The Gift of a D.N.F.

Perfect day for a trail run
Perfect day for a trail run

My dad taught me to always finish what I start.  When I was  8 and played pee wee football my team was undefeated.  The Center Point Rams lost two games in the team’s existence as it moved through the weight classes of youth football in the 1970s.  From 75 pounds to 125 pounds, the Rams were a force to be reckoned with.  It was a special group of boys who would later become the core of the local high school football team.   We were coached by men who meant well, but who demeaned us, berated us, mocked us, and made us cry.  They  made youth football an experience I feared and loathed.  This was the 1970s.  Society endorsed and accepted that type of coaching abuse.  Like denying water to athletes on a hot day, breaking a kid emotionally and physically in pursuit of a plastic trophy was the norm.  I’m not sure what I’d say to those coaches if I saw them today.  I want to ask them why it was important to shame little kids until they cried.  I want to ask if they ever wondered whether making 8 year olds cry on a daily basis was necessary and worthwhile.   Did it make them feel powerful? I’d ask them why we had to hate football in order to be “winners.”

In tears, I told my dad I wanted to quit.  I feared practice like a soldier headed into a hopeless battle. He told me he understood but that I had to finish the season. I had to finish what I started.  I made a commitment and it was my responsibility to follow through.  If I wanted to quit after the season he would support me fully.  But I couldn’t walk away until my commitment had ended.  I never went back to youth sports.  I left athletics altogether for the next 7 years and grew obese and unhealthy.

Fast forward to my freshman year in college.  College algebra and I refused to get along.  I hated math and it tormented me with equations and formulae.  Through midterm I had accumulated a 24 average (out of 100, to be clear).  I was clueless about college.  I didn’t know you could withdraw from classes.  I had no clue.  Dad taught me to finish what I started.  I did.  I took all the tests, I attended all the classes.  I failed the course.

Quitting makes me feel like a failure.  And fortunately, I’ve never had to quit a race because of injury.  Don’t get me wrong, there have been races where I WANTED to quit.  During the darkest moments of some marathons I found myself fantasizing about stopping.  Right there.  Right that moment. I fantasized about knocking some kid off his bike and pedaling back to the hotel for a shower and coffee.  About walking out of the race and manning a water station.  About getting a cab or a ride back home.  I dreamt about sitting down.  Just walking off the course and grabbing a beer.  But I’ve never been able to do it.  I’ve never HAD to quit.  Until now.

The decision came easier than expected.  I was just past 6.5 miles of the lake Tranquility 25 K.  Originally registered for the 50K, I decided to pull back to 25K since I was battling some soreness behind my knee that cropped up after a rest week following my pacing experience at Pinhoti 100 (I’m still writing about that, so this all seems out-of-order but it’ll clear up soon).  The first 6 miles felt great.  I felt peppy.  A cool fall morning greeted us as we started the race.   I planned to push myself on the downhills and flats and walk/jog the climbs.  For the first time in a while, I really wanted to run. I was excited to run. I needed to run.

The early miles were quick and mellow.  I chatted with Brooke Smith Weaver, a local TV news personality (I didn’t know it was her at the time).  She was attempting her first ultra (and she finished, too.  WTG Brooke!) and we ran together along a flat section of the trail chatting about the different approaches to running road marathons and trail ultras.  I felt better than I had in a long time.  This was going to be a great day.

Just after mile 6 I stopped to get a gel out of my handheld and started back up a mild climb when I felt it.  That pre-cramp kind of tightening you get in your calf.  You know the feeling.  It’s a tight, knotty sensation.  I thought that I was either about to pull a muscle or cramp like crazy.  So I stopped and kneaded it with my knuckles and tried to run again.  I couldn’t extend my leg to stride.  I tried to run short-legged for a bit (Imagine  Weeble trying to run up a hill) but realized I was going to really mess things up if I ran like Igor for another 9 miles.  I limped like Fred Sanford a quarter-mile to the aid station and hitched a ride back to the finish.  My day was over.

I’m in my 7th year as a runner. The greatest lesson I’ve learned in this time is the value in seeing the big picture, the longue dureé. This is the greatest “skill” a runner can develop. We will get hurt.  We will have suboptimal training and races.  We will become disheartened.  But we need to see the long view.  This too shall pass.  And a day will come when we can run again, like kids, and smile at what we do.  I get it now.  Stepping away from running for a week or two to recover properly is so much better than pushing through and making an injury worse than it should be.

When we were beginner runners, the loss of any day of running felt like a tragedy, a national emergency.  For me, not being able to run adds a layer of anxiety. Running helped me to lose weight.  It helps me maintain my weight loss and not having it sends chills down my spine that I’ll gain back every ounce I lost.  But with ever running birthday I enjoy and as I internalize the wisdom from friends and veteran runners, I know that I won’t gain back all that weight.  I won’t lose all my fitness.  I won’t look like Fat Albert if i miss a week of running.  I can see the big picture.  I have a sense of the longue durée.

This isn’t to say that each day I don’t assess the injury.  Or obsessively probe the affected muscle.  I evaluate the way it feels today compared to yesterday.  My mind is consumed with every step I take.  But I don’t test it.  I don’t go for a test run.  I don’t rush myself back.  I know more now.  I get it.

Bertrand Russell once said “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”  This DNF is a gift.  I needed a little perspective.  My running year has been so abnormal. From surgery to the long recovery road to never feeling fully “back” from it all, I’ve struggled with the reality of where I am and the memory of what I used to be as a runner.  I’ll be back.  But it takes time and patience and some hard work.  This fortunate misfortune allows me to step back and appreciate what I have and what I am and what I will be again.



1 Comment

  1. Totally agree that a DNF is worth a lot. Even if you just aren’t feeling it.
    The regret if you pull yourself without good reason is a valuable lesson.
    The knowledge and confidence of being able to make the call that you needed to DNF when something is wrong is also valuable.

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