I Had My First DNF … And It Didn’t Suck

DISCLAIMER: This is the story of my first DNF. This is not a story about failure, heartbreak or disappointment.

To have faith doesn’t mean you get any less frustrated when you don’t do your best, but you know that it’s not life and death. Take what you’re given, and when you continue to work hard, you will see results. That will give you the confidence you need to keep going. – Tom Lehman

Nobody logs on to Ultrasignup to find a race to DNF. Nobody rushes to the computer to register for an ultramarathon that sells out in seven minutes hoping to only run 40 percent of it. We dream of success, whether it’s in running, sports, business or life in general. Coming up short isn’t a goal or an aspiration, yet it happens to all of us at some point in our lives.

On Saturday at the Worlds End 100K, it happened to me.

Before we get to the details of what happened, let’s take a step back. I registered for Worlds End back in the cold months hoping to complete my first race of more than 50 miles. More importantly, I wanted to get a finisher’s buckle and a Western States qualifier, even if it would give me a less than two percent chance at being selected for the big dance. Hey, two percent is a heck of a lot more than zero percent, right?

I keep a daily gratitude list. This is my list from race day, written at 4:15 a.m. while drinking coffee in my car.

I was one of the 175 or so people lucky enough to register in those seven minutes before the race sold out. I followed that up by finding an aggressive training plan to hopefully get me to the finish line in the 19 hours needed to get that Western qualifier.

And I trained. I trained in brutal cold, snow, rain and wind. I trained at 5 a.m. in the dark on the road and on trails. I started regular strength training and yoga, and I became so intimate with my foam roller that I felt a little bit dirty using it without putting a diamond ring on it.

I had run just two weeks of more than 60 miles before this year, and one of them was the week of the Cayuga Trails 50 last year. In the 16 weeks leading up to Worlds End, I topped 60 miles seven times and would have on two other occasions, but a flat tire one Saturday and work commitments on another weekend kept me under 60 in those two weeks. I ran 831.5 miles in those 16 weeks, a significant increase from any training block I’d ever done.

I did the work. I was ready. But 63.8 miles at Worlds End is no walk in the park. Could I push myself farther and for longer than I ever had? There was only one way to find out.

Four reminders to keep me focused on what’s important during the race. I’d like to think I followed them all until my race ended.

Race morning came and I was nervous, but content. When race director David Walker sent us on our way at 5 a.m., I was relaxed and focused on being steady and smart. I had written a few key thoughts on my hand next to my watch as reminders whenever I would peak at the distance or pace. If I could follow my own advice, it would be a good day, or so I thought.

I knew the first 27 miles of the course, having run it in the 50K last year. For the first five-plus hours, I ran steady, strong and smart. I didn’t push the hills too hard, but I focused on a smooth transition from running to power hiking in order to conserve time and energy. It was working. I was hitting all my splits for a hopeful finish of 14:30.

I came through the Canyon Vista aid station just past the 22-mile mark continuing to feel strong. A very runnable section followed that I kept a steady, but smart pace on, hiking only through a small uphill and one swampy spot. But about a mile and half outside the aid station, disaster struck.

I don’t know if I let my guard down or what, but about 50 yards before the trail crossed a dirt road, my left foot slipped on some slightly angled roots that crossed the trail. When my left foot flew out from underneath me, I guess I put my right foot down as fast as I could to try to stop my fall. Instead, I fell directly on that foot with my ankle buckling underneath me and my knee twisting inward.

I heard a loud crack when I went down and truly expected to find a crooked foot when I got my leg out from underneath me. Fortunately, I was wrong, but I knew I was hurt. (I still don’t know what that loud crack was, but apparently it was not a bone.)

My friend Josh happened to be at the road crossing and came up to see what had happened. He and another guy with him helped me hobble down to the road after I realized I could put some weight on my foot. My friend Rob was less than a minute behind me in the race and he stopped, as well, to make sure I was alright. I had to practically beg him to go on without me, and I was grateful from that moment forward that he cared so much to stop and make sure I was OK.

