Why a DNF is a Bad Idea

We all have less than ideal races. It’s part of the game. What doesn’t kill you … right? Races fall apart for many reasons, some within your control and some outside of it.

I recently ran the Shamrock Virginia Beach Marathon and woke up on race day to a severe weather warning. I would be running an oceanside marathon with a “high surf advisory” and pelted by rain and sleet. It was during this race that I first seriously contemplated not finishing, DNF‘ing.

As someone who firmly believes in not quitting if you’re not injured or being pulled off the course, it took everything in me to finish this race. I decided that the disadvantages of DNF’ing far outweigh the discomfort of finishing the race slower than my goal time.

When the going gets tough, here is why a DNF is a bad idea.

The DNF will haunt you. 

This is particularly true if you DNF a marathon. The thing with the marathon is that if you have a bad race, it’s difficult to jump right back into another one. While it’s possible to run back-to-back marathons, you’ll likely have to wait a few months until your next race. That means you’ll be carrying the weight of the DNF around. I don’t know about you, but I knew that if I DNF’d the thought of “will I quit my next race?” would continue to haunt me.

As endurance runners, mental training is already something we need to work on. If you can avoid a DNF, that’s one less thing you’ll have to mentally overcome.

You will have to find arrangements back to the start.

As I was contemplating my DNF on the course, I started to think of the logistics of getting back to the start. Anyone who has been there can attest how deep of a hole you are in, if you start to think of the logistics of quitting.

In my case, the sleet and wind were coming at me in all directions. I couldn’t feel my legs or arms and the idea of dropping out and knocking on someone’s door to use their phone was very appealing. I eventually told myself to get a grip; I wouldn’t be knocking on someone’s door that day.

While some courses have volunteers and spectators along the course, there are many smaller races that put runners in the middle of nowhere around 30K. Without houses or cars to drive you back to the start, are you seriously just going to stop? No. Get going.

You’ll miss opportunities to learn.  

Part of running is learning how to push through the tough moments. Running marathons is hard, but you DO HARD THINGS. Use these moments to prove to yourself that you can keep going. Let’s be honest, often these dark moments pass within a mile or two. If you’re in a mental hole, it’s ok to be miserable. It’s your ability to bounce back from those moments that will lead to your racing success.

I don’t know about you, but “feeling great” are rarely words I use to describe the last 10K of a marathon, yet that is the point in the race that will determine your ability to reach your goals or have another average day. If you’re physically able to carry-on when you want to quit, these moments are huge learning opportunities for the next time you encounter the Hard Times.

You won’t get the finishers’ swag

While the medal is not what motivates me to the finish, it does represent something special. Many of us hang our medals on our walls or plan to, and then use the medals as tangible proof of the months of hard work we invested in that race.

At 35K of the Shamrock Marathon there was part of me that thought of the finishers hat that is notoriously given out at the finish line. After driving 13 hours to get there, you can bet I was getting that hat. Are you really going to run 35K for nothing?

You’ll have to spin it

With all those posts on social media you made leading up to the race, you’re going to have to spin this to all your friends. Sure, “it wasn’t my day” works, but let’s face it, that’s not fun. There is a reason why people have A, B, and C goals. It’s really easy to get down on yourself if you don’t reach your A goal, but rest assured people are rooting for you to finish.

In fact, you probably have people tracking you and cheering for you in real time! Channel those vibes. Buckle down and get the race done. And think, because you didn’t DNF, you’ll have a finisher picture to share!

During a less-than-stellar race experience, what goes through your head when you want to quit? Have you ever DNF’d?

I'm a Canadian runner with a knack for training in frigid temperatures and completing 20 milers on the treadmill. I'm currently training for a spring marathon, with the goal of Boston Qualifying. Outside of running, I work in public policy and can often be found cross-stitching or being talked out of adopting another cat.

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29 comments

  1. I think you make great points here. I DNF’d once and it was in a marathon that was going badly and I was miserable and not having fun. I ended up being glad. I recovered from my 15 hard miles and then ended up running fairly well at a smaller local race two weeks later. I don’t regret the DNF personally, but at the time I know how easy it can be to pull the plug and then regret it, so considering these things before getting in the situation is important for making a good decision. Glad you persevered and hope you don’t even contemplate it for a second in the next one!

    1. Isn’t the whole point of this, that unless you are sick, injured or in some type of danger that you should probably finish? I have thought about dnf Ing during a bad race and I am always glad that I didn’t. If I’m simply having a bad day or the elements suck, I think of it as great mental toughness training. If you are sick or injured, Stop and live to run another day. I dnf’d once because I was so sick I kept laying down on the side of the course to take a little nap! It took forever for my husband to convince me to throw the towel in, but I learned my lesson. Sometimes you need to stop, but it’s very rare, and usually its best to get over your pride of a missed goal and to win the mental victory!

