Not finishing a race is probably one of the more tender points for most runners but it’s not all bad. Legendary South African ultra-runner Tobie Reyneke helped me look at DNF in a completely different light when he said you actually learn more from not finishing a race than you do from finishing. If you keep this in mind, you can learn a lot about yourself during these difficult situations.
Everybody knows the term DNF so I think before I carry on its only fair I explain DFL. It’s rather simple actually. It means Dead Fucking Last. I personally have three DNF’s behind my name when it comes to running and numerous DFL’s.
My first DNF was at the Crazy Store Magalies Trail run in Gauteng. For years this race seemed to be my nemesis as I’ve started it 5 times and only finished it three times. On more than one occasion I got to the finish cursing that I was never going to put running shoes on ever again, only to be back for more punishment the following year. There is something about that race that just grinds my soul into tiny, sad and broken pieces. The first time I didn’t finish was purely from being a soft and lazy road runner. My mind was blown away by how slow I was going and I was completely freaked out by the prospect of crawling to the finish at under 6km an hour. I proceeded to cook up an excuse that I felt sick and chickened out at the Greek Church, not even 8km from the finish. Sitting in the vehicle that took us back to the finish was one of the worst feelings of my life. I felt like a complete pathetic failure and vowed to never quit a race again. Unfortunately this was not a very realistic vow.
The following year was a better year for me running wise, as I was preparing for my first KAEM in 2014. I was excited about the Crazy Store Magalies and hoped to set the record straight and finish strong. I had a very good run up to the Greek church, and with the final 8km being pretty much downhill, I was confident I would cross the finish line in just over an hour, a celebratory beer to follow. This was not to be.
To put what happened next into perspective I have to again just explain the situation with my legs. I honestly believe I was put together by Dr Frankenstein and that my right leg belongs to a nimble, fit person and my left leg belongs to a fat, lazy and extremely clumsy person. There is actually a very valid reason for this that I won’t go into too much detail here, because I don’t want to bore anybody to death. Basically I have the back of an 80 year old person which influences my biomechanics in all kinds of fun ways. This leads to my left foot not being extremely enthusiastic when it comes to lifting itself high enough to not trip over things. I have to employ the focus of a neuro surgeon when I run on uneven terrain in order not to trip over even the smallest rock. I also have a collection of pants that have holes on the left knee… It’s probably not that difficult to then imagine what happened next.
I left the Greek Church excited about the last few kilometres. I wasn’t even 500m from away when my left foot connected with object unknown and I went down like a ton of very tired bricks. My poor left knee took the brunt of the fall, as it usually does, and it took me a few minutes to get back up. I immediately knew my race was over as I couldn’t put any weight on my left leg. I hobbled back to the Greek Church and again waited to be taken back to the finish. I was extremely angry with myself for again not finishing the stupid race and spent the rest of the day feeling extremely sorry for myself. This was not the last time I would write off my poor left knee but at least it was the last time I had to quit a race because of it.
My next DNF was a lot less spectacular but I learnt a lot from it. In 2016 I entered the Outeniqua Quest 106km that took place in July in Wilderness. It would be the longest event I ever took part in and I was very focussed to finish and do well. The weekend before the event I was taking it easy on my family’s game farm in Thabazimbi and I woke up the Saturday night with the most terrible pain in my left ear. Having had problems with it my whole life I knew my ear drum was on the point of rupturing. I drank more pain pills that was probably wise or necessary and headed straight to the doctor on the Sunday. My suspicions were correct and I had indeed ruptured the ear drum. I had to go on anti-biotics and I very much chose to ignore the fact that I was supposed to run 106km 6 days later.
I was actually feeling great and arriving in George the Friday before the race I was very optimistic. My good KAEM
friend Charmain vd Merwe was also at the race and we planned to run together. The next morning I started feeling very good and the first 20km went by with no incident. The route was breathtakingly beautiful and the weather was perfect. I started realising I had a problem when I got dizzy for no apparent reason. I wasn’t nauseous or feeling sick at all but whenever I looked around me I had to grab onto branches or roots to prevent myself from rolling down the mountain like a cheese. My ear was obviously not 100 percent and it was making me feel extremely unsafe. I was very worried about going into the night not able to keep my balance on a very technical route. I got to the 36km check point where I sat down thinking about the decision I had to make. Carry on whilst being so dizzy, it was a real possibility I would fall over and bang my head open on a muddy tree root, or quit. I decided to quit. It was a heart breaking moment but I knew it was the right decision. As I was waiting to be picked up I saw a Knysna loerie and a Bushbuck come out the forest. I was at peace with my decision.
A few weeks later I had my incident at Rhodes where my left knee again took the brunt of a bad fall. Because of what happened at Outeniqua Quest I ran 47km with a completely banged up leg but I was NOT going to abandon another race. After this it took me five weeks to recover, and luckily I didn’t do any permanent damage running so far with a knee that ended up needing stitches.
Not many people can say they’ve actually been Dead Fucking Last, but I can and I’m damn proud of it!
