Would you rather: DNF or DNS?

Liz Gilbert literally stopped me in my tracks today with a reference to her “marathoner friend” and the use of running jargon in reference to some (Big) Magic Lessons. Creativity meets the runners brain, and all the a-ha moments ensue.

“Even the people on the DNF list are ahead of the people who didn’t even start.”

(I paused to thumb-tap that in a note on my phone.)

Ultra running in Marin

Last year I secured my first DNF. I hope it’s not my last. It was a 50K run that I was mildly unprepared for, not to mention the fact that we registered about two weeks before the race. Who attempts their first 50K on a whim? Those two blissfully naive runners pictured above. Five minutes before the start I suddenly had a paralyzing thought: “OMG BUT WHY?”

We chalked it up to “good training” for our Zion run—which would also check many firsts—and didn’t fully grasp what was happening until the bus shuttled us from Rodeo to Stinson beach at six in the morning. I felt nauseous. I wondered what the hell we were thinking. I hated that I knew he’d be fine. I had no idea if it was even an option to not make it to the finish line, because when you’re out on the trails, where else can you go? Certainly no Starbuck or metro stations to duck into, no Ubers to summon. So, on you go…

I was all in. (See above: no easy way out.) I felt good for most of it, right up until I definitely didn’t. Sometimes we runners have this fantasy of miraculously succeeding at physical feats that our bodies aren’t totally “ready” for. Sometimes that success happens—which is what keeps us hoping for it—but usually not in the form of a quick and painless 50K trail run.

Somewhere between miles twenty-two and twenty-three I found a random patch of shade, after hours of sun exposure. Somewhere in my brain, logic finally won. I turned around and walked back to not-finish, clocking in about twenty-seven miles total. Four short. Four miles walked, once I called it quits. Twenty-seven miles that I remember very much of. Twenty-seven miles that taught me I could at least try, that sometimes I won’t be fully prepared but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something in there to grasp, and grow from. A full twenty-seven miles that reminded me not every race is going to be an internet-friendly “success.” That a lot of change can happen when you stop associating a race with a guaranteed finish.

— — — — — — — — — — —

Two weeks ago I secured my first DNS. It balances things out. For the same reasons I could have chosen to not start that 50K, I skipped a “small, flat, BQ-friendly!” marathon in Charlottesville. We both did, but largely by my hand. I signed us up (back in May), I put it on the schedule, I booked the Airbnb, I sent all the info to him after the fact. I had that same maybe-a-miracle-will-happen hope that in some way I could get through those miles for a BQ. But I didn’t put in the real work to make that a reality.

The weekend forecast was hot AF, yet again. (But Sunday looked a little bit cooler.) The race was only thirty people, and only cost thirty dollars. (But required a two hour drive.) I wasn’t quite trained to run twenty-six point two miles. (But I will be by October 30th!) He was ambivalent about all of it. (But he’s training for a 50K and very much could have run every mile of a marathon, just fine.)

Five minutes before our scheduled departure on Friday night, we called it. We’ll run Sunday instead. DNS, it is.

Side note: The next morning we woke up to a text from the race director—a group text to us both, no less!—asking if we were running or not. Um hi, that’s a first, so sorry, we’re huge jerks and did not think about how noticeable it would be if six percent of the expected attendees were no-shows. I’m sure a safety-conscious race director has zero complaints about people calling it on account of avoiding heat stroke. We still felt bad, though.
Screwtop nachos and wine

I’m not bummed that we skipped this race. Of all the years and all the races, I was bound to have a DNS on the record somewhere. We still felt deflated, though. Our Friday night wine-and-nachos date that happened instead of driving to Charlottesville was fun, with a cloud of runner’s regret for being those people who didn’t even try to start.

“Once you’ve gained traction in a certain area, it’s easy to feel trapped. We idealize success so much that it makes us unable to walk away from it, even when that success is no longer serving us.”  – Nicole Antoinette (in a recent newsletter, subject: The trap of success)

I wonder whether DNS and DNF lists are equally men and women. Are men more likely to start, but not finish, because they just have to at least try to see something through? Are women more cautious, not starting at all, if they aren’t at least ninety-nine percent sure how the day will go? A little less brave in our attempts and ventures, because we’re stuck in the trap of (expected) success?

There can be just as much strength behind either decision. I have no regrets about that DNS, it didn’t make sense for us. Starting would have put us both at a higher risk of injury—with a bigger picture/goal in mind, we made the right choice. But something pretty significant can happen in your brain when you think about the many things you are or are not starting, are or are not finishing, and (most important factor –>) WHY.

How far did you let yourself go? Why didn’t you test the waters? What are you afraid of, either way?

The fear of a DNF holds a lot of us back, but it’s worth weighing what success you’ll risk losing by not even starting.


  1. September 21, 2016

    Great post, Heather. I totally had a moment when you said that the race director texted you personally LOL talk about guilt trip…but love that you are sharing all your ups and downs with us :).

  2. September 23, 2016

    Interesting! When I read the title of this post I immediately thought “I would rather DNS”. Once I start something I have to finish it. Granted, I have never done a race longer than a marathon and I was well prepared for the marathon. I have a couple DNS due to injuries. Once, when I was running a half marathon, afterwards someone asked me “did you finish?” and I thought that was so stupid – “of course I finished! Not finishing was not an option”. Interesting post. Thanks!!

  3. September 23, 2016

    Great read Heather! Very appropriate right now as I am considering DNFing or DNSing…there will always be another marathon, but…I heart MCM SO much! I think my FOMO will be off the chart if I DNS since I live right at the finish line. To be continued…

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