Skip to Content

Race DNF: How To Pick Yourself Up After A Did Not Finish

I’ve been timed out of a race for the first time. DNF on the classic lakeland Ennerdale fell race and it hurts. In the scheme of things, it’s just a race. In my little world, it was “the race”, the one that got me out of bed for early morning runs and filled my daydreams. I’d pictured myself running down the final grassy slope with a big smile on my face. Instead, it’s a race DNF.

It’s not my first DNF but it’s the first time dropping out wasn’t my decision. Being told you’re too slow just hurts a little bit more. So I’m writing about how to pick yourself up after a Did Not Finish – let the self-healing begin.

Race DNF

1. It’s Okay To Throw Your Toys Out Of The Pram

As they say, let it out. Blame the weather, the race course, an old injury, a new injury, the neighbor who kept you awake the night before the race, the boyfriend who distracted you from training… everything and everyone.

It’s best to have your rant where no one can hear you. I got mine out on the soul-destroying 10-mile jog back to the start. Say all the stuff you don’t mean.

An 84-year-old marshal timed me out. It’s not his fault – he was just following the rules. Fortunately, he’ll never hear the things I was saying about him. (It was only good things, Barry).

Race DNF

2. Be Kind To Yourself

The time to analyze why it went wrong is later. Right now you need to be kind to yourself. Eat your favorite food, soak away the aches and pains, put your feet up, and catch up on sleep.

You didn’t complete your marathon or ultra race, but you still need to recover.

3. Heal Emotionally

“One race doesn’t define me”.

Make this your mantra. There will always be bad races but that doesn’t mean your next race won’t be better. Stuff happens. I once ran a two-day ultra mountain marathon race and punched the wrong control near the finish. I went from winning the race to a DNF. This was years ago and a little part of me is still embarrassed.

Focus on the good runs and if it’s your first race, there will be good runs.

ultra running
There will always be getter runs

4. Figure Out What Went Wrong

Wait until you’ve recovered, then get out your training records. You didn’t DNF because you’re a terrible runner. There’s always at least one reason.

For me, it’s because I made a navigational error. I ended up battling my way through a boulder field and the boulders won. I lost 10 minutes and it was enough to be timed out. I should have spent more time checking that section of the route.

For you, it could be an injury, blisters, or just not being fit enough. Look back through your training and preparations. Did you spend enough time on your feet? Was your training interrupted in any way? Did you skip speed sessions and strength sessions? Be honest with yourself.

5. Mind Games

I have voluntarily dropped out of races. I went through a phase where I kept dropping out of races. I always had a reason. “The weather was terrible so the organizers were going to stop the race anyway”. (They did but I missed out on a finishers medal). “I’m so far off my race schedule there’s no point in continuing”. (Rarely a good reason).

Each time I dropped out, it made it harder to complete the next race. I began to question if I was still capable of finishing a tough race.

A marathon or ultra race makes you dig deep. You will always go through a bad patch. When you know your race plans are in the shredder it’s easy to talk yourself into a DNF. Breaking that negative mental cycle is hard.

I found I had to change my expectations. Aim to finish. The finish time became a secondary goal. I relearned how to counter those negative thoughts and block them out. The main focus became finishing the race.

6. Enter Your Next Race

When you’ve licked your wounds, enter another race. One that inspires you. That reignites your hopes and dreams.

Just don’t enter one too soon. Maybe you didn’t finish your ultra or marathon but even getting halfway round will take its toll on your body.

Find a race that gives you plenty of time to recover and train – and nail that race!

7. Remember That You’re Awesome

Not many people have the guts to line up on the starting line of a tough race, so give yourself some credit. How many of your peer group could complete the same race?

Just trying to complete a marathon or ultra race is a big deal. These events take a lot out of you. If you’re a beginner runner accept that it can take a few years to build up the strength to complete longer races. Going from Couch to Marathon may be possible, but it’s a very hard ask.

All runners have good days and bad days. Grieve, heal, and fix what went wrong. You’ll be back!

I'd love you to share my post!