To DNF or Not to DNF?

Warning: a graphic picture of my feet appears in this post.

But first, a very pleasant image:

r-BABY-BATS-large570

A bunch of baby bats, wrapped up in little blankets.  I don’t know why they’re wrapped up like that.  Maybe they were cold and wet.  Just like me, last September…

***

I already mentioned that I run 100-mile races, right?  That once or twice a year I go to some remote forest, line up with a bunch of crazy people, and run without sleeping for 24+ hours.

It’s a weird sport called ultra-running.  I’ve run a dozen or so of these ultra-marathons in the last five years.

Every single time, I finished successfully.  Until September 2012.  When I ultra-failed.

The Haliburton Forest Trail Run is held at the Haliburton Wildlife Reserve; a sustainable forest tucked into the armpit of Algonquin Park.  You run 25 miles out into the heart of the forest, then you turn around and run 25 miles back.  And then you do the whole thing OVER AGAIN.

Here’s what the starting line looked like at 5:59 a.m.

At the starting line

This is how it looked 90 seconds later:

6 AM, and they're off

One hundred miles. 160 kilometers. Half a million strides. Starting NOW.

The race took place September 8, 2012 which, in case you’ve forgotten, was a rainy day. Very rainy, come to think of it.  It rained for eighteen hours before the race began, and then, for good measure, it rained another 12 hours while the race was happening.  This created a lot of mud.

Here I am at the 50 mile turnaround:

David Haliburton 2012

I look happy, don’t I?  Don’t be fooled.  I’d been running for ten hours, and I was far from happy.  I was…what’s the word….oh yeah – UNHAPPY.

Everyone was in pain out there.  At mile 54, I caught up with a young guy named Pablo.  Pablo was having trouble with his hip, and he squinted with every step he took.  He wasn’t giving up, though.   “Pain equals learning,” he told me.  “If you aren’t feeling any pain, then you’re not learning anything.”

The rain finally stopped, and darkness fell.  At the 68-mile checkpoint I pulled on my headlamp.  I ran for two miles, then noticed that the light was flickering.  Cheap Dollar Store batteries!  I ran two miles back to the aid station and picked up my spares.  These worked fine, but I’d had to run four miles out of my way.

(2nd warning – that picture of my feet is coming soon!)

I reached the 75-mile checkpoint by 11pm, which meant I still had a shot at finishing the race in 24 hours.  Shawna surprised me at the aid station.  She fed me yogurt-covered raisins and salted yams, and told me that I looked surprisingly good, considering the circumstances.

Luckily, she didn’t ask to see my feet.

Dave's gnarly feet 1

Those are the tops of my feet.  Believe me, you don’t want to see the bottoms.

Remember, I’d been running through muddy oil-slicks for 17 hours straight.  I probably should have changed shoes and socks and greased my feet with Vaseline, but that would have taken an extra twenty minutes (it takes a lot of time to perform these seemingly simple manoeuvres when you’re wet and cold from 17 hours of running).

I ran on.  I made it to the 85 mile checkpoint, but then things started to fall apart.  At the top of a hill, I saw a two-storey marble sculpture of a rabbit.  I ran closer and realized it wasn’t a marble sculpture at all, but a tree.  I became dizzy.  My feet were SCREAMING with pain.  So was the chafing on my, er, undercarriage.  I slowed down to a walk.  And then, without the heat generated from the running, my body temperature plummeted.

I was wearing three layers of clothes, plus a running jacket and tights, but it wasn’t enough.  The temperature dipped down to 5 degrees, and I began shivering uncontrollably.  I could barely hike the hills I’d pranced up earlier in the day.  A germ of an idea took root in my mind.  You don’t have to finish if you don’t want to, it said.

It’s called a DNF, and it stands for Did Not Finish.  I’d never DNF’d in my life.

But the pain in my feet was getting worse and it felt like my butt cheeks were being ripped to shreds with every step.  The germ solidified in my mind.

And so, at 3 a.m., after running 89 miles (which was actually 93 if you count the extra miles I ran to get my spare batteries), I did something truly crazy.  At the intersection of Ben’s Trail and Krista Trail, right near the makeshift Shrine which was the inspiration for a VERY IMPORTANT SCENE in my newly published novel (“ULTRA,” Scholastic), I intentionally walked off the trail.

“This is how it feels to DNF,” I told myself, stepping over the line of orange and pink flags.

And you know what?

It felt GREAT.

Mind you, after leaving the course, I still had to bushwhack two more miles through the forest before I stumbled upon a logging road.  And then I had to wait until a car came along and mercifully picked me up.  So in the end I figured I covered 95 miles.

Which wasn’t enough.

****

23 people finished that race.  31 DNF’d.

Pablo, that guy I’d chatted with during the race, was one of the successful ones.  I cheered as he crossed the finish line.  When he saw me, he beamed.

“How did you do?” he asked.

“I DNF’d,” I admitted.  “I couldn’t handle the mud.”

“What?  No!  You were looking so good out there!”

It took a while to convince him that this was good, that this was my decision, and I was comfortable with it.  I’ve had plenty of successful races before, and I wanted to see how failure played out.  There is a cult around winning, around success, completion.  But there is a wintry beauty in its opposite – in failure, chances lost.

“Pain equals learning,” I reminded Pablo.

He grinned, leaned down and rubbed his hip.  “Then we must be geniuses now,” he said.

* * *

One last thought on pain and learning.

rejection letter

This is a standard rejection letter, from one of those highbrow literary journals that almost all writers dream of getting published in, but that very few people actually read.  I’ve got millions of these forms lying around, from all the lousy short stories I sent out over the years.

Every one of those letters stung.   But as Pablo pointed out in the race, pain can be instructive.

If you’re going to be a writer, you’ll have to deal with rejection at some point.  But you can view these rejections in one of two ways:

1) You can see them as stop signs.  As brick walls.

2) Or you can see them as an invitation to keep pushing.

If you’re suffering from hypothermia, or excruciating chafing, by all means, take some time off to recover.  Otherwise, keep writing.  The finish line is out there – somewhere.

4 thoughts on “To DNF or Not to DNF?

  1. Ah, trench foot. I had a 64 miler (The Plague) in August that only consisted of wind, rain and mud and from hour 11 onwards it was like running on razor blades. I’ve now bought multiple brands of endurance sock that promise I will never go through this again (all were lying) and have taken to liberally covering my feet with vaseline before long days on the trails (kind of works. A bit). As a result of that race I am now obsessed with the condition of my feet and am also guilty of posting photos of them…weeping soles and all. Its good to share.

  2. Great post! I fully sympathise with your DNF, having recently pulled out of a marathon after 40km. DNF is an option, and sometimes it’s the best thing to do. As runners, we all know what it feels like to run through pain, dig deeper and push a little further when it’s needed. But sometimes, it just isn’t happening. There’s no glory in stupidity. When things go really wrong, and genuine physical distress kicks in, we all know that we should stop running, even if (or especially when?) it’s during the big race. I have a lot of respect for runners who see that and look after themselves. Well done for pulling out! We run for fun, because it’s healthy and good for us. When that’s no longer the case, why should we keep going? Better to implement on damage control and be fit to run another day. There’ll be another race. Besides, I completely agree with your sentiment that the worst experiences can teach us the most valuable lessons.

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