Tuesday, September 27, 2016

On My First DNF

I'm going to post my last two races out of order because I'd rather not dwell on this one for too long. On 9/17, I ran the Barkley Fall Classic and had one of the best performances of my life. One week later, I entered the Mountain Madness 50K and dropped out of the race for the first time in my running career. The latter story will be the focus of this post.


After a brutal Barkley race the prior weekend and three days of intense hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains, Alex and I signed up for Mountain Madness on a whim. We both had "credits" with NJ Trail Series from volunteering and making the podium in previous races. This allowed us to sign up for about $20 combined. Alex wisely chose the 7 miler, and I decided to use the 50K as my last long training run before Grindstone 100, which will be on 10/7.

The Race

The MoMa course is held on the beautiful single track trails of Ringwood State Park in NJ's Ramapo Mountains. The 50K has about 5,000 feet of elevation gain and is known for being rocky and technical. I decided that this would be excellent preparation for the technical trails that I would face during Grindstone, and I told myself that this would not be a "race" in the conventional sense, but rather a long easy effort to get in more mileage. The last thing I wanted to do was push too hard and injure myself two weeks before my 'A' race for the year.

We started promptly at 9am in perfect 60 degree weather. Although I'm usually a solitary runner, I quickly found myself behind a group of three guys about my age, some of whom had run the course before. This allowed me to put my head down and just focus on running, while leaving the tricky navigation up to them (mistake #1). We chatted as we effortlessly clicked off the first few miles of rocky trail. Unbeknownst to us at the time, we made a crucial navigation error only 2.3 miles into the race, where the course crosses over itself. Following an arrow that was not intended for us, we had turned right instead of going straight at an intersection (mistake #2).

The clusterfiasco that was my MoMa race

We followed this trail for a mile and a half, all of it in exactly the wrong direction. At mile 3.9, we came to a fork in the trail that we were not expecting. After a too-quick glance at the map and a bit of frantic discussion, we chose to go left and took off at a brisk pace (mistake #3). Half a mile later, we realized that we were approaching the finish line (27 miles too soon!) and turned back. We came back to the fork at mile 4.9 and decided that we should have gone right, although we were still on the wrong section of trail entirely (mistake #4). We followed this trail for another half mile until we saw an arrow that pointed back in the direction that we came from and realized that we were - at best - several miles off course.

At this point, the three other runners decided that their race was over and ran straight to the finish. I decided to continue on by myself, still not totally sure where I was on the course. I floundered around in the wilderness for a while, running way too fast on my tired legs with the intention of making up lost ground. By the time I figured out where I was, I had gone almost six miles off course. I arrived at the first aid station more than an hour behind my anticipated time.

Regardless, I wanted to finish the race. I was feeling strong, and the weather was perfect, now sunny and 70 degrees. Unfortunately, my body had other plans.

Half a mile from the aid station, still running hard to make up for lost time, I felt a familiar tightness in my right hamstring. It was the same little cluster of muscle fibers that had bothered me during, and after, the NJ marathon. I knew that I could run through this issue as long as I was cautious. Hell, I had run 7:15 miles at the end of that marathon without too much issue. As that thought went through my head, I tripped over a small rock and extended my right leg to catch myself. My hamstring seized, and what had been a small twinge of pain turned into a full on muscle pull. My race was over; I just didn't know it yet.

I gingerly jogged onward, but the hamstring complained. I tried stretching. I walked for a bit. I stretched again. Nothing worked. I could still run, but every step put me at risk of further injuring myself and jeopardizing my Grindstone 100 race. My Hardrock and Western States qualifier. My one chance this year to enter the lottery for the two most prestigious 100 mile races in the country. I knew what I had to do. I limped back to the aid station and informed the volunteers that I was dropping out. I had a long and solemn seven mile walk back to the finish line to think about what had just transpired.

A few 25K runners passed me as I got close to the finish, and I could hear the crowd cheering for them. I ducked behind a nearby building and sneaked into the finish area. I didn't want people cheering as I came in.

Some Perspective

I always took a lot of pride - maybe too much pride - in finishing every race that I started. Until this past weekend, I had run 6 marathons and 17 ultramarathons and never dropped out, despite fighting through heat, cold, rain, snow, and extreme fatigue. This stubbornness has even earned me a few victories in races where no other runner was willing to continue.

I always imagined that my first DNF (did not finish) would result from some horrific injury: a broken leg, being struck by lightning, getting mauled by a bear, etc. Instead, it was a small twinge of pain in the back of my leg and the specter of missing my goal race.

I suppose I made the mature decision to drop before hurting myself even worse and compromising months of training and preparation. I suppose it was only a matter of time before I had to withdraw from a race for one reason or another. It still stings. But what's done is done. My hamstring is healing, and I'm on track to start my big race in 10 days (gulp!). Alex, incidentally, had a great MoMa race and finished on the podium in third! Her success softened the blow from my epic failure.

A Final Analogy

This self serving post has gone on for way too long already, but I want to finish with a final thought.

Back before Alex and I became runners, we were indoor rock climbers. We would go to a rock gym 2-3 times a week and usually spend a couple hours top-roping and bouldering. We had very different approaches to climbing. Alex hated falling, and she would choose routes that she knew she could complete. I, on the other hand, had no qualms about flailing around on routes that were well above my ability level, falling repeatedly while Alex dutifully belayed. Often, I tried to convince her that she needed to fall more. Falling was a sign that you were pushing your limits during a climb. That you were challenging yourself and improving.

Since taking up running, our attitudes have switched somewhat. I have used conservative race strategies, and even avoided a few races altogether, to maximize my chances of finishing everything I started. Alex, on the other hand, has signed up for a few races that she knew would be tough, maybe even impossible, to finish.

So maybe I need to fall more.

Or maybe I should just stop overthinking these things and go for a run.


  1. What a fantastic write up Ry Ry. I feel like I was right there with you the entire way due to your descriptive wording and informative illustration. You are wise, tenacious, humble, and talented on so many levels. Finish or not, your mama is extremely proud of you!