The DNF 101 Guide

The dreaded DNF; Did Not Finish is the runner’s mental kryptonite. It is the one thing we dread and that we strive hard to avoid. When it happens it’s like a punch in the stomach, a kick in the ‘cohones’. Physically it can be a release, a relief, but mentally and emotionally it is anything but and will cause a deal of questioning, angst, fretting and navel gazing.

I have been a DNF on four occasions.

The first was Lochaber Marathon in 2004. Having set off too fast, I was left staggering about in the middle of the road in pain and vomiting at 22 miles when the Lochaber Mountain Rescue guys pulled up.

‘You OK?’


‘Are you in pain?’
‘Yes and I want to stop’.

‘You only have 4 miles to go. How about we rub your legs’

‘Err OK. But I don’t think I can finish’

‘Yes you can, you can’t stop now, it’s only 4 miles’.

Several minutes later after staggering another 50 metres along the road, I clambered into the van.

This was followed shortly by my daughter saying to her dad;

‘There’s Mum. Why is she in that van?

Cue mad family rush to the ambulance that I was deposited in and much consternation and tears amongst the female contingent of the family. Not cool.

The second was at Clyde Stride 40 in 2012. Ignominiously caught by the sweeper at 8 miles out he nursed me to the 10 mile check-point. Energy levels were the issue so I piled in some food and we set out for the next 10 miles. My progress was erratic and I was definitely done by the half way check point where I just lay pathetically curled up on the grass before Alasdair took me home. The only saving grace being that there were only about 3 people there to see it.

The third was 2 months later when I was hit by the same energy, or lack thereof, issue at the Highland Perthshire Marathon. The wheels came off the bus suddenly and spectacularly at about 10 miles. I continued to a bit over halfway and bailed. The organisers very kindly awarded me a half marathon medal, which ironically made the whole DNF shame worse. Alasdair was somewhat surprised when he looked up from his coffee and cake to see my forlorn face coming through the café, and then resigned as he realised his moment of peace was about to be lost to much ‘wailing and hair rending’ as I bemoaned my fate.

Fast forward now to January 2016 and my DNF at the inaugural Glentress Trail Marathon which could at a push be seen as a tactical withdrawal as I have bigger fish to fry in the coming months. I was under-trained, had been advised not to do it which was always going to cast a seed of doubt, and thanks to various external factors and hassles my head was simply not in the right place.

There is no escaping the fact that there is considerable mental and emotional fallout from a DNF. No matter how hard your sensible head tries to convince you it was the right thing to do you still run round in little circles with the ‘what if?’ and ‘should I have?’ questions. It can also put a seriously elephant sized dent in your confidence.  It is, however, inescapable and will by the law of averages happen to everyone sooner or later. It is part of that character building process: you need the failures to make you stronger and make you appreciate the successes.

Here we go, Audrey’s 101 guide to the DNF:

Your chance of a DNF may increase if any of the following apply:

  • You’ve entered a race just because you’re in a panic that you don’t have anything in your race calendar
  • If you haven’t got the training in and have not adjusted your race plan and expectations
  • You are toeing the start line on the basis of  ‘I’m not wasting the entry fee’
  • Using the ‘I’ll treat it as a training run’ line which rarely works because some highly competitive monster takes over and you will find yourself charging along at PB pace

When the thought pops into your head:

  • Sometimes it’s just the chimp so it is worth having the debate and trying to put the chimp back in the cage. Foam bananas can be an effective bribe/reward
  • Consider buddying up – it could just be a rough patch and a bit of company and a distraction could get you through it.  A chatting 'Wombill' is particularly good
  • Find a distraction – music, counting, visualisation, making it to that next corner or tree or landmark, counting your jelly babies, trying to remember why on earth you thought this was a good idea
  • You would be amazed at what a motivator knowing that there is someone else out there having a worse time than you. And I don’t mean taking pleasure out of seeing your fellow runners suffer. Try having a few torch songs in that play list they work wonders.
  • Never under-estimate the power of the power ballad

If it does happen:

  • You live to fight another day
  • You have other races to do
  • Why make an injury worse, they heal if you allow them to
  • Races generally do not go away so there is always next year
  • It’s not a sign of weakness or a lack of motivation
  • In fact it can be quite the opposite: it shows strength and sense to be able to make the right and often tough decision
  • You will get over it, you will focus and you will come back stronger and more motivated
  • Move on, it’s in the past and nothing can be done about it
  • Learn the lessons and focus on righting the wrongs for the next event
  • Set your next goal and get right back into the saddle (injury permitting)
  • Wear it with pride. It is a battle scar. At least you tried; you know, that whole, ‘it’s better to have tried and failed than failed to try’ thing
  • By all means seek comfort in cake, chocolate, gin, wine, beer …..