  2. I’ve dnf’d and don’t regret it at all. Actually just once. Had stomach issues. But it’s so case (and runner) specific and i can see why in your case you kept going at Shamrock!

    1. Totally agree! In my case it was weather that pushed me to the point of seriously considering the DNF, but if stomach issues or injury territory, I would have DNF’s with no regrets.

  3. I don’t race often and have never run more than a half. Last May was the first time I ever even thought of not finishing. I was miserable, it was hot, humid, raining and the course was crazy hilly, not much crowd support, blah blah blah blah…..I made my self keep going because I figured I had to get back anyways and honestly, I didn’t know how I would get back if I didn’t keep going. I ended up somehow PRing. I think I just really wanted it to end, lol.

  4. I ran the Shamrock half this year and I’ve never experienced anything like it. The marathoners had it far worse. When it got really hard I did tell myself that once I was warm and dry and sitting down, I would be pissed at myself if I quit. Kudos to you for getting it done, the J&A races definitely have great swag.

  5. It can be easy to want to pull the plug, but I feel like the decision is a lot tougher when it’s a goal race. Many of the points you mentioned are all of the things that crossed my mind recently. I wanted to quit so badly in Boston, but, it was Boston. I had to force myself through 23.2mi of wanting to quit, but I didn’t travel all the way there not to finish. I already had the jacket, now I had to earn it. I thought of everyone back home tracking me and wanted to make them proud. It wasn’t easy, but I know that if I had quit, I’d be even more upset with myself than I was with my result.

  6. As Amy Poheler says, “Good for her! Not for me.” I have DNFed twice in the marathon distance. Once due to extreme heat and once since I knew I was doing more damage to my hip by staying in. Basically both times, I felt like I didn’t have anything to prove and there was no need to be a hero. I would rather miss out on swag than cause any kind of long-term issue that would sideline me for months. It was a tough decision, but ya know, I own it and don’t regret those DNFs.

    1. I’m with you. Two DNFs. One- I was vomiting with 8 miles left on a marathon course. I regret nothing. The second, the course ran out of water on a hot day halfway through. I had an impromptu switch to the half.

      I run for fun. No sense in keeping up the pain when it is completely unreasonable or unsafe. I’ll run again. 15 marathons in, the DNFs haven’t stopped me from succeeding.

      1. @Kathy – I feel you on this. I DNF’ed that one marathon because I was miserable. Why continue and potentially hate running or racing just to finish? I already finished three marathons at that point, I had a 9 month old baby, and I really felt like I had nothing to prove so when I saw my husband at 15 I bagged it and saved it for another day. But it didn’t become a habit. My 5th marathon, I crashed at mile 19 and it was a struggle all the way to the finish, but I finished and it was the right call then. I think Maple’s right that you gotta think hard about it, but you have to know yourself and what makes sense for you. And if that means DNF because this race makes me hate life, then so be it.

    2. I had a friend that has a zero tolerance policy about DNF’ing, like anyone who does it is a megawuss and no matter what I said to her about it, it seemed like she ignored me and felt entitled to judge me as weak. But only I knew what was going on and why I did it and I never doubted my decision. As a dithering pleaser much of the time, it was an enlightening experience 🙂 Somethings, like whether to DNF or not, are so subjective that whether it’s right or wrong is completely not anyone else’s call to make.

  7. Totally depends on the reason. Injury, illness – things that can have a lasting impact on your ability to run in the future… totally ok to DNF IMO. Reasons like weather (unless it is contributing to ilness) or “just not feeling it” are different. I would have a hard time recovering from the disappointment of not pushing through. I DNF’d a marathon a few years ago, it was my third marathon in 3 months and I had given myself permission to pull out if I wanted to. Probably by giving myself that out, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. I don’t regret it at all, I was there just for fun and I stopped when the fun stopped.

    1. 100% totally depends. In my case it was weather. I had trained for the race and traveled 13 hours, so I couldn’t bring myself to DNF.

      1. I think it’s way easier to DNF a race in which you’re less invested — you had so much time and money and training into Shamrock! The marathon I DNF’d was in my hometown, I had a free entry, and I stepped off the course at a point where my husband and inlaws were cheering and got in the car. For some reason, destination races seem much more serious than local ones to me!

