DNF but Did Not Fail

I felt really good going into this race. For the first time, I was so prepared for a half marathon that I actually *got* to taper. I’ve been running consistently and injury-free (aside from minor IT band flare-ups that don’t hinder anything). I got plenty of tune-up races in, including two 10ks and a PR 5k. I felt nervously confident that I could hold my goal pace on a good day.

July 4th, crushed a 5k in 18:55 (the Garmin doesn't lie no matter what the official race results say, right?)

July 4th, crushed a 5k in 18:55 (the Garmin doesn’t lie no matter what the official race results say, right?)

It just wasn’t a good day. I think I managed the taper just fine despite having no idea what a taper feels like, and I even requested the whole weekend off from work to ensure quality pre- and post-race non-activity. I ate well, and cut out beans, dairy, and coffee within the final two days to avoid stomach issues. I woke up most nights to pee.


I’m obviously sorting through some frustration and mild despair at the DNF. But I accepted it fairly quickly and I’m not too beat up about it. I think this is because, for the most part, the race went well. So what prompted me to stop, drop, and turn around?

Several factors.

The first was the heat. When I dropped, shortly after mile 7, I saw the temperature displayed at 82F, and the high was supposed to hit 90 in Fort Collins. The course was mostly exposed, and I expect temps climbed exponentially for the remaining 40 minutes I would have been running.

Second, despite “holding onto” 6:50 pace, it felt hard. I floated through a 10k at this pace two weeks ago in Laramie and it felt doable. Today, I struggled to maintain the gears. Mile 3 felt like a lifetime. I started the feel comfortable around mile 4, but it vanished quickly.

A major factor was mental. The course was two laps of the same loop. The first part climbs gradually, hits a very exposed back stretch, then shimmies onto the bike path, which is largely undulating and included hair pin turns onto hot, dusty unpaved sections. Watching markers for late-race miles go by definitely affected my mentality. To run past the mile 11 marker during mile 5 made me feel like I was running mile 11 – like I was living vicariously through the end of the race and experiencing the exhaustion associated with finishing. I kept thinking, “What will I feel like when I pass this again on the second lap if I feel this tired already?” Things got very negative.

I had arranged for John to stand just off the course near the half-way with a Heed bottle that I would grab from him when I passed by for lap 2. But somehow that check point started to feel like a finish line, and as I rounded the corner and stared up the Mountain Ave ascent, I simply couldn’t fathom running a second lap. I was bored, I was out of gas, I wasn’t excited to do the course again, I was done. My legs were burning, and my pace, which had held steady until mile 7, plummeted without mercy.

Approximately 2 blocks before I quit.

Approximately 2 blocks before I quit.

I stopped several blocks past John and downed my bottle, considering whether to quit. I started to run again. Everything was falling apart, so I quit for good. I’m glad I gave myself the option to run again but ultimately I bargained that dropping out would lead to better success next time than would struggling through a hopeless race and failing to recover adequately. Thinking of the long run. Today, the race wasn’t worth the physical and mental stress.

I sat down and numbly watched runners go by for several minutes. I overheard a 4 year old spectator behind me wondering why I had stopped running. Every nerve in my defeated body kept me from telling this 4 year old to mind its own fucking business. I walked several blocks choking on lame tears. I found John under the Runners Roost tent and said I wanted to go home. We walked some more. He said everyone was talking about the heat. He reassured me I made the right choice. He suggested we get breakfast instead of drive straight home. This is why I drag him to my races, and I am lucky that he willingly obliges.

I never envisioned myself quitting like this. Maybe I could have gutted out the last lap at a humble pace and finished. But I think that would have been very unsatisfying, and possibly disastrous, had I ended up crawling to the finish. No doubt the heat would have taken its toll. Had I not been set on a PR maybe I ought to have adjusted my goals for the weather and chosen a more moderate pace overall. I have little half marathon experience and zero in the heat or at goal pace. So maybe this is best addressed as a lesson learned.

On the bright side, I think this alternative bodes better for a rebound and fast race in the future. I have now extended the length I have held 6:50 pace to 7 miles – win. I can still take two weeks off as planned – win. I am not injured – win. And I walked away from the race with heavy legs and heart but no serious side effects of overexertion – win. My mental game regarding the DNF is strong.

Trail running a few weeks ago: a visual analogy for today's race (bloody but not broken)

Trail running a few weeks ago: a visual analogy for today’s race (bloody but not broken)

I will take the time for my mind and body to heal, but now I can set my sights on a fast half in cooler weather this fall. I can invite plenty more opportunities to practice goal pace. I can get in another full training cycle and taper and continue to build consistency. I can keep racing shorter strength-building races (plenty on the calendar to choose from). And I can pick a larger race in Denver that will have a fuller field in my pace group and, likely, pacers. John said I was alone when he saw me, and that’s how I felt much of the race. It was just too much to ask of my first “fast” half. Not the right race.

In the end it feels sucky, yes. John told me not to mope all day and I said, “No, I get to mope today. If I don’t mope, I don’t care.” But I think that will be enough. I will sleep peacefully, sketch out the next several weeks, hike some trails, work on my hips, drink some beer, and set a new course of action. Nothing lost today, plenty gained.


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