After walking back and forth on the dirt road and attempting to jog lightly, I talked over the situation with Josh and decided to attempt to get to the next aid station about 3.5 miles away. If the ankle responded well, I might still have a shot to finish, as I had 13 hours to complete the final 39 miles at that point. If not, I’d be able to officially drop out and get a ride to the finish from the aid station.

So I set on my way, but knew almost immediately that it probably wasn’t going to happen. Navigating the technical parts of the trail was very dicey on a damaged ankle. And any downhills hurt badly. The flats and uphills were fine as I could power hike just as well as I could before the injury. But I couldn’t run for more than maybe 100 steps at most, and it was much more of a shuffle than a run.

One benefit of walking in before a DNF – getting to snap a photo of one of my favorite spots on the course.

About halfway to the aid station, I came to another road crossing and saw another friend, Tony. I told him what had happened and he told me that if I could gut my way to the 50-mile mark that he would finish the race with me, no matter what time it was. While that gave me hope, I knew just a short while later that my day was done. It took me almost 90 minutes to cover that 3.5 miles, which was too slow to make the cutoff to finish. Plus, that 3.5 miles was some of the easiest terrain on the course.

So I came to terms with my DNF. Truly, the only moment I was upset was when I realized I wasn’t going to get a buckle for finishing. I stopped, put my hands on my knees, cursed in my head for a split second, then picked my head up and walked the rest of the way to the aid station to drop out. Feeling sorry for myself was not an option.

It would be easy to assume that this moment is when my day ended. But in a lot of ways, it’s the moment it began. The aid station where I dropped out was the Coal Mine Aid Station, run by the Pagoda Pacers. If you’ve never run or know nothing about the Worlds End Ultramarathons, this aid station is the absolute best. When a runner approaches in the distance, the first person to spot him or her yells, “Runner up!” and the rest of the volunteers start cheering. There’s music blasting, there are more positive vibes than you can imagine, and it’s just a heck of a great group of people.

(Even before you get to the aid station, some of the members of the Pagoda Pacers are perched along a small rock climb with a horn and shouts of encouragement. I was wearing a Blues Cruise 50K hat, a race run by the Pagoda Pacers, which elicited some hearty cheers and high fives from the group as I went by. I didn’t have the heart to tell them I was about to DNF because I was so grateful for that kind of support in the middle of the woods miles from civilization.)

I hobbled in and apologized to the aid station captain for having to drop out, but he understood when I told him what happened. He took my bib and radioed for a ride to come pick me up. I turned to find another volunteer with an empty chair ready for me and the perfect words to soothe my bruised ego … “Want a beer?”

It turns out that a cold beer does make a DNF feel just a little bit better.

YOU’RE DAMN RIGHT I DO!

The beer, some food and an ice pop hit the spot. But what really helped was being around the atmosphere at that aid station for about 30-40 minutes while waiting for a ride. Listening to them cheer for every runner who came through (including the leader in the 50K race) and just being in the midst of that much positivity and enthusiasm was a big lift. It also helped that there was actually cell phone service and I was able to text my family and a few friends to let them know what was going on.

The other bright side of my DNF was that I’d be back to the finish in plenty of time to see a lot of friends finish the 50K. If I couldn’t achieve my own success, at least I could be there to witness theirs.

The finish line at an ultramarathon is one of the most unique places you can imagine. It’s a party, with music, food and, at least at this race, plenty of beer. And much like the aid stations, when I runner approaches the finish line, everyone stops what they’re doing to cheer. It doesn’t matter if it’s the winner setting a new course record or someone just happy to finish. Everyone gets the same high five from David Walker, who immediately asks how their race went. It’s a community, through and through.

Being able to be a part of that community while watching my friends finish was probably just as rewarding as if I had finished my own race. My friends Heidi, Brian, Amy, Bill and Taryn all completed their first ultramarathons. My friend Moriah crushed her race while training for bigger and more impressive things later this summer. My friend Nate improved his time from last year significantly while finishing 14th in the 50K. And while I left before he finished, Rob completed his race despite brutal conditions late in the 100K thanks to swampy conditions exacerbated by an evening thunderstorm during the race.

