What Would The World Look Like Without DNFs?

Photo: Kevin Langton at Zumbro 100

Photo: Kevin Langton at Zumbro 100

Worry, fear, dread.

Anger, shame, regret.

Just a few of the emotions ultra runners typically feel when thinking about DNFs. 

It’s not pretty.

If you’ve ever raced to avoid a DNF or ended up getting one, as most of us have, you know these feelings.

A year ago at Zumbro 100, I earned my first 100 mile DNF in x years. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t sting.

Like me, you train weeks upon weeks for a race. You invest all this time and effort, so it’s understandable if you find yourself wishing you didn’t have to worry about a DNF. Wishing you knew you’d finish.

DNFs are the worst.

Or are they??

Imagine for a moment, a world without DNFs…where no matter what happens in a fixed distance ultra - say you drop before the full distance or take forever to cross the line - you finish. 

Weird, right? 

Because, first of all, what’s the point?

You could literally show up, get a buckle, and go home without running more than a step (to avoid a DNS).

Seems great on the surface but it eliminates the very thing most of us want in an ultra - a big, audacious challenge. 

Gone is the irresistibly delicious tension between doubting you can finish...and betting you can. 

Races become boring.

We’d also learn slower.

DNFs supercharge the number and variety of things you learn from a race. DNFs aren’t great but they teach you things you’d never have learned or thought to ask otherwise…in a way you won’t forget. 

Without DNFs, the lessons come slowly through smaller mistakes.

And where’s the incentive to do your best?

If you’re guaranteed a finish, why bother pushing yourself? Why search for that exhilarating, razor-thin line between pushing the pace over super-rocky terrain and keeping it just conservative enough to get to the finish line in one piece? Why not just putt safely along?

Even if you do think you’ve given it your all, can you be sure the threat of a DNF wouldn’t have pushed you harder? That you could have done more?

And one last thing - without DNFs, what’s success?

If there’s no “not finishing,” there’s really no finishing either. Or at least the meaning disappears. If everyone who takes at least one step finishes, then the most basic measure of a successful fixed distance race - running the full distance within the allotted time - doesn’t exist.

Without the negative possibility of a DNF the positive - your accomplishment - doesn’t exist.

All in all, being safe from DNFs isn’t the paradise you might imagine.

Like snakes, we may not love them but DNFs have a critical purpose. They create challenge, help you learn faster, bring out your best, and make your effort worthwhile.

I’m not recommending you seek them out, just reframe the way you see them and feel about them. 

Less of a foe…more of a partner.

Less worry, fear, and dread…more respect, value, and appreciation.

Susan Donnelly’s signature

P.S. - My popular Pick My Brain sessions are here for you! These single, one-hour, 1:1 sessions are super easy to schedule and don’t break the bank. All in one place - answers, how-to advice, help making a decision, trouble-shooting a problem, confidence boost before a race or a sounding board - get quick, focused help where you need it.