Is it better to DNS or to DNF?
I've heard that question asked dozens of times and I've also listened to a wide variety of responses, backed by individual beliefs or personal reasoning for whatever the respondents opinion is. It seems like an easy enough question but it's not. Not at all. And most importantly, I think the answer reveals a lot about the person answering the question because it drills right down to the very core of what motivates you to run in the first place.
I was faced with that question as I was going into the Elephant Mountain 50k this weekend. I had just come off a miserable race at the Moab Red Hot 55k the previous weekend. I was plagued by severe lower GI issues during that entire race. Then, two days later, I was bedridden with the worst stomach flu I have ever had. During the course of my illness, I lost 10 pounds of my already limited body weight and I had only managed to choke down about 1000 calories all week. And most importantly, I hadn't had ANY beer.
On Friday, I was able to try to run again. It wasn't exactly a confidence building run, but it was a run.
Then that same Friday evening, I flew to Phoenix so I could "race" the Elephant Mountain 50k on Saturday morning.
Well....maybe "race" isn't the right word. Nonetheless, I was headed to Arizona.
I woke up Saturday morning and knew I wouldn't be running the entire 50k. I still felt terrible, but much better than I had in previous days. Jo and I made a plan for my inevitable exit from the race and we headed to the start line.
I met up with a lot of great friends before the race and enjoyed being back at another Aravaipa start line. These are my favorite races and as soon as I got out of the car, I knew I had made the right decision by making the trip.
I met up with Anna Piskorska and Mike Reddy before the race started. These are friends that we met when we lived in Pennsylvania and they had made the trip out west for this race. Anna has always been a runner that I looked up to. She has a very impressive race history and can run with some of the fastest men on the trails. Like me, she is a past Across The Years winner and she has run for the US 24 Hour Team. I was excited to see what she could do at Elephant Mountain.
The weather was blissfully warm, but was going to be uncomfortably warm in a few hours. I didn't plan to be on the trail that long.
Givin' It a Go...
The sun was just coming over the mountains and the desert was quiet and beautiful. I soaked it all in, just happy to be on the trail with what little health I had at the moment.
After cresting the top of the climb, we made a nice, gradual descent into a beautiful valley with sweeping views of saguaro cactus and rolling hills.
I was yielding to anybody that pressed my position, reminding myself that I wasn't racing today. I wasn't even trying to fake it. I was just doing what I could to get down the trail.
Two miles in, I pulled off the trail to adjust my shoe and stepped on a cactus, which promptly lodged needles deep into my foot. I should be used to this by now but it still hurts like hell. Not rushed, I sat down and worked them all out of my feet before moving on.
I felt conflicted about being on the trail because I felt like I was posing as a racer. Part of me wanted to run hard so I could show respect to the event and the other runners and part of me just wanted to roll with the trail and breathe it all in. It's not an easy thing to do when you're a competitive person.
The first aid station came pretty early and I would normally cruise right on by. Today, I stopped. I chatted with the volunteers and drank a few ounces of Coke from the table before pressing on.
Almost immediately, I realized the Coke was a bad idea. My stomach wasn't pleased and started to cramp right away. I knew I would eventually have stomach problems but I didn't expect it in the first three miles.
Acid was rolling up my throat and seemed to stop right at the back of my tongue. I would slow my pace and eventually walk until the acid dropped back into my stomach. After running for a while, the acid would return and I would walk again until it settled. I repeated this for the next several miles, constantly worried that I was going to puke. The puke never came, thankfully.
Despite the stomach problems, I was still enjoying the trail. It was a fast course and probably the prettiest trail that Aravaipa Running uses. I had heard others make the same claim and that was one of the reasons I was so intent on running it, regardless of how I felt.
Stopped to Remove More Cactus Needles From my Feet
I started to get pretty warm and salt was building on my clothes and face. I attempted to drink from my pack but I had to spit it out. My stomach was bloated and the acid started to shoot to the top as soon as I put anything in my stomach. Not being able to hydrate can be a real problem in any race, but there's real danger in the desert.
But I was still enjoying the trail. Seriously.
Around 8 miles, I started to feel better and I pushed the pace for a while. I almost felt normal for the first time all week. I was launching over rocks, cruising down the trail and smiling. I began to think about actually finishing the race. Then I felt like crap again and was smacked back into reality.
This section of the race is a long out and back before we split off and run a loop before finishing. I began to see 50k runners coming back at me and knew I must be getting close to the turnaround.
Jo would be waiting for me there and that's where my day would end.
Mike Reddy Looking Good
I saw Jo waiting on me at the turnaround, at the top of a steep climb. I slowed to a walk and climbed the hill, feeling conflicted about my day. I knew it was over but I didn't want it to be. No matter how hard I tried to talk myself into continuing, my better judgement won out. I was pushing my luck as it was and it was time to call it a day.
When the volunteers asked for my number at check in, I gave it and told them I was "out" and kept walking right to the car where I deposited myself into the seat like a ton a bricks.
We ran to the hotel for a quick shower and fresh clothes and headed back to the finish line so we could cheer for all the inbound runners and enjoy some time socializing.
That's always the best part of any race anyway.
I was especially happy to see Anna finish in 3rd place. She's one of my running hero's and I was excited for her. I knew coming to the heat was going to be a real challenge, considering the winter the east coast has had, but she did an awesome job.
Anna Piskorska Finishing Strong!
I was also happy to be there to see Mike finish. When you mix a good attitude, a lot of heart and some talent, you get a runner like Mike Reddy. He's just a great guy.
Anna Greeting Mike at the Finish
Is it better to DNS or DNF?
I could have stayed home in Utah, saved some money, got some rest and that would have been fine. Moreover, it would have been the socially acceptable thing to do.
But I didn't.
I flew to Arizona, ran and dropped out. I even KNEW I wouldn't finish, but I still came all that way.
And for me, that was the right decision and I have no regrets.
When running is such a big part of your life, it's mentally devastating when your health or an injury prevent you from doing it, or from doing it well. It's like having a part of you ripped away without knowing if you'll ever get it back. And if you do, you never know if it will be the same again.
Thankfully, for me it's a short lived illness and I'm almost over it. I'm beginning to run well again and my speed is coming back to me. In a few more days, things will be back on track and I'll pick up where I left off.
It's nice to have a place in the running community even when I'm not well. And it felt good to be there for other runners so I could help them enjoy the day they've been working hard towards. It's useful to get that perspective from time to time.
I'm happy that I didn't DNS.