How to Gracefully DNF Races
Most people sign up for races with a 90 percent certainty that they will finish; I'm not most people.
If it feels like it's been a long time since I've wrote anything consistent here, that would be painfully accurate. There's not one particular reason that I can give you but I can throw out a few:
Through one on one interactions with people in the running community and with loved ones reminded me about the reasons why I constructed this crazy website Running Fat Chef and it damn sure wasn't for internet fame. I truly love blurbing about the highs, lows, unstable moments and adventure that comes with fitness, particularly running. By having a honest heart to heart with myself, I buried myself under a blanket, wrote down a list with my insecurities, rolled it into a shape of a blunt and decided to say "fuck all of that shit-- I'm writing again."
With that said, let's talk about my 2019 highs and lows before the year is out -- and let's start with my DNFs.
"Signing Up for 40+ Races Sounds Like a Great Idea" said no average person.
Just in case you know nothing about my 2019 calendar, I signed up for 40 plus races this year and at least 10 of them are marathon distances and beyond. If you have a decent understanding of the human body, realistically you should give yourself a month's time to heal before you start running regularly after a race day effort of 26.2 miles. Call it reckless, insanity or inspiring but I wanted to push past my own version of crazy and see where it took me -- even if it meant taking on races that wouldn't be forgiving to my slow AF speed. Thanks to the illustrious back to back long run days with ultrarunning, this calendar is not as neurotic as it appears. If you're training for a long run each week, you probably attempted parts of my calendar and didn't even know it.
Here's another secret: This is the slowest pace that I ran in my entire six years and I knew this in January. I was dealing with a bit of weird aches here and there with my chronic gynecological and gastrointestinal issues. Not knowing how to treat these things is a nuisance and unfortunately I didn't talk to the ovary gods hard enough to get them to schedule painful days on my recovery weeks.
A part of me was nervous about this reality but my cheap ass pockets and my personal commitment wouldn't allow me to back out of my pretentious schedule. Paying for most of your races and travel plans in advanced is no easy feat; I promised I'd only back out for my physical or mental health. I came to terms with moving at a slower pace by meeting followers or strangers on race day and trekking through the pain by listening to their personal journeys. I found this to be better than listening to podcasts or music most days.
The hardest part of signing up for so many races with a slow pace was admitting out loud to myself that I will possibly see more DNFs and DFLs than I'm comfortable with. For my non runners, DNF is short for did not finish and DFL is a pretty little way of saying dead fucking last. If you happened to stumble upon my blog by accident, there will be no elite stories here; I'm a sponsored plus size back of the pack athlete with a shit load of disabilities to match my profanity level and I don't apologize for any of it.
Embracing the suck and acknowledging your self-depreciating moments was the song and dance of my 2019. On Sunday, I'll have the opportunity to think about this blog entry for 37.2 miles; the following weekend, I'll have a 5K on Saturday and cursing for 26.2 miles about my insanity in Tulsa, Oklahoma at the Route 66 Marathon. Don't worry: I have one last hurrah in Texas for the Dallas Marathon in December as I race against an unforgiving 7 hour cutoff. While that time would've been enough for me last year, this year has been a stressful hairball shoved down my throat itching to float onto my mother in law's sofa.
How to Possibly DNF Your Race Before the Start Line
Just in case you think this is some click bait post for hits or this is some way of me making fun of myself for someone's amusement, it's truly not. In fact, to incur your first DNF at a race is one of the hardest things you can possibly do. I still remember my first experience with the Waschusett Mountains at the North Face Endurance Challenge Marathon. It took me a week to fully process not being able to complete that course but it taught me a lot about myself. If I simply cut a course short without learning a thing, I wouldn't be writing this post right now. The North Face Endurance Challenge gifted me with an introduction to the realities that most middle pack road runners know nothing about because they've maintained a decent 8 - 12 minute pace: Failure can gift you with a shit load of personal growth and grit.
As a slow paced trail and road runner, I learn something from both environments that prepared me for the endless pie of DNFs that I'd encounter this year: Patience. Peace. Perseverance. If you want to challenge your inner demons, sign up for a race that places you outside of your comfort zone. Nutty folks like me chose unforgiving courses like the Tokyo Marathon, Big Sur Marathon and the Javelina Jundred 100 Miler.
Although the Tokyo Marathon is not that hard in my opinion, the time cutoffs are not back of the pack friendly, even for someone who pushed a 13:30 pace for 6.2 kilometers before getting the friendly boot in the rectum. As if being in the back end of the race wasn't hard enough, the race goes according to gun time not crossing, leaving a poor bastard like me with 6 hours, 15 minutes with no bathroom breaks available versus the starting line's 7 hour. And if you're one of those people who don't read fine print, you can get snatched off every 5K if you fall behind in pace. Ultimately, I sealed my fate after waiting on a ridiculously long Disney line bathroom, missing my cutoff by approximately 31 seconds.
