A Case of the DNFs

Relaxing with my feet up and a blanket with one of my teammates before my second DNF ever.
Relaxing with my feet up and a blanket with one of my teammates before my second DNF ever.

The first race of the outdoor season brings with it excitement and worry, as it’s time for me to gear up for my main event, the 10k, which only takes place on the outdoor track. As we traveled down south for our first meet, I was excited to get a chance to run an 800m race and a 5K. On Friday, I ran a middle leg of the 4x800m relay. It was a nice workout and my legs felt ready to run a 5K the next day. After PRing by a good thirty seconds indoor, I was ready for another fast race.

But it wasn’t to be. I DNFed the second outdoor 5K of my running career.

My first DNF, ever, was an outdoor 5K last track season. I had been PRing constantly, but track was taking over my life and I didn’t think about anything else. Teammates were telling me I wasn’t trying hard enough and I had been panicking during track workouts. My coach had been giving me individualized attention and I was supposed to run a 10K/5K double during our 2013 conference meet. During the 5k that weekend, a little more than a mile in, I panicked about what everyone said to me and felt like I couldn’t live up to their expectations, and I didn’t have any of my own expectations.

This time was a little different. I went in freaked out and aware that not finishing this 5K was a very, very real possibility for me. My team has changed dramatically, and most of the girls on the team last year are no longer on the team. I have a very supportive assistant coach and a few friends (the two other girls who ran the 5K), but DNFing has been a bit of a bigger deal this year. One of my teammates and I were watching a race, and we watched a girl from another team DNF an indoor race. Her response was negative, saying that no one should ever DNF a race. I held my tongue, since she was unaware that I DNFed in the past.

I have never let go of that comment or my first DNF, so when this race began, I was distracted, and allowed my distraction to get the best of me. I trailed off from the pack, my hands started shaking, and I collapsed at the starting line, just as I had done a year before, about 2000 meters into the race. Only this year, I was met with negativity. My coach wasn’t as sympathetic as I’d like him to be, and no one asked me how I felt. This was good for me, because I had to handle it myself. I took the initiative to chat about it on the phone and allow myself to cry about it, rather than bottling it up like I did before. I can say almost confidently that just a day later, as I am writing this, I am already half over my DNF.

English: Helsinki Stadium track and field
My favorite place, but also my least favorite place. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With that being said, I don’t believe anyone really gets over a DNF. You forever have that attached to your name, and trust me, my mom, who doesn’t really understand running and racing, doesn’t fail to bring it up before that start of every one of my races. But as everyone says, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. If you’ve DNFed, remember that you are not a failure and you are still a runner. Do something that reminds you of that fact. The day after my first DNF, I went down to the track at the end of my run and did some strides, and guess what? There weren’t any monsters in the infield telling me that I wasn’t allowed on the track anymore. You are still a runner and if you love it, that is really all that matters.

Additionally, one of the things that really contributed to both of my DNFs were negative comments from teammates, friends, and family. These negative comments quickly turned into negative self-talk. When someone told me I couldn’t do something, I listened to them and twisted their words so I was telling myself that I couldn’t do something. There are two good approaches to this situation. The first is to surround yourself with better people. Yesterday my coach told me that he does believe in me and my abilities, and I told him that I wish he said that prior to the race. Regardless, he did not agree with my self-assessment of my DNF, and that’s important.

Another thing to remember is that you are in charge of your own self-talk. There will always be negative people in this world – my teammate who thinks DNFs are weak will always think DNFs are weak. But it’s your choice to decide what you want to do with that information. As David Foster Wallace said in his famous “This is Water” commencement speech, “the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people’s two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience.” I’m learning to be confident in my interpretations.

Remember, a DNF (or two or ten) do not define you or me as persons. You and I are so much more than one race. And with that, I’m getting ready for my next 5k race this weekend. Wish me luck!

Have you ever DNF’d and lived to tell about it?

Former collegiate coffee-fueled distance runner who loves track workouts.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  1. After reading your post I was thinking about my self-talk, and realized it’s usually negative. Time to work on that. And, you’re going to do great this weekend!

  2. Love this. I know we’ve talked about it so many times before but you grow stronger with each DNF. It’s a learning experience and even though coach is sometimes not the most supportive man in the world, he does care. The negative self talk is very real. I believe it’s what made last year’s track season so unsuccessful for me. As soon as I realized who I am as a person and as a runner along with what I’m capable of, I started improving again. I know you’re going to take control of your mind and of the track this weekend and pull off a successful 5k. And even if it doesn’t go the way you hope, you still have my support.

  3. Well written article. A lot of runners DNF, including myself. But what’s so great about competing is that you have an opportunity to finish the next race and overcome negative self talk. Keep up the good work.

  4. Oooohhhh yes, I have DNF’d. And purely for mental reasons instead of physical ones, so I TOTALLY understand this post. I’m right there with you…it’s very easy for me to let past decisions/experiences define me, and I’ve been working on breaking bad habits/mental cycles over the last few years. Not berating or beating myself up for things that are long-since over and done with is a huge part of that process. Really glad to hear that you’re already “half over” your DNF…good job! And good luck this weekend!

  5. I DNF’d this January. I was doing a trail half marathon and twisted my ankle at mile 4 – due to having twisted it really badly in November and then again in December. It was clearly badly weak. So I dropped out at the half way point at the bottom of the first mountain. It was a big decision, I weighed it up for several miles – I could still run although with some discomfort. In the end, I chose to be wise and whilst I had a bit of a cry afterwards, I have honestly never really thought about it since. I was focussed on two races in the next two months after that trail race, both goal races, and I ended up PRing at them both, so it was obviously the right decision.

    Of course people should DNF a race if that’s the right and wise decision for them.

    That’s the beauty of running, there’s always another day. (Unless you’re an Olympian obviously)! You did the right thing. Let the others stress over it 🙂