Don't Fear Failure - How to Learn From a Hill Racing DNF

DNF Most runners will know what this means, and the majority will dread it... Did Not Finish, meaning you decided to quit or got timed out of a race. It doesn't feel good. In fact, it can feel like a punch to the gut. Failure. Disappointment. One big flop. But hang on a tick. The truth is, you don't need to be afraid of a DNF. In fact, what you can learn from not finishing a race is far more than you'll ever learn from breezing through it. Actually, failure is your greatest teacher, and all the best athletes use their DNFs to their advantage so they can bounce back stronger. Here are some DNF lessons from three pro mountain runners and four regular runners from this year's Cape Wrath Ultra, a 250mile 8-dayer across Scotland with a 38% drop out rate.

Failure is your greatest teacher - as long as you allow it to be

FRA relays 2013 - Llanberis. On the main descent back to the event HQ.
© ro8x, Oct 2013

Unexpected injury

You can't avoid plain bad luck, as Montane endurance athlete and coach Marcus Scotney found out on his most disappointing DNF ever.

"We had 40mph winds as we climbed up on Kinder on the 2015 Spine Challenger," he says, reflecting on this 108 mile race along the Pennines in January. "Seven miles into the race, my foot landed awkwardly onto a rock after another huge gust blew me off my feet again, and I felt a hot searing pain shoot up the ankle. As I tried to place weight on the ankle the pain increased and I knew that my race was over! Weeks of training; making sacrifices over Christmas; late nights out on the Pennine Way reccying in the dark, getting used to running in the middle of the night and, the cold and the winter conditions; the van we had hired for Jen to support me during the race, all this felt like it had been in vain as I hobbled to Snake Pass."

But it turned out that all that hard training wasn't in vain at all.

"I went onto set a new PB at 100km in the May" recalls Marcus, "and then run for Great Britain at the World 100km Championships in the September, improving my PB to 6hrs 56mins."

"I set myself a clear achievable goal as I wanted to overcome the disappointment of the DNF in January and knew I could train hard for such a race."

There's nothing like an injury to focus the mind. As you make a graduated recovery, having achievable goals to work towards gives you a series of benchmarks to gauge your progress. Returning to form after injury can prove to be a very useful reset for your motivation. But don't overdo it too soon...

Recovering from injury

Even if you think you're over a running injury, beware of how it may affect your next major race. Jeff Cohen DNF'ed the 8-day Cape Wrath Ultra on Day 1 due to a twisted ankle four months prior.

"At the time I thought a couple of weeks and it would be better," he says, "but this did not happen and by the time I admitted to myself I was not going to complete the CWU it was too late to pull out. So I did the first day, coming in last. I stayed with the race, ran the last day and didn't come last. I learned that it's about the journey and not the achievement, and to listen to what your body is trying to tell you."

Struggled with nav? Make sure you've sussed it before setting out next time  © Claire Maxted
Struggled with nav? Make sure you've sussed it before setting out next time
© Claire Maxted

Navigation mistakes

If your race requires map skills, practice with your map and GPS watch (if allowed) until you're confident with both. Liesbeth Den Haak says, "I got lost on day 2 of the Cape Wrath Ultra! I invested a lot in learning all about navigation but the map in my Garmin GPX device was poor, next time I'll use a better (digital) map."

Foot problems

Small as they are, blisters can be a real DNF monster, as 1985 British marathon record breaker and author of Off Road Running Sarah Rowell discovered on the world's most famous trail run.

"My first attempt at the UTMB caused much angst as well as teaching me a lot," she admits. "I got to Champex and then dropped out, primarily because both my heels were burning and had become very painful from pressure caused by the long uphills, plus very sore quads from the descents. At the time I can remember sitting there for quite some time debating what to do (these were also the days when you got given a t-shirt for getting that far), and finally decided not to continue. Part of my thinking here was for the OMM later that year - I was worried that if I continued I would not be able to recover in time."

Enough to put anyone off their stride...  © Claire Maxted
Enough to put anyone off their stride...
© Claire Maxted

Sarah put this new knowledge into practice the following year. "I spent quite some time working out various shoe/tape/gel combinations to protect my heels," she said. "I also decided to use poles – putting aside any sort of inverted snobbery about doing so – which helped with both the up and down hills."

However, it wasn't all plain sailing still. "I went back and finished 9th woman – my heels were okay and while I struggled badly from Trient to the end, this time I was not stopping. My shoe choice (they did not have the cushioning or room for foot expansion that I really needed – a silly basic mistake) meant very painful toes towards the end due to my feet expanding and smashing badly against the ends of my shoes, resulting in me getting badly infected toes after the race."

Health issues

Sometimes you can under-estimate the effects of a health issue that isn't affecting any other part of your life, even if you have a background in medicine. Retired GP, legendary mountain marathoner, fell runner and co-author of Trail and Mountain Running Wendy Dodds reveals how:

"Two years ago in misty conditions I DNF-ed at Black Combe fell race, a route that I know very well," she says.