Maybe time isn't your thing and you want to die by climb, test your strength with the Big Sur Marathon. With an elevation gain over 2,000 feet, it made a sea level, painfully flat Brooklyn girl lose her marbles before starting. Even with training on the stair master and running across bridges, I didn't have enough speed to chalk it past the 21st mile. My podcast partner Martinus Evans - Mr. 300 Pounds and Running - and I rode on the course by car and knew we were in deep shit before starting. And even if you don't decide to absorb in the beauty that Highway One has to offer, take a moment to lock eyes with the devil called the elevation map to amuse yourself. Despite mentally preparing myself for miles 8 - 11 with a 1,000 plus climb, I didn't factor how dead my quads would feel after getting past the hardest sections of the course. By mile 13, I had a conversation with my therapist in my head and contacted ER for my ego multiple times before being greeted by a cheese bus -- one of which I didn't argue about.
Or maybe you're too good for the road and require a special sort of damage that only the trails can offer? Javelina Jundred 100 miler is definitely the place to test your marbles. Can I be honest with y'all? I knew a few months ago that I had a high chance of not crossing the finish line and had every reason not to show up. One hundred miles is not an easy feat anywhere even if the description is 'flattish.' When the shitty little emails from trolls started lingering in accusing me of being "under trained, overweight and a fluke," it made my heart flutter in search for middle fingers that I longed to borrow from my ancestors.
In my opinion, after 50 miles, you are opening up layers of yourself that you don't know exist. Combine that with the heat in the desert and you can watch all of your plans instantaneously go to the wayside. Ultra marathons on any type of trail means you need to be a nutritionist, weather man, an adventurer and a medic all in one. Ultra runners push past the most zaniest of things that road runners might side eye us for five minutes straight. Last year I pushed my highest distance of 100K on this same course; this year, my body cursed me out something vicious and threw me into a garbage pile after 22.8 miles. Despite the temperatures being lower than the scorching sun from last year, one rookie mistake took my plans of pushing it to at least 80 miles to being overly hydrated and suggested my a medical team to cut it short. Did I mention that I was so excited that I forgot to take off my wedding ring -- an item that a very skilled medical team had to literally shoe string floss off my finger. Spoiler Alert: It's much more painful than your imagination may think.
Although I have more successes than incomplete races this year, it's hard to callous yourself enough to earn a graceful DNF.
Unfuck Your Ego: What I Learned from DNFing Races
The hardest pill to swallow about DNFing is facing your own reflection.
Some people hate the idea of walking away from a race empty handed. No medals. No tee shirt. No pretty race day picture at the finish line. Others are worried about the backlash from loved ones or in my case, some Mighty Morphin Keyboard Power Ranger behind a computer suggesting that I drop down to half marathon distances until I "get better" because of whatever diagnosis that their fragile brains developed for me.
Whether it's your own negative self talk to some concern troll trying to measure your worth, acknowledge the words, dissect it and dispose the rest of the fecal matter into the toilet. Congratulations: You DNFed a race. If you're a road runner, this might be your first and last. If you're a trail runner taking on crazy distances, welcome to your first of possibly many.
I cannot speak for anyone else but I'll take you through my 'crazy' and the satisfaction of attempting versus not signing up: I don't know my worth if I don't aspire to see my failures. Sorry not sorry but this society is Charmin tissue soft at moments. Allow me to remind you of something that we possibly learned in grade school: You will not win every battle but there's a lesson in everything, especially our failures.
As cheesy as it may sound, my best results stimulate from great losses. Sometimes they're expensive as all hell. For instance, that Tokyo Marathon cost me close to 5,000 USD -- ah, good times. It's easy to only factor in the race entry but I traveled abroad with my husband. Selfishly I used that race as a way to celebrate my wedding anniversary but my head wasn't in a good space for a month. I hit an unbelievable mental low where I questioned my new career choice. A terrible mental space can ruin your race day experience. If I was able to talk to my past self before race day, I would've told her to do more things to relax my mind instead of tripping out about being a sponsored athlete who might fail with a bunch of onlookers.
The Big Sur Marathon attempt motivated me to take it on for 2020. In fact, I became an ambassador to this amazing course. Having those miles on my feet gave me a better understanding of how much I need to condition my body to break six hours and give it my all. The views are beyond amazing and despite being one of the last people out there, the course was super supportive and I met some of the kindest runners that I crossed in ages. Even when miles 8 - 10 feel like shit, I can always look to the left for the natural Bob Ross picture worthy scene.
Although Javelina Jundred is my hands down favorite trail race, there's a heavy chance that I will not be able to go back for a redemption in 2020 due to a date conflict for another major race. Let's keep our fingers and toes crossed for 2021. The 100K and 100 mile distance helped me discover my why for this year. I cannot define your reason why you may or may not push for endurance distances but for me, I always think "Why not?"