My first DFL was at my first Comrades in 2012. I was running with the Magnolia Running Club and it would be my
longest run ever. Having only been running for just under two years I didn’t yet know of the numerous ways running cuts you down to size. I was very confident and probably didn’t respect the event as much as I should have. I started the morning in Pietermaritzburg feeling optimistic. My optimism dealt a lethal blow by the 20km mark when I felt completely exhausted and saw a board indicating I still had 69km to go. I can’t even describe what was going through my mind except to say that I felt the biggest sense of dread. How was I going to run another 69km when the thought of giving just one more step is too much? For the next 40km I shuffled along trying to keep my mind occupied with happy thoughts that seemed to fly out my head as quickly as they entered it. People kept telling me I had to speed up if I wanted to make it but the idea of speeding up was almost as realistic as growing wings and flying to the moon, so I just carried on. With about 29km to go the 12 hour bus caught me and left me behind without even a glance. Now I was fucked! I can’t really remember what I was thinking at that stage but I really didn’t want to have come all this way and not make the cut off. With 20km to go I started cramping which was a complete new experience for me, having never cramped before in my life. My calves would grind me to a halt every now and again, where after I would hobble forward with my legs resembling two pirate peg legs. I reached 5km to go with less than 40 minutes left on the clock and I got strength from somewhere and sped up quite a bit. I was over taking a lot of people and still didn’t know if I was going to make it. As a youngster whenever I watched Comrades on the television, I always thought the people that cramp up and fall over in the run to the finish was putting on a performance to get on the TV, until the exact same thing happened to me. Luckily I cramped up just before entering the track so this spectacular moment was not caught on camera. I heard the ‘Final Countdown’ playing and realised if I didn’t toughen up really fast, I was going to be one of those sad people stuck behind the line having missed the cut off. I hobbled into the finishing straight and actually saw the dude with the gun already standing at the finish line. I crossed the finish in a time of 11:58:50 with only a minute and ten seconds to spare. I said that day that I would never do comrades again… In 2015 I did the Up run. I wasn’t actually DFL but I was the last Magnolia Club member to cross the line that day.
My second DFL was at my very first Otter Trail Run. I had come from a road back ground and decided to jump in the deep end, as I do, and have a crack at the Retto in 2012. I have never been as terrified, as I was at the race briefing the night before the Challenge, where Marc Collins explained in very vivid detail how dangerous the trail and Bloukrans river crossing could get. He proceeded to introduce us to the sweep Deon Braun and told us if we saw him we were in trouble. I hardly slept that night I was so terrified of what lay ahead. Of course the morning of the start it was raining and I knew I was going to have a very hard day out. The massive amount of climbing and the muddy route slowed me to a crawl but I made my way along the route hoping I would make the cut off of 11 hours. As expected it was a difficult day filled with mountain after muddy mountain, and tree root after muddy tree root. I was about 5km from the finish when I looked over my shoulder and saw the smiling face of Deon Braun. I did a double take and realised. ‘O fuck, It’s the sweep’. Deon came past me and told me to just follow his line over the last very rocky and difficult few kilometres. He managed to get me going a bit faster, and reaching the Storms River camp I realised I was going to make it. I finished with 6 minutes to spare and I was the last lady finisher on the day. My friends had already showered and had numerous beers when I came in that day. Back then already the KAEM was my big dream and I remember sitting in the back of the car saying ‘There is just no way in this life I will ever be able to do KAEM’. How wrong I was.
So what I’ve learnt from being Dead Fucking Last vs Did Not Finish is the following.
1. It’s ok to not finish. Like Tobie said you learn more from not finishing than actually finishing. Like for instance if your ear drum burst and you’re on antibiotics till two days before the race don’t do that to yourself! I actually have so many cycling friends that sit with heart conditions, and can never compete again because they raced when they were sick. No race is worth risking your health or life.
2. If a sweep vehicle comes past carrying runners that abandoned don’t even look at them. They’re already so disappointed and angry with themselves, if you even blink they may see this as some form of judgement and throw you with whatever they have with them. You don’t want to be hit in the head with a tube of Nuun tablets or a sticky GU sachet. (Yes, I am the person that will throw you with something)
3. Nobody really cares about you not finishing except yourself.
4. When I was still cycling I was always so embarrassed when I got dropped and finished at the back. On so many occasions I wanted to hide because what would people think if they saw me so far off the front? Now I just don’t care. If I’m dead fucking last, I don’t fucking care. I’m there for the journey, and if anybody has anything to say about that my middle finger will reply on my behalf.
5. Except if you have actually broken something or have some serious medical condition the bad feelings always pass. If you feel like you want to abandon you should ask yourself if you’re going to die, pass out, burst an eye ball, spontaneously combust or explode and if your honest answer is no, you should push on. Those bad feelings usually don’t last and once you’ve taken a deep breath and chilled out, you will be able to carry on. Your body can always do more than you think.
6. Sweepers are awesome. If you’re having a hard time and your dead grandmother is hiding behind trees on the trail, always remember that there is a patient and wonderful person coming from behind that will chase away your dead grandmother and help you get to the finish. There is no need to get a fright when you see them. They’re there to help you.
With the Munga Trail starting this week I know many runners will be battling with the demon of abandoning versus carrying on. I always try to remind myself that I run only for myself and if the journey is over quickly or takes forever, is easy or soul destroyingly hard, in the end only really you have to be happy with your effort. I’m sure there will be more days where I will not be able to finish and I’m one hundred percent sure I will be dead last again but as long as I’m able to make my way along the trails within what is safe for my body I will be there. Not finishing or Dead last, there is always something to be taken from the journey, and even doing 10km of a 40km trail is more than what many people are privileged to experience, so enjoy every moment and meter of your run every single time.
See you on the trails. #destinationGCU