By: Amanda Loudin
Like many runners, Washington, DC-based health policies analyst Dylan Landers-Nelson, 30, uses the sport as a stress reliever, so when he was sidelined with injuries and health issues for a good chunk of 2015, he struggled. When he was finally cleared to run again, taking on his first race in ages was high on his priority list. He signed up for and started the local Parks 10k with friends.
It wasn’t very long into the race that Landers-Nelson started feeling pain in his abdominals, something that had been lingering for a few weeks. “My right side felt, not just uncomfortable, but painful,” he says. “I slowed down, thinking that I could just finish the race, but slower running wasn’t even helping.”
After careful consideration, Landers-Nelson decided that the sharp pain he was experiencing meant that dropping out—or DNFing (did not finish)—was the smart course of action. He hoofed it back to the start line and waited for his friends.
A subsequent doctor’s visit showed a severe abdominal strain, which told Dylan-Landers he made the right move. The DNF, however, still stung a bit emotionally. “I felt bad about stopping, but not awful,” he admits. “In the end, I was back up and running within a couple of months, so I know it was the right move. For a big goal race, however, I know it would be tougher to make that call.
Indeed, Landers-Nelson is in good company: most runners struggle mightily with the idea of a DNF. “Most runners are type-A personalities, goal driven, and have a finish-what-we-start mentality. That in and of itself makes the thought of ‘quitting’ a hard one to swallow,” says Cecilia Murach, an RRCA coach based in Maryland. “In addition, we have usually been training hard and preparing over a long period of time for a particular event, so the negative connotations are compounded. I think it can be extremely hard to recover psychologically from a DNF, even in case of injury or illness.”
Too often, this negative connotation is more than what a runner can handle, and he or she ends up sticking it out in the race, to his or her detriment. That’s what happened to one of Landers-Nelson’s friends who remained in that same race, in spite of potential injury. “She powered through a lingering foot injury to finish, but this contributed to a spiral of injuries for her that she still hasn't recovered from 13 months later,” he says. “DNFing wasn’t a happy decision for me, but it was certainly the correct one.”
Like Landers-Nelson, 37-year old Lisa Ballew of Melrose, Mass., took a DNF this year, although her reasons were much different. She was part of around 3,600 runners who lined up to run the race Memorial Day 2016 and found they were staring down 90-degree temperatures. “It was a disaster,” she says. “It’s a regional race and no one was prepared for that heat.”
Ballew tried to carry on in spite of the temperatures, but upon seeing her family at mile 15, made the tough call to drop out. Race organizers eventually stopped the race at the 3:30 mark, but the DNF still haunts Ballew. “I am told that police were asking people to stop and walk, and telling them they continued at their own risk, because aid stations would not be supported,” she says. “So I guess I made the right decision. Even though I know that, I still beat myself up all the time.”
The coaches’ perspective
RRCA- and LTF-certified run coach Mary-Katherine Fleming understands that athletes have a difficult time pulling the trigger and taking a DNF. However, she is a big believer that there are plenty of situations where runners should take that step and never look back, in particular, when gunning for a marathon PR. “I coach my clients to set up DNF parameters before they even begin their races,” she explains. “If a PR is what you are after, you must embrace the possibility of a DNF.”
Murach takes a different approach, believing that every runner should set an A, B and C goal for race day so that they can walk away satisfied, provided they are healthy. “For a runner who is just not having a good day, the psychological impact of not finishing the marathon would be far greater than any benefit gained from stopping,” she says. “So I would strongly advise adjusting the goal, still finishing the race knowing that it was the best outcome for that runner on that particular day, and try again at another event.”
In Fleming’s case, if a client has trained long and hard for a big effort and knows the goal time is within the runner, she’d rather see the runner bag it if something is amiss on race day. “Why not wait for another day?” she asks. “There are so many races out there to fall back on. If you push through and end up far off your goal time or hurt, what was the point?”
That doesn’t mean that the decision is ever easy for her runners, says Fleming. “I had a client who was far off goal time and his set parameters at mile 10,” she says. “I wanted to see him drop out because it was next to impossible that he would be able to PR at that point. Instead, he stuck it out and was crushed with his finishing time.”
Fleming says that too often, ego gets in the way of a smart race plan and then there is no room for recovery. “A DNF shouldn’t be considered quitting,” she says. “What does staying out there prove?”
Murach gets uneasy when runners refuse to quit in the face of potential injury or other harm to the body. “Runners should seriously consider not finishing an event when they realize their health would be compromised by continuing to run,” she says.
When an injury is potentially on the line, Murach wants runners to remember the pay off to a DNF. “Sometimes ‘pushing through’ pain is not advisable, and can cause more damage to the muscles, tissues, and bones, leading to a more severe injury than would have happened otherwise,” she says. “In my book, stopping when the signs of an injury are clear is always the most advisable.”
In other words, live to run another day, or another PR. “The problem is that most runners lack perspective,” Fleming says. “I recommend that all runners volunteer at a race before I train them so that they can see that runners who DNF are not sissies.”
Ballew recognizes this, but also admits that had the Vermont City course not been clover shaped—thus allowing for an easy quitting point when she spotted her family at mile 15 near the start/finish—she might have gone on, in spite of the heat. “Everything might have been different had it been point-to-point,” she says.
As for Fleming, she’d like to see the attitude about DNFing radically change. “We need to break down our perspectives and expectations about it,” she says. “At the end of the day, the only thing you should care about is your race plan, not your ego.”