Feature Image: Xavier Briel, Sani Stagger 2019
About the Author: Martin Crous is Co-Founder of Exploring Co. an engineer turned mountain runner and just blooming lovely human. Also very insightful.
Lying on my back gazing into the heavens and wishing I’d made better decisions the days leading into Sani Stagger 2014. I was eighteen kilometres into my third “road” marathon (42.2km) and had just vomited for the ninth time over the last four kilometres. I’d lost all excess fluids, my body was done, and to make matters worse the last two voms were dry heaves, which meant I couldn’t even look down and be proud of a chunky luminous mess that would inevitably stain the side of the road!
At the eighteen-kilometre water station, a kind couple offered me a blanket to lie on while they radioed the medic vehicle to pick me up. I took off my bib and was officially a non-finisher. Bring out the champagne and streamers because it was my very first DNF… but not quite the celebration I’d expected. My immediate feeling was one of extreme relief: this suffering was over, I’ll recover and live to fight another day (dramatic, but that’s the perspective from deep inside my hurt locker).
The drive down to Sani Pass Hotel, to be honest, was nothing short of awful. My face was slowly gaining colour and there was some spunk in my speech again. But every runner I passed was a constant reminder that I “could” still have been running, battling it out against myself, the course, the elements, and the other participants. Instead, the simple truth (despite the vomiting) was that I was beaten on the day. I was done. I was defeated and could do nothing but accept it and move on.
‘Accepting’ and ‘Moving On’
Anyone who has DNF’d knows it’s not always as simple as “accepting” and “moving on”. You pull the plug on a race for many, many reasons and that is okay. There is nothing wrong with making that decision for ANY reason (even if you just weren’t feeling it on the day)!
It’s easy to jump on the “push beyond limits” and “get the job done” bandwagons and agree that a DNF most certainly is a failure. But, if you’ve DNF’d then you know that the experience can be painful and has the potential to completely break you. Perspective is a lovely hand to hold here; broadly speaking, pain is one of the few ways we experience any meaningful growth. It takes reflection upon your own race experience to peel away at the onion layers of ego, expectation, social pressures (self-induced?), etc. that make it complicated to accept and move on from the experience.
Digging a little deeper into my DNF, weeks leading up to the race I had been clocking 80-hour workweeks consistently. I had spent the whole of Thursday evening at the office so we could take a relaxing 8-hour drive down to Himeville on Friday morning; I was fortunate to squeeze some brief interrupted naps during the drive. I feel like Coach David Roche takes almost any opportunity to remind everyone that “the body knows stress, not miles… our athletic life is not separate from your full life”. So, by all accounts, my body was destined to fail, and it did so rather spectacularly!
Could I have carried on to will my way across the finish line? Indeed, well possibly. The question remains: “but why?” I would’ve had to dig so much deeper and power hiked like a goat to reach the top of the pass before the half marathon cut off! My superpower had always been that the more difficult the situation got the more tenacious I would be to get through it! But on this day, I didn’t. I stopped.
Should I have carried on? No! My decision to go with what was left of my gut and abandon the race was right! I had to learn that I wasn’t invincible and needed to take care of myself in every aspect of my life.
Pushing beyond Limits
There’s more than enough space in our sport for people who will themselves through hours and hours of pain and suffering to achieve their goal of finishing their race, for those with the “push beyond limits” mentality – and that’s good for them. But, that doesn’t make you a better person or athlete and I argue that it isn’t admirable. It’s just what the person chose to do on the day: to endure their suffering or to abandon it. At the end of the day, it’s all just a decision.
So, the reason I will ask you about your DNF is that I’m curious and want to know the deeper story than what happened at the race itself? There is so much that can be learnt from these experiences. Yes, the trail or tar won the day – you got beaten. But you are still in the game! You’re not down and out or defeated! It’s just the way the chips landed on the day and there’s nothing wrong with that. Your “best-effort” shouldn’t stretch you to performing death-defying acts on the trails or road. And if I keep racing long enough it will happen to me again too – and that’s okay. There is no shame in it! Let us be gracious and kind to ourselves and others in our community and remind each other that we are allowed to have as many DNF’s behind our name as we need to.
Martin CrousCo-Founder of Exploring Co.