Guest writer, Katara Hause
Being the spouse of an ultra runner can be both trying and incredible rewarding; riding a rollercoaster of up, down, and sideways emotions along the way! One specific situation we all will or have faced at one time or another; the dreaded DNF.
In the world of competitive running, DNF stands for Did Not Finish; a trepidatious term equaling complete failure in a runner’s mind. As the saying goes, “Dead Last Finish is better than Did Not Finish is better than Did Not Start.” The DNF is a shadowy figure always lurking just a step behind, ready to pounce on an unsuspecting runner during the most effortless stretches of a course or trail.
This past weekend was our first journey down this particular road. We planned a family vacation around the first 50-mile run of the season and enjoyed a fantastic week leading up to race day! A practice run through part of the course with a fellow participant, a family hike over one of the bluffs, and a pre-race solid night’s sleep all pointed toward a successful finish. As support crew, we were well-versed in his race plan, familiar with the maps and directions necessary to meet him at the various aid stations, and well-stocked in anticipation of his every nutritional, hydrational, and apparel need (bananas, beef jerky, PB&J, watermelon, Mountain Dew, supplements, salt tabs, 3 pairs of shoes, 4 pairs of socks, and a first-aid kit any Red Cross responder would be jealous of!).
My nerves were raw, but his were calm. In fact, I’d never seen him this relaxed minutes before countdown. He’s ready! He’ll kick this course’s backside and justify all the training hours and sacrifices! He’s got this! 3…2…1…and they’re off! There he goes—strong, fit, eager, and primed for victory!
Little did we know, just hours later, dehydration and cramps would all but incapacitate him; forcing him to withdraw just 31 grueling miles in. After having some time to absorb and reflect on the day’s events, I would like to offer up some alternative meanings for the DNF acronym. Here goes:
Dare Not Fail
Running at a competitive level compels athletes to reach degrees of fitness and determination most of us cannot comprehend. The pressure to perform and succeed, while self-inflicted, are enormous. Failure is not an option, but sometimes it happens anyway. Despite our best preparations and the most favorable course conditions, the race plan can dissolve into an unsalvageable heap of “what-ifs” and broken dreams.
The fear of failure is constantly niggling the back of a runner’s mind. And failure equals not finishing. The running mentality seems to be derived from the well-known Yoda mantra, “Do or do not. There is no try.” Completing a portion of the race is only marginally better than never starting at all. I have to admit, this mind-frame frustrates the heck out of me! While I understand my runner did not finish the 50-mile race he signed up for, he did complete the 50K. What do you mean he doesn’t get the 50K swag bag? What do you mean there will be no congratulatory high-five and finishing medal? Let me get this straight…he ran 31 miles and gets zero credit for his efforts??!! That’s a bunch of bunk, as my teenage son would say!!
But it’s the way these events work. It’s a pass/fail system. You get no partial credit. Anything short of success is failure. No in-between. No gray area. No compromise.
I would like all the runners to understand that as their supporters, we do not consider lack of finishing a failure. Acknowledging the fact that many of us would rather have teeth pulled than push our bodies to the brink of destruction in the name of ‘fun’, there is little our runners can do that would qualify as a failure in our eyes.
So runners, fear not failure. Do your best. Give it your all. And know we will be waiting to wrap you in admiration and adulation, wherever your personal finish line ends up!m
Doubts Never Flee
While I’m certain every runner doubts themselves and their abilities during a race, there is more than a modicum of narcissism and arrogance rooted in the elite community, which make any doubts virtually unrecognizable . I can’t speak to specific misgivings that may or may not float around in a runner’s mind, but I do have first-hand experience with those felt by many of their supporters.
Regardless of how much I try to control the days leading up to a race, the oddest qualms enter my subconscious. This race in particular, posed its own unique set of concerns. What if the car battery is dead and we have to hike 5 miles to the nearest civilized establishment to get help? What if we all get food poisoning from the unfamiliar restaurant we stumbled upon the night before the race? What if the temps really do get into the 90’s as forecasted? What if he asks for watermelon and that’s the one thing I left in the car (really happened!)? What if he breaks his leg on one of the climbs and is too far away to be rescued quickly? Whether realistic or not, the scenarios are endless.
But really, where is the worry coming from? Are we skeptical of the dedication, fitness, or courage of our runners? Of course not. For me, doubt is bred from the ‘uncontrollables’; those things which, as hard as I try, I cannot influence or change. I try to be faithful and prayerful, turning everything over to God’s will and plan. But just as often, I find myself reverting to the two rules my Dad taught me: 1. Don’t sweat the small stuff. 2. It’s all small stuff. We’re not resolving world hunger or peace in the Middle East here, people—it’s a race. And in case you weren’t aware, they’ll be another one next week!
In the scheme of things, what do any of us really have control over anyway? I’m not on the course, and I’m certainly not running the course. I can’t predict my runner’s mood or cravings any better than I can predict the weather. I’m ultimately not responsible for the outcome of the race, good or bad, and thereby cannot take credit or blame either. But just as a parent will never stop worrying about their child, a runner’s spouse (or significant other) will never stop worrying about their runner—or blaming themselves for anything short of a victorious finish!
