The First DNF

Two years ago, the letters “DNF” meant nothing to me. Nor did the letters “DNS.” Despite running some road races, I’d never really heard the terms thrown around. I’d never known the stigma attached to them, or the feelings that come with it.

And I continued to not know, until this weekend.

I recognize that I’ve been extremely fortunate in my racing “career.” I started out finishing at the top of races and I continued that. Two World’s Toughest Mudders, two Death Races, all in the top two spots.

But at some point, we all stumble. We have a bad race. A race finds a weakness. A weakness finds you.

And of any race out there, the Death Race excels at doing this. It’s a game of Russian roulette that we play once or twice (or now three) times a year. It’s unlike any other race: for example, you do Ironmans, you know you are going to be swimming, bking and running. In that order. For a fixed amount of distance. With the Death Race, you never know what may be in store, and sometimes it may not seem like a “race” at all.

And that’s what draws it to us. And that’s how we discover things about ourselves. And that’s why we keep coming back. But that’s also what crushes us.

The WDR started out this year like the others: team exercises, strange PT (1200 air squats, anyone?), a couple hikes up the mountain (one zip-tied together), and some wood sawing and chopping (I’ll ignore the pass the frozen dead beaver game).

There had been whispers of Andy & Joe making us pull a 2000lb steel i beam out of the river, whispers that made me nervous. But given that we were only in the water for a minute last winter (a full submersion in the duck pond), I couldn’t foresee the repeated cold water immersions that would await us this year.

And if there’s one thing I hate, it’s cold water.

Odd, you say, coming from the girl that won World’s Toughest Mudder. So I’ll qualify: cold water immersions where you are NOT running 90 miles to keep your body temperature up. Instead, standing in the river, thigh deep, digging up silt to remove a steel ibeam. Or repeated river crossings. In and out. In and out.

And while my core temperature stayed ok, the fire in my feet did not. The pain did not. The inability to walk or breathe did not. And at some point, in my mind, I decided that risking frostbite and permanent damage to the feet wasn’t worth this game. And I broke down, mentally, emotionally, and physically. And 24 hours in, I DNF’ed. I simply couldn’t move through that river crossing quit gate anymore.

[Side note: let me clarify. I hate the term “med drop.” I think people use it as a crutch, and an excuse. Our resident medic Todd took a look at my feet and told me frostnip and that I could be risking permanent damage if I went on, but as always, it’s my decision. He would fight me if I wanted to continue, but no one was standing in my way. So yes, it was a conscious decision, however frazzled and painful at the time. And I take full responsibility for that, with no excuses.]

And after they carried me across the river and snowmobiled me back to the greenhouse (walking was not happening), the realization of this all set in as they spent next few hours warming my feet.

And the questions began. The self-doubt. The “what ifs.” The berating. The miserable, and foreign, feeling of failure. The Death Race had won–Mother Nature had broke me. And in a manner that I hated.

Because it wasn’t a testament to my athletic abilities. It wasn’t because I couldn’t meet time cut offs or I couldn’t get up and down the mountain quick enough. I got angry. In fact, I was destroying everything up until this point. I stayed on Andy’s heels up the mountain with my pack (and if you’ve hiked with Andy, you know this is a feat). I was feeling great. And I was left wondering what I could have done differently to possibly survive, and angry at what I saw was a cheap tactic solely to get high numbers of drop outs in a short period of time doing nothing that pertains to your athleticism.

But then I realized: that’s not what the DR is about. While being a fine athlete helps you at this race, the Death Race has never been about finding the top athletes or being in the best shape. It’s about enduring. And while I’ve always known this in the back of my mind, it crystallized in this experience.

It’s why, if you look at the DR vets who have done this race three or more times, every single one of them (save a few, including the superhuman Olof) has DNF’ed at least once. Because sooner or later, they are going to throw something at you that you can’t handle, though other people may.

And here’s what I have to repeat to myself: there’s no shame in that.

I am quick and light and fast. I love running up and down that mountain and I will crush you on it, and will do so for days at a time without tiring. Others may be able to hang out in the single digit temperatures in an icy creek for hours and be unaffected. And depending on the composition of the race that year, those strengths or weaknesses may be the deciding factor.

And there’s no shame in that.

There is nothing wrong with a DNF unless you make something wrong with it. As Melody, a finisher told me, “You have nothing to prove to anyone.” She’s right. I’ve always said that the DR is about proving things to yourself, and testings your limits. There are certain limits I’m willing to stretch, but potential frostbite wasn’t something I was willing to toe the line for. (if you think I’m miserable right now trying to process this, imagine how I would feel if I did permanent damage, or god forbid, was unable to continue to race and compete).

And there’s no shame in that.

So while I may be licking my wounds, I’m also thankful for this: I’ve learned more about myself from a single DNF than I have from all of my victories combined. And I’m taking a step back to reevaluate why I do these races, why I push myself, and whether I’m started to lose the “fun” in all of this amongst the disturbingly increasing need inside of me to win, amongst the growing pressure that I put on myself to perform up to some stranger on the web’s “expectations” of me.

And there’s no shame in that.

Cheers to the first DNF. It likely won’t be the last.

And there’s no shame in that.