Instead of “Did Not Finish,” think “Did Not F-Up.” Here's how to know when to throw in the towel—and how to get back on the horse.
A Did Not Finish (DNF) isn't the goal for any racer, but pulling the cord early isn't always a bad thing. In some rare cases, wear it as a badge of honor: It could help prevent further trauma down the road. Whether injury or sickness, we asked the pros when it's time to call it quits and their best tips to start training again.
When to Stop
Pushing through pain is a common scenario, if not verboten, for most distance runners, who are notoriously tough and stubborn. However, the very traits that breed success in ultrarunning can also be a detriment to both performance and long-term recovery when making the call of whether to continue or call it a day. Here's how some of today's elite ultrarunners know when to quit.
When You Can No Longer Stomach Fuel or Fluids: Perhaps no DNF in the sport of trail and ultrarunning this year has been as hotly discussed and scrutinized as Jim Walmsley’s drop from Western States 100 at mile 78. Jim, the favorite to win, led the race in dramatic fashion with a large gap over the rest of the field for more than 70 miles before succumbing to stomach and GI issues in the final quarter of the race. Despite being unable to keep down food or fluids for several miles, Jim never contemplated dropping until his body forced him to come to a hault. Jim's advice? “This sport is not just one race, it’s a big picture. Sometimes you need to fold your cards.”
When an Injury Forces You to Stop Running: Clare Gallagher, 2016 Leadville 100 Champion, never let dropping from Western States cross her mind until she literally became immobile at mile 93 of this year’s due to a cyst that developed behind her knee. “I sat down on my butt and dragged my ass up the hill. Glamorous crawling. I made it maybe a half mile in 45 minutes," she said. "By that point, probably 50 runners had passed me. I thought about how long it would take me to finish those 7 miles, and I doubted I could do it in under 10 hours at the rate I was going. The cut off would be long over by then.”
When You Catch a Bug: Jason Schlarb, who famously tied with Kilian Jornet at the 2016 Hardrock 100, started this year's race as a favorite but made the difficult decision to drop at mile 9, when the flu caused him to vomit profusely in the early miles of the race. “Earlier in the week of the race, I was having some mild stomach issues, but I thought it might just be stress and irregular sleep," he said. "On race day, the fear of DNFing started to creep into my mind only 3 to 4 miles into the race. I told myself that my stomach would clear out and reset by either pooping or puking and I would feel better after. Pooping did not make my situation any better."
By mile 5, Jason was a wreck: He could hardly walk up the hill he faced and he finally vomited. "I sat on the ground after and came to grips with the fact that I was sick, weak and not likely to have the energy to complete a 30-mile run or walk, not to mention completing the Hardrock 100-mile run,” he said.
When, Even After Resting, Your Condition Has Not Improved: Whether at mile 4 or 94, it is essential for runners contemplating a DNF to understand the difference between a rough patch that will eventually pass and a potentially serious condition that can cause long term harm, not only to their performance but also to their health. Clare suggested checking all of your boxes: “Can you take an hour nap? Have you eaten and drunk everything you can?" she said.
Wait it out for an hour or two and reassess how you feel. "I wish I'd sat on the trail for a few hours more, just to ensure I couldn't move even after taking an extended break," Clare said. "I still wouldn't have made the cut offs with how slowly I was moving, but that's the one thing I regret about the way my DNF played out.”
How to Start Running Again
Jason recommends runners keep a bigger picture in mind to recover, not just physically, but also mentally, from a DNF. “Appreciate the journey,” he said. “The race is only the icing. The real experience is the effort, sacrifice and transformation we experience physically, mentally and emotionally in preparing for a race.”
Here's how to bounce back and prepare for the next race.
Give Yourself Some Time to Recover: It took Jim 48 hours post-race to be able to hold down any food or fluids. After that, he took five days off to check out mentally and recharge for the next training block. Clare has taken as much as three weeks off after a big race like Leadville. Despite Jason’s drop being dramatic, its relation to a simple bug expedited his return to training, “I really didn't have to take time off after the race as my flu passed quickly," he said. "After a few days of feeling a bit weak, I was full strength and training just days after my drop.”
Put Another Race on the Calendar: Jim considers this a critical element to bouncing back mentally from a DNF or bad race. “Always have another race on the schedule to look forward to. Having UTMB (the 105-mile race held in the Alps on September 1st) on my race schedule helped me rebound from my DNF at Western, which also allowed me to put in a bigger training block in the mountains than I originally planned,” he said. “In bed shivering from my fever, I emailed the race director of UTMB and asked if I could join the sold-out race the following month. I needed to have a new challenge, a new goal in the near-term, to focus on and keep me from the depression of dropping out of Hardrock.”
Lean on Your Friends: Clare, who raced and won Courmayeur Champex Chamonix 100K (in affiliation with UTMB), urges runners to lean on their support networks, especially other runners who have been in similar scenarios. “Being around my close ultrarunner friends in Boulder really helped," she said. "My North Face teammate Stephanie Howe Violett was particularly kind after the race, explaining how it's a necessary experience to DNF and that there's always next time.”
I get by with a little (LOT) of help from my friends. . . I couldn't even tell you who this kind aid station volunteer is, but he helped me get ice after a hot climb up Devil's Thumb. To EVERYONE near and far who helped and supported me and the race, thank you. David Roche @addiedoesstuff helped me qualify for States and then helped me get to where I ended. Thank you. To the products that kept me going and will continue to keep me going, thank you. The most impressive product I wore was sewn by my mother: an ice bandana. Thanks, Mom. Also: . . @thenorthface for believing in very stupid ideas and making rad products, like a shirt so light you think your naked, to support said stupid ideas. @team_hotshot for making the best anti-cramp product that I downed 6 times on Saturday and never got a cramp. @ultimatedirectionusa for making the raddest packs that also support harebrained pursuits. @petzl_official for facilitating me to see the trail at night. This is critically underrated. Petzl headlamps make night running possible. @radboulder for feeding me leading up to the race while living in Boulder. @eatfrostd for feeding me 24/7, including yes, during States where I ate Tumeric Coconut frosting. @honeystinger for making the most consumable gels humanly possible. @flatironsrunning for supporting the Boulder running community. @westernstates100 and @ultratrailworldtour for putting on an incredible race. . Cheers 🙏 📸@geoffcordner