I have not yet experienced a Did Not Finish (DNF) in an ultramarathon race. On the contrary, I quite often quit races in my previous life when I was competing in shorter 10K, half-marathon and trail runs. The reason for the DNFs was always that I during the run realized that I would not reach my time goal and therefore could not motive myself to continue to suffer the requested pain to complete the race with a good time. I also saw no reason just to jog to the finish line to get a medal for completion. This is clearly different from ultramarathons were my primary goal always has been to just complete the race within the time limits. And, I have so far not even been close to not meeting the cut-off times, probably as I mostly have been running in races with generous ones. I think not meeting the cut-off times is one of the major reasons for DNFs in ultramarathons, looking at the number of participants in most 100 miles and longer races who complete the race close to the final cut-off there is not much margin for the inevitable lows that always occurs during such a long race before a DNF is occurring. I usually start my ultras to fast and even though it will make me suffer more during the latter part of the race and I probably loose time I am usually way before the cut-off times already at the beginning of the race. I have recently read some excellent blog posts about DNFs, in particular Andy Cole´s at his blog “Running Late” , James Adam’s at his blog “Running and Stuff – When going through hell keep blogging” , Sam Robson’s at his blog “One Foot in Front of the Other” and Kevin O'Rourke’s at his blog “Ultra Kev's thoughts on Ultra Running” and I will in this post briefly summarize those thoughts and my own.
That I have not DNF’d an ultra yet does not mean that I have not thought about dropping out during the races – it is constantly there luring as a quick way out. To me, however, a DNF when the goal is to finish the race is really a four letter word. Finishing an ultra is to me over 90% mentally how to embrace and endure pain and discomfort in all sorts of varieties and to DNF, if it is not physically impossible to finish due to a serious acute injury or medical emergency like a fall or similar, would be to fail completely. I think it much better, and safer, to Do Not Start (DNS) if you have any risk of getting a physical injury during the race making a DNF a necessity. Once over the starting line it really is all about getting back over the finish line. Period. I do not want to be sitting on the “death bus” back to the finish after a DNF feeling like a MTFU just because I had a bad day. The statement “Pain is temporary, quitting is forever” is truth.
On the other hand I think having a “Better Dead than DNF” mentality in absurdum is a sign of real stupidity and immaturity. To continue a race when there is a real risk for physical impairment and even death is like making a summit climb of a high mountain without thinking about the safe descent, or to put it in Ed Viestur’s words “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory”. At Tor des Géants it was close that I did not get down but instead had stumbled into oblivion when I fell asleep running on the small single-track traversing on a steep ridge the last night of the race. In the sleep deprived state I was in I did not act rational and did not take the right decision to stay in a refugio and sleep for a couple of hours - I would still have finished on a really good time and certainly within the cut-off time limits. Earlier during TDG I had periods of excruciating pain, so severe that thoughts of DNF also entered my mind, in my right knee, my Achilles tendons and in my feet, but these episodes were transient lasting for a couple of hours before improving, with the exception of the pain from my foot blisters and no one has to my knowledge ever died from acute blisters.
|The finisher fleece from TDG - it would have been sad to not receive it|
There are a number of scientific demographic studies looking at the reasons why runners DNF ultramarathons and the demographic characteristics of finishers versus non-finishers. Wegelin and Hoffman looked at finishers and non-finishers of 3956 individual runners between 1986 and 2007 in Western States Endurance Run, perhaps the most classic 100-mile (161 kilometers) race (Wegelin & Hoffman. Variables associated with odds of finishing and finish time in a 161-km ultramarathon. Eur J Appl Physiol 2011; 111: 145-153). The race was also until 2008 the largest 100-mile race in the US and accounted around 20% of all 161-km ultramarathon finishes in North America. Average annual finish rates at the WSER have ranged from 51 to 80% since 1986 (Hoffman and Wegelin 2009). Factors found to be associated with an enhanced likelihood of finishing the WSER included being a first-time starter, and advancing calendar years, i.e. there were more finishers in 2007 than in 1986 (probably due to the fact that first-time runners had increased exposure to other ultramarathons before starting WSER in 2007 than in 1986), for first-timers and those who had finished at least 75% of their previous starts. Factors that were associated with a lower likelihood of finishing the WSER included advancing age above 38 years and increasing ambient temperature. Women and men under 38 years were equally likely to finish, but beyond 38 years women had a lower likelihood of finishing than men. Furthermore, advancing age between 38 and 50 years decreased the odds of finishing at a more rapid rate among women compared with men. While higher ambient temperature was associated with a reduced probability of finishing, there was no evidence that the higher temperatures affected the likelihood of finishing differently for men and women.
|From Wegelin & Hoffman 2011|
|From Wegelin & Hoffman 2011|
worldwide—a retrospective data analysis from 1998 to 2011. Extreme Physiology & Medicine 2013; 2: 21), and in another study analyzing age and performance of finishers in the Jungfrau mountain marathon and Lausanne flat city marathon (Zingg et al. Reduced performance difference between sexes in master mountain and city marathon running. Int J Gen Med. 2013; 6: 267–275.), where female master runners aged 35–54 years reduced sex differences in their performance in both mountain and city marathon running. There is clearly a need for more studies of this controversial issue.
In summary, I think there are clear legitimate and good reasons to DNF mountain ultramarathons, however, with proper preparations and respect for the environment and current weather conditions I think most DNFs can be turned into DNS or avoided altogether. As I am aging, and if I continue to run ultramarathons, I expect to be closer to the cut-off timelines and thus the likelihood of DNF will increase. Still, however, I am improving my race times on both short 10-k runs (where I am now under 40 minutes) and longer ultras and hope to do so for some more years. I know this is a controversial subject – what are your thoughts? Is a DNF now and then OK or should it be avoided?