Getting to hear their stories and see the joy on their faces was the perfect remedy for my swollen ankle. I felt bad because a few of them immediately went from joy to shock when they realized I was there when I shouldn’t have been, and for that I’m sorry. I certainly didn’t want to distract from the joy of their accomplishment. Fortunately, the surprised looks wore off quickly and were replaced by excitement in telling me about their races.

In the end, it was a good day, even if it wasn’t the day I hoped for. Was I happy that I DNF’d? Heck no, but a lot of good things came from it. And even if I don’t have the ultrasignup result to show for it, I’ll certainly never forget this race.

Here are just a few (OK, more than a few) things that will stick with me from the 2019 Worlds End Ultramarathons:

  • Starting a race in the dark is actually a fun experience. I trained on the trails at 5 a.m. a few times in preparation, but being out there with other trail runners in the dark was a fun experience.
  • About four miles into the race, there was a spot where we ran on an old fire road on a slight incline for a few hundred yards. It was just starting to get light out and there was a bit of fog in the woods. It was an eery, yet beautiful sight looking through that fog at another runner about 75 yards ahead of me.
  • I chatted with a woman early in the race when I was curious what kind of shoes she was wearing. We talked about about the course and I asked how she had done in the race last year. She said, “Really well. I finished in 15 hours.” It turns out that runner was Becky Kosek, who won the women’s race last year. Doh!
  • Less than a mile before the second aid station, I caught my toe on a rock while hopping down a small decline and did a full Superman fall into soft dirt. Considering how technical the course is, I dodged a bullet. (Unfortunately I didn’t dodget he second one that came at me a couple hours later.)
  • The fourth aid station is across the street from the park office, which means there are a lot of spectators there. The support and the cheering was almost overwhelming and the emotions hit me for a split second as I ran into that aid station. You really can feel the love and support at this race, which is I guess why it’s so popular.
  • One of my reminders written on my hand was to smile. Less than a mile before I took my tumble, I tested that tip and you know what? It works. I was running alone in the woods, so smiling seemed a little bit weird, but it really did give me a bit of a boost. It’s definitely a trick I’ll remember for future races.
  • I’m truly grateful that Josh was there when I got hurt. Talking to him put me in the right frame of mind to assess the situation and make the right decision. While I still had to DNF, testing the ankle on the
    This was the status of my ankle the morning after the race. Not really that bad, all things considered.

    trail was the right move. It ultimately turned out to be a sprain (an x-ray Sunday morning was negative), so if I had dropped out immediately and later found out my ankle wasn’t broken, I might have always had a bit of “what if” in the back of my head. Josh’s advice helped me realize I was OK to test the ankle from there to the Coal Mine Aid Station, and I’m thankful for his advice.

  • The energy and positivity at the Coal Mine Aid Station is second to none. Those people deserve whatever good comes their way.
  • Getting to see my friends succeed in their races was extremely rewarding. I’ll never forget seeing Nate come across the finish line looking strong and knowing he had crushed his time from last year. And having trained and spent countless time talking with Heidi and Brian as they prepared for their first ultra made it even more exciting to see them finish.

A lot of people have commented that I trained so hard for so long only to have this happen, but I don’t look at it as a waste of time or effort over the past 16 weeks. I learned a lot about myself in those 16 weeks. I learned that I can handle the serious mileage required to run serious distances. I learned that I have the mental strength to get through difficult times during training, both during a run and while handling the cumulative affect of long, hard miles. And most importantly, I learned that the process is just as important as the result, and sometimes even more so.

As I mentioned, the injury is only a sprain and shouldn’t keep me out of commission for too long. Most importantly, I should be able to run the Silver Rush 50 in Leadville, Colo., in five weeks, which I’ve been looking forward to for months. So, while Saturday wasn’t my day in terms of results, the outcome of the day is still something I’ll remember fondly for as long as my mind will allow.

Now, where’s the pizza and beer?

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