DNF: Did Not Fail?

“You can do this. Don’t give up!” the pace leader chirped as she ran past mile 19. “I can’t! I’m done!” I shouted. I ‘Did Not Finish’ (DNF) my first marathon.

Seeing ‘DNF’ next to your name is something every runner dreads. We are a tenacious bunch, especially marathon runners. Whenever I feel overwhelmed with life, I think about the marathons I’ve run and tell myself I can do anything. DNF was never an option. I’m the type of person who reads a book to the end no matter how awful because I can’t stand not to finish what I start.

Last year, I organised a ‘runcation’ and trained a group of women for the Tucson marathon in December. Some of the women were first time marathoners so I chose Tucson because of its reputation as a fast course and the promise of poolside prickly-pear margaritas after the race would be a welcome respite from endless training.

Training went well and everyone was on track to achieve her goals. Unfortunately my perfect plan unravelled. The taper coincided with a catastrophic flood in our house while my husband was on business travel. Instead of rest, I got a lesson in plumbing and construction while working with contractors to put the house back together. I looked forward to running a marathon so I could relax!

Marathon morning was picture perfect and I was feeling confident, strong, and ready to PB. The first 15K were effortless and I was on track according to my personalised pace band. However, shortly after kilometre 15, I slammed into the dreaded wall like a bad Nascar wreck. My legs felt like dead weight, my thirst was insatiable, and worst of all I started having heart palpitations! Surely this was a desert mirage! I slowed down hoping the miserable feeling would pass but my spirit broke when a couple of my trainees passed me and faded into the horizon like the closing credits of a movie.

Half-heartedly, I shuffled ahead trying in vain to rip off my pace band that seemed to mock me at every kilometre. Another one of my trainees caught up to me and offered to stay with me even though it would cost her a PB. As a coach, I’m usually the one to show support and encouragement so this role reversal made me very uncomfortable. I insisted she keep running and promised to stop at the next distance marker. My heart began racing again and at kilometre 30, I collapsed into the arms of a race volunteer. Shaking and crying, I begged to be taken to the finish. She radioed for the sag wagon but it was at kilometre 10! Standing on the sideline watching the stream of runners pass me by was torture and I was bitter that I was no longer among them. It wasn’t fair! I worked so hard training my group and took great care to plan the perfect marathon trip but would have nothing to show for it! Through my tears, I spotted some relay runners crossing to a parking lot and chased after them marveling at my sudden sprinting capabilities. For a fleeting moment I thought maybe I could get it together and run the last 12K but instead, between snotty sobs, asked for a ride to the finish.

When I walked through my hotel lobby, the staff congratulated me. “Thanks,” I muttered not bothering to tell them I didn’t finish. I sat in my room feeling sorry for myself and called my family. My 10-year-old daughter said, “Mommy, I am so proud of you. I could never run 30K.” I had never thought of it that way. Rather than looking at how far I had gone, I focused on how I fell short. The race turned out completely different than I expected and it was OK. It wasn’t my day and in choosing to literally listen to my heart, I was able to cut my losses and not risk my health. I lived up to my coaching advice that taking care of oneself and avoiding injury is more important than achieving a PB. Ultimately it was just a race and there will always be another marathon. My training was not in vain as I had a great time logging many Ks with some pretty awesome women who all achieved their goals and I got to relax by the pool with a few prickly-pear margaritas.

Perhaps I will give myself permission to DNF the next book that doesn’t hold my interest!

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