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Lessons to Learn When You Don’t Finish the Race

by Larry Carroll

To an outsider, headlines coming from the recent Barkley Marathon must have seemed frustrating. For the second straight year, not a single person finished the race? Out of 40 participants, they all went home without crossing the finish line? What’s the point?

Experienced ultra-runners, however, undoubtedly read things a bit differently. Naturally, finishing a race is always preferred — and to strap on your shoes means that you intend to give heart, body, soul and gallons of sweat to achieve that goal. But DNF’s are simply a reality of life, and sometimes the lessons you learn from a “Did Not Finish” are invaluable on future runs.

With that in mind, here are just a few of the things a “DNF” can teach you about yourself, your body, and the adversities of trail-running. Because as the old saying goes: You can lose the battle, but still win the war.

Your Rest Level – How well did you sleep the night before the race? How about the night before that? Did you sleep at home, or in a hotel? And when you were on the trail, was exhaustion an issue?

To many elite athletes looking to spend hour after hour pushing themselves to the physical limit, that level of rest is a key factor in performance. In general, adults should strive for 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night — and it’s almost a guarantee that for several days after a marathon, you’ll average another hour or two as your body recovers.

But how much sleep you get right before the marathon is a personal choice akin to any other facet of training. You need to know your body, know how much caffeine will help you/hurt you in achieving that goal, and act accordingly. And much like having a bad workout, a bad run can be both a bummer and an opportunity to learn. If you didn’t feel well rested on the trail, take notes on what you did the night before, and in the future adjust accordingly.

Are You Running Correctly? – Take a look at this blog entry (Going Wide: The Role of Stride Width in Running Injury and Economy) by physical therapist/ultra-runner Joe Uhan and you’ll begin to see all the possibilities for bad habits that can set in when we’re doing what seems like the most natural activity in the world: Running.

Narrow strides, hip weakness, forward trunk engagement and other such issues are only a few things to consider as you run. Like a golf swing or a baseball pitcher’s motion, it looks so effortless to the untrained eye — but when done correctly, you’re looking at maximized potential, body discipline, and the unflinching ability to repeat a motion time and again without variation.

Do you need to adjust your own landing or push-off? Are you running economically? A DNF may signal your own need to see a physical therapist, strip your running style down to its bare elements, and rebuild it for better results.

How to Avoid Injury – Many DNF’s occur because of injury, or the fear of causing one. Both offer valuable learning opportunities for the runner.

If this is your first run after recovering from an injury, perhaps the DNF is telling you that you should have waited longer. As frustrating as it is, your body is basically telling you that you’ll need to adapt to the new reality of a body part not functioning as well as it once did. Does this mean your ultra-running days are over? Of course not, but it may indicate that you’ll have to start running more by intellect and less by instinct.

On the other hand, perhaps you bowed out of the race because some part of your body didn’t feel right. Of course, no marathon goes without some degree of discomfort, but your post-mortem on the race should include an examination of possible factors. What did you eat in the hours before the run? How about on the trail itself? What behaviors did you observe while stretching? Should they be adjusted? These and other such questions might pay off in future races, so that you won’t experience that same injury fear again.

Weather Adaptability – With every ultra-marathon, weather and terrain is a huge factor. So, what did you learn from your DNF?

Perhaps it’s that your clothing was insufficient to cope with the elements. Perhaps you learned that your running shoes weren’t appropriate, that they weren’t as waterproof as advertised, or didn’t grip the trail to your liking.

When you’re out on the trail, you also have the opportunity to learn about yourself, so make sure you’re listening. Did the heat bother you more than you expected? Have you always considered yourself a good night runner, but for some reason it didn’t go so well this time? Such things can be taken into consideration for future races, and the selections of which to run.

How Do You Bounce Back? – Most importantly, a DNF teaches you about your resilience. How do you fare in the face of what some may perceive as a defeat? Are you the kind of person who jumps right back on the horse, plots a careful return, or simply throws in the towel? Will you start back with a smaller race and build off that success? Or will you return with a similar race, determined to prove the “DNF” was a fluke?

So learn your lessons, adjust accordingly, and get back out there. Because ultimately it’s the bounce back, not the failure, that speaks volumes about any athlete.

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