My Successful DNF

I ran in the Zion 100k trail ultra marathon last weekend. I chose to stop and not finish. Not only am I okay with that decision, I consider this to be one of my most successful results. And here’s why.

There are many reasons to run ultra marathons. Most, if not all, who run them expect to learn something from the experience. I learned as much or more through the outcome of this race than any of my nine previous ultra marathons. It was a success, and I did not fail. I did not achieve my goals but success should never be anchored to an endpoint. And that was the problem. My goals were all endpoints. 

I had two goals for the race. First, I wanted to finish in under 12 hours. Second, I hoped that would be good enough to put me in the top 10 finishers overall. At mile 35.5, I had just finished the last big climb to reach the plateau of the third and final mesa of the race. After a quick check-in and resupply at the aid station, I headed out for the loop of the mesa and would expect to be back at the same aid station 12 miles later to start the decent. 

I had been frustrated with the course markings on the previous mesas and was getting mentally fatigued of exploring past a marker in search of the direction for the next on many occasions. About five miles after leaving the aid station I came to a fork with a marker turning left and a sign pointing right that read ‘to aid station’. I knew that I was supposed to reach a small aid station at the far end of the loop at exactly this distance. Well, it turned out to be the original aid station. I had somehow followed course markers and made a loop right back to where I started. Now, at about mile 40, I became very confused and frustrated with the setback and how I could have missed a turn when I followed markers the entire way. I launched back out to find the right way and complete the correct loop. 

It turned out that the loop on this mesa was in the shape of an 8 where the middle isn’t supposed to connect - similar to the outline of an hour-glass. Going counter-clockwise, I had found a course marker ahead of me as I curved to the middle without noticing that I was supposed to take a hard right. I effectively jumped the gap and did only the bottom portion, the o. After making my way to the top of the 8 this time, I had found the distant aid station at the end of the right side of the course, after completing something roughly shaped like a 3. It was time to complete the loop correctly and return on the left side of the course, shaped something roughly like E (or a backwards 3). But for the last several miles I had determined that my two goals of 12 hours and possibly top 10 placing were out of the question. I tried to dig deep and decide that it would be a great story later that I ran so much extra. But, I had lost all interest.

They say that the opposite of love is not hate, but rather indifference. That is exactly what I was experiencing. I was completely indifferent to the event. I didn’t love it or hate it, I just had no interest at all, indifference. I asked myself whether this was just frustration; it was not. I had been replaying all the times I’ve heard people say they regretted dropping out of a race and that their advice is to just walk if possible…finish it. But, finishing was not part of my reason for entering the race. I’ve completed 100k races before, with nearly twice the elevation change. I had nothing to prove with finishing. I knew I could finish and that held no absolutely no meaning to me. So, I dropped out. 

Why was that a success? Because I’m perfectly pleased with the result. I had been on track with a great chance of meeting both of my goals, which makes me happy. Much more important, I learned that I didn’t have a robust and deep reason for entering this race. In my preparation for my first 100 mile race in 5.5 months, my coach wanted to put a race of 50 miles to 100k at about this time on the calendar. I didn’t want to fly to any races and looked for any events that were within a day’s drive. I settled on the Zion 100k but it meant nothing more to me than a thing I was supposed to do as part of the training. When I came face to face with the fact that my goals (endpoints) were stripped away, there was no deeper meaning for me in continuing. And that’s the most important thing I have learned in ultra marathon running to date. I must have a fundamental, core purpose for being in an event that will remain no matter what. A goal that is not an endpoint but that is the process, the journey, the experience. Had I started the race fully appreciating this ultra marathon as a unique event and one that I wanted to explore and experience fully for it’s own beauty, then I expect that I would have had the intrinsic and inalienable purpose for continuing. 

My purpose was to race and compete rather than to explore, enjoy, and complete. My goals did not include the journey and my focus was on the outcome. I’ll never regret this DNF because it will be the reason that I have a more fulfilling appreciation of each future event by focusing on the unique experience that each race brings as my primary motivator. 

Set your numeric goals, but be sure that you always have a deep purpose and connection with running the event to experience it fully.