"I followed folk on the shortest leg, between CP3 and CP4 and this was the only time that I did not check my compass. I knew that the route was wrong on account of the terrain underfoot. I had undergone retinal surgery to my best 'reading eye' a couple of weeks earlier but not been warned about 'floaters'. When I looked at my map, it was like looking through a black snow storm and I only had the race route part of the map, nothing much on either side, so it was very difficult to get back on track. I ended up checking out alternative race routes before going on to the next CP, where I was timed out."

Wendy's learning point was plain and simple:

"Don't do an event in which navigation is required after recent retinal surgery," she advises, "and always ensure that you have a map that covers more than the race route, at least in bad conditions. All DNFs are bad but look at why it happened to avoid the same thing happening again. Not fit enough? Then train more/harder. Bad route choices? Work at improving your navigation. Wrong kit? Always try out kit before racing in it, particularly important for footwear."

Sarah Rowell and Wendy Dodds have come back stronger from their past failures  © Claire Maxted
Sarah Rowell and Wendy Dodds have come back stronger from their past failures
© Claire Maxted

Race priorities

As well as the foot problems Sarah Rowell experienced above, she also has some sage advice on planning your race year. "Perhaps the biggest reflection and learning was about race priority," she says, "and being clear in my own head in future when doing major events like the UTMB. The UTMB was way too big a race to not have it as the priority for the year rather than worrying about recovering in time for the OMM later that year. Your priority race is the one which comes before all others in terms of what state it leaves you in."

Mental state

Sarah Rowell also has some wisdom on the mental side of DNF too. "I DNF-ed one race when my head was just not in the right place to focus fully on the event" she reveals. "This was a real lesson for me about only standing on the start line if you are ready to race and able to focus on doing so."

This was a lesson Rennende Raadsman was about to learn on this year's Cape Wrath Ultra too.

"I did not finish the CWU due to the suicide of my ex-wife which affected my preparation for the course," he admits. "I realised arriving in Scotland that I did not have the mental stability needed to finish. It simply was too much for me. But what I have learned from the CWU is that: 1. It really is quite a race, so you have to be fit in every aspect, 2. You enter into a world of running companions, looking after each other and helping others and 3. You can always come back to earn your medal the next year."

Rennend Raadsman, not DNF-ing, at Mountain Man, Frutt, CH  © Rennend Raadsman
Rennend Raadsman, not DNF-ing, at Mountain Man, Frutt, CH
© Rennend Raadsman

DNF could be DNM

Interestingly, and most often on longer races, a DNF can be intentional, as Irene Evison experienced on the 8-day Cape Wrath Ultra.

"For me, DNF was DNM. i.e. Did Not Matter," she says. "My event goal was to explore the wilder north-west of Scotland doing one of my favourite things (trail running, of course!) and to enjoy myself. Finishing was (oddly for many I suspect) not the most important thing. The decision I took to cut short three days paid off hugely because of what I gained in terms of enjoyment of the rest of the event. Don't get me wrong, I was determined to do as much as I could. I pushed myself further than in anything else previously. I didn't feel as if I had failed, but as if I had kept myself in the game to enjoy the rest of the event."

Mandatory gear fail

Like them or not, the race organiser's rules are final. You sign up to their race and you sign up to their rules, and the mandatory kit list is there for a reason. Take it all, and know where it is when you need it.

Steve Bremner this found out the hard way on the Cape Wrath Ultra: "We wasted too much time digging out our headlamps and preparing for the night. Later I was taken out for another day because I had three strikes against me, one for no whistle and two for my iPhone, which went dead."

First time's the worst

If you've never DNF-ed before, the first time can be the worst, as Pilar Sanchez found out on the Cape Wrath Ultra.

"In 32 years running I never DNF-ed," she says.

"I worked harder for CWU than any other race, but perhaps too much, as I had to retire from the race after Day 4 with a lot of pain and swelling in the front of my calves - it turned out I had stress fractures in my tibias. Rationally it was logical to stop and keep my legs from deeper injury, but I felt deep frustration, anger, underachievement and ashamed of myself. I was representing a breast cancer charity and it felt horrible to tell them I had quit. I was happy for everybody else finishing but I felt like a total loser."

However, as Pilar's disappointment eased, she began to see things differently: "Running half of CWU did change my view on running," she says.

"Now I run slower and more carefully. I enjoy every run, I appreciate every step my body lets me take. It made me realise that I really am 50 years old, and that my body is strong but has new and different needs. This was a learning experience, a life lesson of acceptance and I certainly wish to come back in 2020 and do a better job."

In summary

With all DNFs, whatever the cause, Sarah Rowell advises; "The key is reflecting afterwards and understanding why you have DNF-ed, especially if it is not the result of an acute injury in the race. This is so that you can make sure it does not happen again; at least this way, if you learn from it, it is not a wasted experience. See, failure is your greatest teacher - as long as you allow it to be."

        Loading Notifications...
        Facebook Twitter Copy Email LinkedIn Pinterest