DNF.  The three most abhorred letters in ultrarunning, which stands for Did Not Finish.  Did. Not. Finish.  While certainly not unique to ultras, most people progress through their running life without ever really questioning whether or not you’ll finish the race.  Hit a certain time?  You’ll definitely worry about that, but not the actual finishing part.  As races get longer though the chances of being forced to quit steadily increase.  I’ve had a couple DNFs so far in my running career. They were painful and difficult experiences for me, yet they weren’t the end of the world.

The more I’ve thought about it though, the more the term has started to bother me.  Not so much the failure aspect of it, but the finality.  Did Not Finish.  Period.  Stop.  Do not pass go.  Do not collect $200.  We do these crazy long races because they’re hard.  Because the risk of failure if not high is definitely a non-zero number.  We’re not doing road 5Ks here and not everyone gets a medal.  This is one of the draws to these events.

But it’s not like we only get one shot at this.  A DNF is only an end if that’s what we choose.  For most of us, what we’re really talking about is a DiNFY

Did Not Finish Yet

While the race may be an end , it’s not the end.  Life and running moves ever onward.  There are many more opportunities to finish the race or distance in the future.  Adding the short little word “yet” after DNF completely changes the tone and meaning.  Yeah, sure I failed this time, but next time I’m totally crushing this damn race or distance.

I remember sitting in the passenger seat of my car driving north on route 95 after my first DiNFY.  It was about midnight and I was absolutely crushed to have spent all that time (literally years of my life!) and effort training to run 100 miles with nothing to show for it.  But my disappointment was mixed with optimism because while I had fallen 30 miles short of my goal, I knew I had it in me to cover 100 miles in (about) a day.  Even though I was still years away from adding that Y to the end of DNF, I had already reached that place mentally.  The car ride home fifty months ago was not the end for me.  Far from it.  I went back the next year and conquered the course.

I still have one more DiNFY to avenge at some point over the rest of my ultra career.  It’ll probably take me 10 or 15 years to get back and finish Bighorn, but that’s OK.  I’m not in any rush because it’s not our failures that I believe define us.  It’s our willingness to pick ourselves back up and try, try, and maybe even try again.  While the elites are fun to watch, they’re not the ones that inspire me.  It’s those at the far back of the pack surfing cutoffs.  The runners who keep trying when things look bleakest.

So the next time you are unable to finish a race, don’t lose heart.  It’s only a DNF if you let it be one.  The truth is you just haven’t finished it yet.

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