how to recover from a DNF

Shut the f*#k up about your DNF

Shut the f*#k up about your DNF.

Guest Blogger Team TROT Ambassador Reuben Parks


No one cares. (I thought about ending the blog post there, but I’ll expound.)


Runners love to talk about running. Since we aren’t always running, it’s often how we form initial bonds with other runners. Go to your local running store (if it still exists), join a social run, sit down with a group of people that includes a couple of other runners, or, hell, watch two people, both wearing Garmin watches, sitting next to one another at the airport and you will overhear a conversation about running. Usually, those conversations are pretty jovial. They’ll cover topics from favorite routes and gear to a mutual disdain for cyclists. Soon, friendships are formed, email addresses are exchanged, and outings are scheduled.  

Eventually, as these friendships grow, you’ll meet up at races and compete; testing your mettle against each other and the clock.

One of you will be better trained than the other.

One of you will turn your ankle.

One of you will screw up your nutrition and hydration.

One of you will start a small fire in a place sadly untouched by Body Glide.

One of you won’t finish.

It’s a sad poem that’s written at every race. Let’s just agree that we should keep it to ourselves.

Not finishing a race is something that may never happen to you, but when it does, you’ll feel it. It doesn’t mean that you’ll just physically hurt (though that may be the case). Rather, your confidence will be shaken and your mind will spin with thoughts of, “What if?,” or “If only I had done X.” You may have to stop running for while due to a physical constraint and, God forbid, cross train. You’ll reconsider if running is even worth the trouble. Still, because we love talking about running, you’ll tell every runner you know what happened and how you’re feeling about it. Then, after you explain what a DNF is to your grandmother, you’ll tell her.


Everyone you talk to will be sympathetic, including the non-runners, and they will offer words of encouragement. You will get advice on how to overcome the setbacks and injuries. Then, you’ll lick your wounds, perhaps sign up for another race, and start training again. What you shouldn’t do is keep bringing up the DNF. Because, again, no one really cares.

Michael Kinsley, the founding editor of Slate, mentioned recently that one reason why he did not immediately tell colleagues about his Parkinson’s diagnosis was he felt that, in a sense, sympathy was finite. He felt that he would need their sympathy and help more as the disease progressed and didn’t want to impose while he was still quite capable. On the scale of serious setbacks, a Parkinson’s diagnosis is near the top of that list; a DNF doesn’t even crack the Top 100. Agreeing with Kinsley, people only have so much patience, so don’t test it with running commentary of what you did wrong. Or how things went south. Or how the aid stations didn’t have your brand of gels.

Here’s some advice, for what it’s worth, on how to handle not finishing a race:


  • Set a time limit on self-pity: Give yourself a predetermined time limit on being upset with your performance, the RD, or the conditions. Sitting around pouting and/or bitching serves no purpose and makes you look like an ass. If you want to do that, just take off or hide in your tent. Download “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M. and cry yourself to sleep.


  • Stick around a while: Instead, hang out and cheer on others (provided you’re not in the medical tent or in an ambulance) coming across the finish line. It’s not only good sportsmanship, but it can be helpful to see how others cope with a tough race.


  • Take responsibility: Understand that your experience is specific to you. Sure, others might have battled the same course and conditions, but you chose, or had, to stop. Seeking out others who share your experience is normal and misery loves company, but the first step to learning how to be better prepared starts with looking at your own performance.


  • Make a list of what went wrong: Then, jot down some notes about what you could fix before your next race. Coach Jason Koop mentions in his book, Training Essentials for Ultrarunning, that most DNFs can be linked to a training deficiency. Even when you trip and fall, it can be argued that a better understanding of the course or endurance preparation could help avoid a stumble. Take this opportunity to tweak your training to be better prepared for your next race.


  • Shut up and get back out there: Finally, keep looking forward. You may feel like a failure. Hey, that’s because you failed. You set your sights on finishing a race, perhaps with a PR or hitting a higher mileage, and it didn’t happen this time. So what. There’s likely another race in 7 days. There may be another race the next day. Work to learn from the experience, heal up (mentally or physically or both), and get back to what you love.

[Author’s note: I wrote this small article to help me cope with my own issues after a subpar race, so don’t feel that this is, any way, directed to any individual runner.]