What I Learned From My First DNF

DNF- the dreaded dnf. 

Every runner knows what it means.  It means Did Not Finish.  You trained for 16 weeks and now you didn’t finish.  Why didn’t you finish?  For me, it was a pothole and then running 10 miles after falling into it and twisting my knee.  No, I did not make it all the way. I wish I could give you some big story about limping over the finish line with tears streaming down my cheeks but I cant. And if I did, I might not have ever run again.  It was the first time that I have ever not finished a race and thank goodness it wasn’t my first marathon because I would have been heartbroken.  

As it was, the psychological impact of not finishing something that I was so goal oriented to do and trained for so long to do was huge.  I remember after they popped my knee cap back into place, I had to wait for the golf cart to take all of us invalids to the finish line.  All I could think was that I should have kept going.  This little rest was fine.  Yes, my knee was sprained and yes the patella had been pressing on my MCL.  Yes, like the Rothman doctor had said, if I had ripped through it it would have been surgery and 6 months of downtime along with physical therapy. 

…but it was JUST 8 more miles!  

This is, of course, total runners logic.  8 more miles to most people sounds like a stupid amount, much less to do it after running ten miles with your patella forced out of the socket and pressing away at a ligament.  But this is indeed how runners think and while I couldn’t control that pothole, I spent a good amount of my time kicking myself for one; falling into it and two; not strength training enough so that I could take that fall and keep going.  Of course, these are stupid things because there was no stopping that.  I have been running for three years and never had an injury so I was already beating the statistics so to me, it felt like a huge failure.  

After a bit of time to reflect on this though, there are many positive things that I can take away from my DNF for future running/ races.  

  1. You can’t control everything…even when you think you have: Nothing about this marathon training cycle went to plan.  I intended to do the San Antonio Rock and Roll but the women I was meant to run with bailed so I put in for the Philly Marathon which was two weeks earlier.  I didn’t know the course.  My timing was off.  I didn’t tamper and the longest run I did was 18 and not my normal 23.  
  2. People will understand:  I was so ashamed I didn’t get to the finish line.  This was my first year with my running group and it wasn’t even my first marathon but there they all were… passing me and wondering where I was at the finish line.  But the truth is that in the end not only did they not care but they were extremely supportive.  The next day one of my teammates came over and actually gave her her metal and brought me lunch.  She reminded me that it wasn’t about a finish line.  It’s about grit.  And nothing says grit like running on a sprained knee for ten miles.  
  3. Not every race is going to go well:  It seems self-explanatory but the only races that didn’t go well for me have been 10ks or shorter.  In the long run, it’s no big deal.  Yes, my knee sprain was the thing that knocked me out but the truth was that my mind was just not in the same place as it had been in previous races and Marathons.  Sometimes it’s just not your day.  
  4. Runners mindset isn’t always a good thing:  I ran ten miles on my sprained knee.  Ten entire miles.  I call that grit.  But really it is just plain stupid on some level.  We have to acknowledge our limitations as runners sometimes.  Nothing was more apparent to me then when I finally pulled off at mile 18 and asked a police officer where the closest med tent was.  He asked me what was wrong and I told him that I had fallen in a pothole.  He looked around for it and I said “No no.  It was at mile eight.”  This poor man looked me dead in the face and said: “What is wrong with you people?!”  Clearly, he had dealt with enough runner fuckery that day.  The lesson is that I need to be able to recognize what is grit and what is just stupid.  
  5. Redefining the word failure:  The word failure means so many bad things to so many of us but redefining failure as a learning experience is one of the best things that we can do for ourselves in the long run.  Failure doesn’t have to be a dirty word and it doesn’t have to be something that stops us from trying again in the future.  Redefining this word has given me so much over the last few months and taught me lessons that I would have otherwise just called disasters and a waste of my time.  

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