and discomfort until I felt a different type of pain.
    Something in my ankle started hurting and it was an injury red flag type of pain. I am a runner before anything else and I have multiple races on the calendar. I realized that taking a DNF on a race that was already not going my way in order to preserve my future as an active athlete was worth it. So, the decision was both essential and voluntary. I definitely had a choice, I could have walked out the rest of my race in pain.
    I voluntarily decided that my self preservation was more essential than a finish. I think I made the right choice. Perhaps one reason why I was able to DNF was that I knew I COULD finish one way or another, I just chose not to.


    1. Tom, thanks you for sharing your experience. It sounds like you made a very wise, albeit difficult, decision. With perspective and an ability to visualize the big picture, it seems like it is easier to get past one’s pride to make more prudent, sustainable choices. I’ve been told that once an athlete has gotten to the starting line, he/she has already won. “The hay is in the barn,” my beloved high school cross-country coach used to scream at us girls during races; and while I had no clue what the heck he was talking about then, today it seems incredibly clear.


      1. I miss Coach W! Although I think that the hay can always be replenished, and the barn fixed up… He taught us how to put the hay in the barn, but what happens when the hay flies away, or gets eaten? Or sometimes we need different hay to fill that barn… Nutrition and physiological reserve analogies aside – I like to think about how each day’s exercise is an effort towards putting the hay away. And when we are injured and can’t bale hay, we can always do a better job of shoring up the barn. 😉


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