DNFs – Can They Make You Stronger?

Illustration credit: Grace Sim (www.swimbikerunart.co.uk)

Many runners cannot face the idea of a DNF, but Coralie explores how you can learn from them and become a stronger runner.

Maranoia: the anxiety found in marathon runners during the taper, characterised by the irrational belief that last-minute disaster is imminent.

I suffered with a bout of ‘maranoia’ in the build up to my previous two marathons. After training hard for sixteen weeks and putting everything into your ‘A’ race, it’s always difficult to ease off and let your body calm down before the big day. For my third marathon this year I was not only prepared in my training, but in combating maranoia by lacing my hands with antibacterial gel, glaring at anyone coughing on the tube, dining out on vitamin C tablets and soaking my stomach with beetroot juice for ‘performance gains’.  While my insides were basking in various delights from Boots, niggles were also being ironed out on the foam roller daily. Sixteen weeks of focused work had built up to this moment and I’d never been more prepared or in better shape for a marathon.

Then why does my result at the Abingdon Marathon have a n/a (non applicable) next to it? A cruel alternative to DNF (did not finish).

I’ve learnt the hard way that the marathon, as with any race, has the ability to eat you up and spit you out. For me, a DNF stands for Did Not Fail as it teaches you more, gives you a new armour of strength and an even bigger appreciation for the distance.

I always have a couple of targets for a marathon: Good for Age time for London, personal best, sub-four, and finally – and most importantly – finishing with a smile on my face. I’ve run races with an injury where I should have stopped, but I was still smiling and dragging my limp leg to the finish line. I’ve also run races where it has been pouring down with rain, blustery and my lips have turned blue – but I was still smiling. I’ve run through grief, heartbreak, stress, and despite everything running has been the one thing to put a smile back on my face.

As I approached the start line at Abingdon, I chatted to a couple of other Serpies who were also racing and gave my boyfriend Tom a nervous wave. I normally anxiously approach my corral shaking from nerves rather than the cold. However, with a couple of marathons under my belt and my legs feeling spritely, I felt ready. I was looking forward to an enjoyable long run, with hopefully a good time and a medal to celebrate.

I shuffled into a steady pace during the first mile with the aim of speeding up, and smiled as I saw a friend spectating with her children. Then between miles 1 and 3 I felt unwell. I slowed down to try and give myself a chance to understand what was happening.  With me being stubborn and wanting to carry on, I started the premature death march to the finish line, albeit much earlier than I had hoped. As I began to feel increasingly worse I made the decision that the next time I saw Tom I would stop. Unfortunately for Tom I was both pleased and disappointed to see him cycle past me at mile eight. I never imagined when I stood on the start line that I would be facing a DNF.

I stopped my Garmin and immediately felt a huge weight lift from my shoulders, and at the same time my heart broke into pieces and fell to the pit of my stomach.

Cue the tiny violin playing in my head. No one forces someone to run a marathon.  I put myself on the start line. I know that the distance is tough and things can go wrong. You need to be physically ready, mentally ready, and hope that everything falls into place on the day with a great deal of luck. My luck ran out very fast at Abingdon during the morning, and even more so on the way home as someone managed to bump our rental car and we were sent a rather hefty invoice!

In the aftermath there were three phases of DNF – anger, regret and acceptance, with various emotions straddling each phase. At first I got angry, with myself and the marathon itself, as if to say why me? Then I started regretting not continuing by analysing my race. What went wrong? What could have gone differently? Could I have toughened up and finished? Once you’ve stopped and rested up, you tend to forget the fight you were putting up to finish whilst running. Then I accepted what happened during the race  and started to look for other marathons I could enter, before I received a stern talking to from others that after listening to my body, possibly for the first time, I was ignoring its obvious cry to rest.

Everyone knows marathons aren’t just about physical ability. You need to be mentally strong to get yourself round. This was the first time I’ve listened to my body and made a sensible decision before I caused myself further harm.

After putting my feet up, following a tough sixteen week training plan concluding with an eight mile run, I took to social media. In the euphoria of previous marathons I’d been so wrapped up in basking in the glory that I had never noticed the other side of marathon running. Funnily enough, I’m not the first or last person to be riddled with DNF-syndrome. During my rest I read the Brownlee brothers’ book and a quote from Jonny resonated with me about replaying the DNF, “you can never accurately recall the physical pain you have experienced. Your reaction the instant after the race is almost the most accurate.” At every marathon around the world there are others in the same DNF position, all for different reasons, whether they were struck by a serious case of cramp, suffering with an injury, or falling ill on the course.

Driving back home from the race Tom and I started to list off all the recent elite DNFs we could think of, in a poor effort to make me feel better by comparing my DNF at Abingdon to Kipsang’s fail at the world record attempt in Berlin this September, or even Paula Radcliffe stopping her race short at the Olympic Games in Athens 2004. It happens to everyone.

Runners are a tough bunch of people who put a lot of pressure on themselves, and we’re even more critical to ourselves when we feel we have failed. There will always be another marathon, but you only have one body. Instead of focusing on all the hard work and training, I chose to focus on the bad race. However, there was a lot to celebrate in the absence of a medal, as I had achieved new PBs, ran faster, further and more than I ever had. The race is just a chance to get some bling, the real success should come from how you handled your training, the strength you’ve gained during that rigorous plan, and the determined nature to get yourself across the line, whatever the odds. I’d gained confidence in my ability and no one, especially not a DNF, can take away the weeks of training. The 26.2 miles at the end are bonus miles.

If I hadn’t made the sensible decision to stop at Abingdon and rest, I wouldn’t have been able to run with my Dad three weeks later at a race he booked when he visited London from Suffolk. It was the first race we’ve ever done together and I was proud to be running next to him.

We might feel like a DNF defines us as a runner. If anything the DNF can make us – we can learn, adapt and recover. The critical analysis of our race is only happening in our own heads. I highly doubt that Susan from work is sat round the table eating dinner with her family critically analysing your recent DNF. The DNF only impacts you, and it’s what you make of it.

I’m now looking ahead to 2018 and have set myself new goals to aspire to achieve. I’ve banked the feeling of a DNF to remind myself to appreciate the good times, and to help me remember that not everything goes to plan. A DNF doesn’t have to be a bad experience. It is what you make of it and how you get yourself back out there that really matters.

Coralie Frost started running in 2014 and has since fallen in love with marathons and triathlon. She’s one of Serpentine’s Mental Health Ambassadors, supporting any club members who are experiencing mental health problems.

Grace Sim did the illustration for this article. Go and have a look round her website (link below).