        1. That’s suspiciously similar to my DNF! I was also thinking it depends on how you view a goal race. For me, that particular race was just a race, but my goal was to race a good marathon. So, bagging one that was miserable and trying again did not seem like quitting in the same way that it might in other circumstances. The goal was “a marathon” not THAT marathon, if that makes sense. Also, if someone is trying to qualify for Boston or an OTQ by a deadline, it might make sense to DNF a race when it otherwise doesn’t. It’s just such a subjective concept and whether it’s a good or bad idea is so dependent on so many different variables.

  8. I’ve DNF’d at two goal races in the last year. The first was 16 miles into a marathon and I had a blister on my foot that was making it painful every step and the thought of 10 more miles on that seemed supremely unpleasant. In retrospect, I don’t know if I could have made it to the finish and even if I did, there’s a solid chance I could have developed an injury by shifting my stride to avoid landing on the blister. The second DNF was last weekend at a half. I felt like I was running on empty from the gun and by mile 3 shifted into just finish mode. Mile 4 came around and I was fading even harder and pulled the plug.

    I’m certainly frustrated and both DNFs were really tough pills to swallow, but I don’t regret either. There’s a difference between quitting when the going gets tough and making a smart decision to cut your losses or even avoid additional harm to your body. In the months between those two DNFs I’ve run a number of races. Some were great and some were days where I had to tough it out for a result that wasn’t what I wanted. I don’t think a DNF is a thing to take lightly, but I also believe there are a number of legitimate reasons to not finish a race. A DNF shouldn’t define you or your running- it sucks, but there’s probably a lesson or two in each one to learn from and move on to the next race.

  9. Like you mention, if it’s injury or you’re “being pulled off the course”, by all means DNF. Heck, I’d add if you’re at the level where you’re going for the win or something, and you’re not feeling it, then DNF and try again soon. But if you’re a recreational runner who put a ton of time/money into training, then I’d say JUST FINISH IT. I DNF’d once due to a migraine while running straight into the rising sun = icepick to my brain and quit at mile 13 (that race did have a bus that drove back and forth along the route, so I was able to get a ride back to the start.) That DNF got in my brain, and gave me such racing anxiety and self-doubt that it took me 5 years to finally have another decent marathon. When I went to NYC in 2015, I was so sick the whole race (motion sickness from the 4-hour schlep to get to the starting line that morning) but knew that I’d put in way too much time, energy, & $$ that I was getting that medal no matter what. Proud to have that medal and memory hanging on my wall rather than nothing to show for it.

  10. I think this post should really be titled “WHEN a DNF is a bad idea”! Because there are so many factors that weigh in on one side or the other, and some (injury, illness, being undertrained, strategic racing like going for a BQ at a backup race) weigh more than others (swag, social media, shame of being on the DNF bus). IF you can push through and use it as an opportunity to train your mental toughness, with no further consequences down the road, by all means go for it! If you need to DNF, it isn’t a ride of shame. I’ve done both.

    1. PS: for this reason I don’t give social media kudos to running friends when I think they’ve done something potentially daft! I once read an Ironman race report by a very well-respected dude in my local running community – he (claimed he*) didn’t train and just slogged through the whole thing. People were congratulating him right left and centre and I was like ‘no dude you’re not a hero AND you’re setting a bad example for other people’!

      In this case I see no reason NOT to congratulate Maple for finishing Shamrock. She’d trained for it, she wasn’t injured or posing a risk to herself or others, she wasn’t ill…the weather just sucked. In the same conditions, I would have DNFed – many people did – but I think she can be proud of herself for persevering.

      (*Sandbagging happens too, sometimes.)

    2. Cosigned. I would have been fine with this post if it was more along those lines, or Why I Didn’t DNF, instead of making universal claims. To me, this is very similar to the Tina Muir situation where her personal experience was used on RW to make sweeping statements – and the Salty universe took her to task for it.

      1. Hey Sassy! Thanks for sharing your perspective. The article was inspired by my less than stellar experience at the Shamrock Marathon. In my view, these are some positive mental strategies to get oneself back in the game. While they may help some, I don’t claim they are for everyone.

        1. Agree to disagree on that point. You actually said, here is why it is a bad idea. Not here’s what motivated me not to quit. I got that it was your personal story, but I don’t think it was adequately positioned as such.

  11. I DNF’d once (I think just once) and had no regrets. I was in a bad place mentally. Since then, I have the thought often if a race isn’t going well but then I figure eh what the heck. Just see what happens. My boyfriend has never DNFd but it’s more a personal preference. In fact, he once ran a mere 8 minutes slower than the rest of the guys in an elite race and could have easily dropped out to avoid having such a slow time next to his name but did it anyway. I admire that over the die hards who will run with broken legs and intestines falling out! That’s just dumb. Congrats on a great race, Maple!

  12. You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
    Know when to fold ’em
    Know when to walk away
    And know when to run…