When I'm on most courses, I tend to not see myself in others: A muscular plus size African American woman with a host of disabilities. Granted, there's plenty of people with layers of these physical attributes but I'm surrounded by a multitude of like minded people who respect the distance. Our reasons and physical characteristics may differ but I've never been surrounded by a bunch of lovable lunatics in one area. Because lets face it: Nobody just casually wake up and do 100 or more miles thinking it's not going to hurt. We kinda crave the pain that we will meet at whatever mile marker and it's a weird sense of accomplishment once you hit a certain milestone. With that said, I found my tribe and they're amazing. And yeah -- I'm already on the hunt for another 100 to attempt.
Processing Your Post Race DNF
I realize there's an influx of articles available on the internet for post marathon/race blues but not much support to those who come in last or their race is abruptly cut short. My 2019 calendar gifted me my first marathon disqualification - something that I haven't reached a personal peace with considering I didn't know I was detoured - and four DNFs from the marathon or ultra distance.
My Tokyo Marathon experience taught me first hand that I could be there for someone else in their time of need or hurt. I witnessed a lot of people who weren't visually processing the cutoff as easy as I was. It taught me how to be a listening ear towards my fellow runners. And while standing around for a while, I looked at the volunteers who worked hard as the bearer of bad news. Despite a language barrier, one volunteer hugged me and patted my back to show empathy; that moment helped me in more ways than I knew at that moment.
At the end of my Big Sur adventure, the course marshal showed me a level of humanity that I wish other race directors could've witnessed. Telling a person who trained for months that their journey is being cut short is not easy. I was given an option and warning about my pace a few times before boarding the bus. Once wobbling on in pain, a woman made space for me as other people clapped for every person who entered. We cheered other runners who were pressing on through the hilly course. At the finish, volunteers still asked if I needed help with anything.
For those who know how vocal I was about the Berlin Marathon experience on my social media know that I am exceptionally unsettled about that experience. As a person who study courses and scan through the rules multiple times before committing to a race, I was disgusted by the gray areas that took place on race day. In my mind, I already made peace with the cutoffs but my hopes were up after a handful of race staff, not volunteers, told a great deal of people that we could continue on with the race on the sidewalk and still have the opportunity to cross the finish line. With this glimmer of optimism unlike the very and followed through rules of Tokyo, I pushed through the miles ahead of me, even taking on a group of runners who were falling behind because of physical, mental and emotional fatigue.
Although I'm no stranger to motivating people to finish a course, this was the first time that I felt the figurative egg on my face bringing a group of people into a barricaded finish with no way to document their finish line or receive a medal. Learning that I convinced a bunch of people to not opt for a bus and finding out on social media that they could've possibly received a finisher's medal there left me infuriated. This experience taught me to speak up on behalf of a community to possibly change things for future athletes. Whether this means that this race will stick to their own rules or adopt a NYC Marathon style celebration to the end is not known. Hearing from some of the people that came along to the finish with me that they were grateful to push through 26.2 miles either for the first time or not feeling like they were alone in such a bittersweet moment reminded me of why I chose to be a sponsored athlete in the first place -- even when the online backlash came my direction.
I will never knock someone who hits first place or run strictly for medals, bragging rights or anything in between. My purpose for running evolved over the years. Being a sponsored athlete for several companies and not being a podium runner is a relatively new thing. Some people think it's a step up from being a glorified influencer or bit gimmicky in the name of diversity and inclusion. Others love the idea of being able to see themselves through an athlete. Granted, I never aspired to be the sponsored DNFing athlete but I am grateful to be able to tell my authentic story of perseverance, patience and peace through fitness. My training is unorthodox but at some point of history, every new concept was 'different.'
My personal way of overcoming the handful of DNFs that I received thus far is to keep moving. Most successful people in history failed countless times before they ever saw a success; some people are tenacious enough to talk about it. If you want to push past a DNF, examine what went wrong and consider tackling the same event or something different. Perhaps your running event DNF left you disheartened with the sport, there's nothing wrong with that. Take a step back and reevaluate it in a few weeks when the wounds aren't so fresh. If you are truly done with the sport, don't be afraid to diversify your portfolio. Look into cycling, maybe even swimming. Incorporate two to three different worlds by looking into obstacle course racing, duathlons or triathlons. Go completely balls to the wall by testing out your endurance in power lifting or body building. Athletes aren't limited to just one area. The beauty of being human is the ability to multitask, explore and be passionate about a multitude of areas.
I'm taking this mindset with me for my last three endurance events, particularly this weekend's NYRR 60K. And about those who concern themselves about your time, distance or race choices: Perhaps in their minds it's coming from a good place but that has nothing to do with your purpose. Even if a person is privy to your personal intentions, it doesn't grant them the right to doctor your success. The only way you can truly fail is if you allow others to convince you on why you should give your absolute best a possible starting line.
Thank you for this. You’ve helped me move past a DNF and have the will to try again. I love the part about the beauty of being human. You are a beautiful human.
I do not aspire to run. But thanks so much for sharing your journey. I'm sure you provided some DNF with some hope to keep going!
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Latoya Shauntay Snell
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