DNF vs DNS vs Kill Yourself Trying?

For everyone that competes on a semi-regular basis; that first DNF (did not finish) is always on the cards; it is waiting in the wind like an inevitable pride killer.

As the old saying goes: ‘Finishing dead last is better than DNF, and DNF is better than DNS’. I think this is a great expression, which gives an order of merit to these otherwise difficult outcomes, but surely sometimes there are reasonable scenarios where DNF and DNS are actually the more sensible options…

It’s psychological turmoil, running in a race and having to come to terms with the idea of pulling out, and one which I have now experienced twice inside three weeks.


The first time was three weeks ago, during a 40 mile ultra in Wales, where I pulled up with  calf strain at around 14 miles. My decision here was to soldier on at the risk of coming ‘dead last’. I was in a lot of pain and I think a lot of people would have pulled out here, but I am quite stubborn and I reasoned that I had plenty of time if I had to, to walk the remainder and make it within the cut off time. But why do that? Why risk further injury to yourself that could result in a long term injury? Was I wrong to carry on?

It’s an endless debate, and one which it’s doubtful I’ll get to the bottom of by the end of this article. Nevertheless, here was my mind-set at the time: Am I physically capable of finishing? Yes, but with a great deal of pain. What have I got to gain from finishing? I get to keep my 100% record of finishing for a little while longer. Are there any long-term risks from carrying on? Yeah probably, but if I ignore them they’ll maybe go away.

I stand by my decision whatever the case. About two weeks later I was good as new and ready to race again, and as luck would have it, I had a 35 mile hilly ultra the following weekend. Happy days!

Then just as I was getting my fitness back on track, I was struck by a vicious stomach bug. This makes everything a little tricky, as it stops food from doing its job and sleep becomes broken. I took all the medication I could get my hands on, but this stomach bug seemed pretty determined to run its full course and on the morning of the race, I was still feeling very tender and frail.

At the start. Not looking too bad just yet.

At the start. Not looking too bad just yet.

It was already in my mind that there was a good possibility that I wouldn’t finish. DNS then? I dunno, that kind of feels like giving up without trying. It’s only a local race and the entry fee was only £18, but still, I kind of want to give it my best shot.

I lined up at the start, clutching my stomach as if in some way that would keep the pain at bay, like a jedi pain diffuser; then we got started. I wasn’t running at full race pace, but for 7 miles I felt quite good and the pain had in fact subsided a little. ‘Great call deciding to race!’ I thought to myself, before my stomach, as if overhearing my thoughts and suddenly remembering its job of giving me discomfort, decided to shoot pain back and forth and switch itself into a full rinse and spin cycle.

I laboured for the next 5 miles or so; walking for the most part. I felt my job now had switched from racing to providing directions for those runners who weren’t as familiar with the course as I was. Then they all disappeared into the distance and suddenly my role was less clear. As people then began to overtake me even at walking pace, as I clocked miles of 16 and 17 minutes; I began to contemplate that nagging thought of: ‘DNF or finish like a hero?’

That's right, keep smiling. You'll need that later.

That’s right, keep smiling. You’ll need that later.

I’ve read enough on the subject to know how to deal with pain. You have to acknowledge the pain, but don’t let it take over your mind. Unfortunately as well as this, the added effect from not being able to generate energy from food all week had finally caught up with me. I laboured all the way up to mile 18 before starting to feel a little bit dizzy. By the next manned CP at mile 20, my vision had started to go a bit fuzzy; a sure-fire sign that blood sugar was a little low. As I sat down and rehydrated with coke and isotonic drink while my vision returned to normal. It was here that I realized that the demon of the first DNF and 100% record ruiner had finally arrived. To be fair, it had been breathing down my neck all month and was not such a surprise really, but it still feels agonizingly disappointing.

Logic is not something that flourishes in the mind of someone who has had to pull out of a race. You can’t console someone in this state. Despite knowing that there is nothing I can do about illness, and the monumental accomplishment of making it so far, all I could think was that I’d let myself down; I’m a complete failure; I’m never going to pick myself up from this.

Of course this is not true, I even knew this then, but it’s difficult to drag the negative thoughts from a disappointed mind.

I’ll take this opportunity now to thank everyone for all the support I got immediately after the event. A flood of comments of support from all my friends on facebook and all the people on The Running Bug as well (a social media site for runners). My sincere thanks to you all!


So the question is: Should my first DNF really have been 3 weeks earlier, the instant I pulled up injured during an ultra? And should my DNF in this latest ultra, really have been a DNS? My conclusion is that everybody has their own criteria; I think mine are at the fairly extreme end. I think as long as you are being honest with yourself and not just giving yourself the ‘easy’ option as opposed to the ‘sensible’ option. I still maintain, there’s no shame in being last if you were capable of finishing, and why not give it a go to see how far you get if you’re physically capable of making it to the start line? You never know, you might surprise yourself.

As this is a local race for me and only a 20 minute train ride to the start, I fully intend to run the course again next weekend. There’s nothing riding on it; I’ve run in this race before so I’ve got nothing really to prove to myself, but it just feels like the thing to do here.


The Bosley Cloud – Part of the hilly course route.


One of the small bits of road the course features.

They say you learn more in defeat, than you do in victory. If that’s the case, then I can classify myself as a full on scholar after this last month. Also, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.. There are many other platitudes like this to choose from, and I’m guessing whoever came up with this last one has never experienced a stomach bug during a race before. However, I have woken up this morning feeling much more positive and as much as I like to avoid clichés like the plague, y’know, it’s not the end of the world.

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