So supporters, embrace the variables and be flexible. Let go of the ‘what-ifs’. And never let ‘em see you sweat:)
Distress Nausea Fatigue
These are pretty self-explanatory and may or may play a role in your runner’s DNF. Obviously, we take every precaution to avoid these three words, but I’m not convinced the human body is equipped to handle the kind of trauma resulting from long endurance racing. Runners like to spout off about mind over matter, saying things like, “After 30 miles, it’s all the same,” or “You’re brain will tell you to stop. Don’t.” The truth is, the muscles, tendons, bones, and organs are taking a real beating. At some point, the body will revolt.
Rebellion will take the form of nausea, vomiting, cramping, fainting, muscle pulls, tendon tears, or broken bones. I’ve seen it all…more than one of these in a single race! Dehydration alone can cause side effects ranging from pain to spasms to delirium. Any runner will tell you if you get behind in your hydration plan, there is little room for recovery.
Our DNF can be directly attributed to dehydration, which resulted in all-over body cramping, severe headache, dizziness, and disorientation. Not fun and super scary. In fact, my exact words to him post-race were, “You know I’m never going to let you do this again, don’t you?!”
As a non-runner, I will never understand what compels these athletes to push themselves and their bodies to the precipice of shut-down. But it’s not my job to understand. It’s only my job to support him, cheer him refrain from walking the marked trails backward to drag his butt over the finish line, and at the end, pick up the pieces with some amount of grace and compassion. Not easy, but necessary.
So supporters, recognize the signs of trouble. Be firm and get your runner’s attention, while trying to avoid shaking your head and screaming, “I told you so!”
Determined Nonetheless Fragile
Vulnerability. Humility. Fragility. Not words any ultrarunner wants used to describe him/her. Rather, strong. Courageous. Indomitable. These are the attributes they try to project as they train for and compete in long-distance races. Images of lean muscles, power stances, and plank challenges are all meant to reinforce their brawn and intensity, their devotion to the sport.
But the circumstances (whatever they may be) which lead to a DNF are humbling; a reminder that they are, indeed, human. And on any given day, it’s simply not their day. Not this time. Try again.
Frustration, anger, pain, and fear often manifest as tears, trembling, and a complete inability to stand under one’s own power. When my husband finally went as far as he could go (with our son walking the final 300 yards with him), he literally melted into my arms. His head hit my chest like a boulder and his arms hung over my shoulders like limp, heavy noodles. He was trembling, sobbing, and unable to take a full, deep breath. As I raised his head to look into his eyes, I realized he was unable to focus and his color was putrid. Truly frightening.
In that moment, all I wanted to do was make it all better. Get him fluids and ice packs and shade. Massage the spasms tormenting his muscles. Wipe the sweat from his brow and find a smidgeon of recognition in his gaze. He was bent but not broken. He went to the brink, but did not fall. He proved his humanity through super-human feats.
So runners, know that when you are at your weakest, we are ready and willing to be your strength; a fresh set of legs to support you and loving arms to embrace you. Despite what you think, our respect and admiration are not based on how you end your race day. We are just relieved you SURVIVED race day!
Develop New Formulas
Now that the DNF is in our rearview, we are preparing for the next race on the schedule. Redemption is just 3 weeks away and will quickly be followed by two more races within a 4- week span!
It’s critical to take time to reflect on and analyze the race plan after a DNF. Emotions are raw and egos have taken a hit, but a runner and his/her support team need to discuss what went right, what went wrong, and what can/should be changed going forward. Listening to, acknowledging, and encouraging each other’s observations are key to keeping communication open and productive. Obviously, there are two VERY different perspectives to examine. Don’t dismiss one as being more important than the other.
In our case, as soon as I got the text that my husband was in trouble, I went into rescue mode. The planner and partner in me tried to come up with all sorts of things I wanted to say or do to make sure he didn’t blame himself or brood about the DNF too deeply for too long. Knowing my husband the way I do, I feared the disappointment would make him nearly inconsolable.
Thankfully, after 100 ounces of fluids and a 3-hour nap, his race assessment was straightforward and much more positive than I expected. We talked through each pit-stop, as well as the course details. We nailed down the point where the wheels came off and discussed how it could have been avoided. I shared what I saw and overheard from other support teams and aid-station volunteers, including things like using chicken stock as a possible hydration/salt-intake option and applying cold, damp compresses to the back of his neck and temple during stops. Alternately, he revealed his observations from other runners as well.
Together, we will make a new plan to tackle the next race. No guarantee that we will be any more successful, but we’ll give it our best shot. And we will continue to experiment with, record, and modify our race-day strategies; getting ever closer to consistent and dependable results.
So, runners and crew let’s learn from each other! Let’s share our experiences, our triumphs AND our catastrophes. Afterall, as one of our most vocal presidential candidates once said, “sometimes by losing a battle, you find a new way to win the war,” (Donald Trump).
DNF. I wasn’t familiar with the term before we embarked on this journey. Now, I am intimately aware of the widely accepted definition. But DNF can and does mean so much more. Fundamentally, they are just letters. You can make them stand for anything. You hold the power to change the perception.
Convincing our runners, however, to alter their mind-set will surely take every ounce of patience we have left:) Hang in their spouses, crew, and loved ones...the season has only just begun!!