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Out There: Death Before A DNF

It's important to know your limit. On race day, stick to it.

It’s important to know your limit. On race day, stick to it.

A couple of months ago, I entered a race on a whim: a tiny local duathlon known for a challenging trail run and an even more challenging bike course. It was a last-minute decision between my coach and me, a seemingly innocuous addition to my calendar.

As far as innocuous additions go, this one was a doozy.

Two miles into the first run leg, I experienced strange pains on the bottom of both of my feet. I ignored it and soldiered on, hopping onto my bike for the 26-mile bike leg. I then proceeded to get hammered by every single person on the course.

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No, this is not an exaggeration — I got passed so often and so quickly, I had to look down to make sure I was actually moving instead of just standing still. During the last few miles of the bike leg, I was alone, save for an annoyed race volunteer waiting to pick up the traffic cones on the course.

Upon dismounting, my bike shoes squished. Blood trickled out. Those with a logical brain would declare this to be the end of my race, but logic doesn’t exist between my ears — only pride. I put my running shoes on and headed back out on the trails.

The four miles that followed were the most torturous I’ve ever experienced. Each step felt like knives stabbing into my feet. I cursed rocks. I cursed my shoes. I cursed the faster people for making me look even slower than I was. I cursed the slower people for staying home, because it would have been nice to be faster than someone. I cursed hills and sand and everything under the sun (while I was at it, I cursed the sun, too). And I cursed myself most of all.

By the time I finally finished, the transition area was empty and most of the athletes had gone home. The post-race food was picked over and tents were being dismantled.

As I peeled off my socks to reveal two feet that looked like ground hamburger, my partner Neil asked what the hell I was thinking, finishing the race when I should have just taken a DNF.

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I had no good answer. I only cried. Truth be told, my ego hurt even more than my feet.

I still don’t know why I finished the race. I only knew that I was pissed and had something to prove. What it was, I’m not sure. Did I suddenly think I was going to sprout cartoon Road Runner legs and speed past my fellow competitors with a “meep-meep?” Did I believe I was going to gain something from the experience of limping through the desert like an extra on “The Walking Dead?” Was it really worth it to wreck my feet and my ego to finish a race that wasn’t an “A” race — or even a B, C, or D race, for that matter?

The answers to those questions: No, no, and hell, no.

I don’t want pity. I also don’t want my actions to be mislabeled with any connotation of badassery. What I did was stupid, plain and simple. I should have taken the DNF that day.

There’s a mentality in the endurance community that over-emphasizes the difficult aspect of our endeavors. Grit is a valued trait — Heaven forbid we should ever be seen as weak. We’re told to push through the pain, silence the mental monsters, and embrace the tough days. We brag of blisters and black toenails and never taking a rest day. We watch video of people stumbling, even crawling to the finish line, and call it “inspiring.” We raise our fists in the air and shout our battle cry: “Death before DNF!”

Death before DNF? Really?

I drank the Kool-Aid that day, and for what? Nothing. Contrary to what I believed, I didn’t have a single thing to prove. There was no spot on the podium at stake. There were no adoring fans at the finish line to ooh and ahh over how brave and inspiring I was. My only audience was a bored volunteer and Neil, who helped me hobble to the first aid for gauze and a “that was really stupid of you” talk.

There’s grit, and there’s idiocy. Spurred by the “Death before DNF” mentality, we sometimes don’t realize we’ve crossed into idiot territory until it’s far too late; when the doctor diagnoses a stress fracture and says we should have stopped running weeks ago, or when we woozily admit we should have turned back to grab that forgotten water bottle after all.

Know your line. Draw it, and refuse to cross it. It’s not a sign of weakness.

In fact, it’ll only make you stronger.