A DNF Discussion

There are books titled Did Not Finish, you tube videos, even a website, didnotfinish.com. For an athlete these words are rarely uttered in private, avoided like the plaque.

According to Wikipedia, “DNF denotes a participant who does not finish a given race, either because of a mechanical failure, injury, or involvement in an accident.” A definition can not even come close to explaining what DNF really means to an athlete.

The term, DNF, is used in all forms of racing, including automotive racing, horse racing, cycling, track and, of course, distance running. While DNFs vary between competitive discipline, the rates within individual events are the lowest.

A 2009 New York Times analysis of New York City Marathon results concluded that recreational competitors were more likely to finish the race rather than be classified as DNF. Elite runners, on the other hand, are more inclined to drop races rather than risk injury and put a future race in jeopardy.

At the 2012 Summer Olympics, three of America’s six competitors failed to finish. Ryan Hall lasted just 46 minutes 57 seconds before dropping out. Paula Radcliffe, current women’s marathon world record holder, hit the wall in the 2004 Olympic Marathon and dropped out.

Bill Rodgers was a successful American runner and former American record holder in the marathon whose victories made him a hero during the running boom of the 1970s. He registered a DNF in his first marathon, the Boston Marathon, in 1973. What if a discouraged Bill Rodgers had never run another marathon? What a loss there would have been for the running world.

Shameful or Exceeding the Limit

One reason for not finishing is injury. But another is that runners may realize they are not mentally prepared to go the distance. When you hit the wall, it seems absolutely impossible to put one foot in front of the other for just one more second. Maybe another reason a DNF happens is because you have over-achieved in your racing effort…


I found a runner who blogged about his own DNF:

“If you don’t miss a flight once in a while, then you’re wasting too much time waiting in the airport!” In other words, play-it-safe perfection isn’t an optimal strategy. It’s wiser to take risks, and sometimes fail — in order to do better overall.

Analogously, for some runners DNF are scary, scarlet letters of shame. They stand for Did Not Finish — meaning in some minds “Dropped Out”, “Quit”, “Couldn’t Hack It”, and the like. Other’s say if you don’t get one eventually then obviously you’re not trying hard enough “to win” when you race.

I almost dropped out of my last marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon. An argument raged in my head: is it better to register a time so much slower than is typical for me, or to drop out and not register that race in my little book of races at all? Eventually I decided I had made it that far and I wanted a medal for my effort, regardless of the time. In some ways, the disappointment of not having a stellar performance was just as difficult to accept.

It’s what you do with the disappointment afterwards that matters. You can let it prevent you from ever running again, or it can motivate you to run another marathon right away…. to prove you can do it (which is what many runners tend to do), or you can use the experience to help you improve.

The runner quoted above ended his post with words perfectly written:

If we choose to retire and hang our running shoes on the hook, there is nothing further we can do. But if we take courage, brush off the dust, and go back to training we have a chance! Maybe not today, or next week, but sometime down the road and each time we cross the Finish line the memory of the DNF will diminish and one day the pain will no longer be there.

Carry on, runners.

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