What the Dreaded DNF Can Teach Us

Courtesy of Runners World SA
Courtesy of Runners World SA

Yesterday, for the first time ever, I bailed out of a race. Halfway through Om Die Dam, my first ultra-marathon, I was at 25km at 3 hours 40 minutes, which projected an 8 hour finish time – an unacceptable hour past the cut-off time. I took stock of my aching body, my inability to run more than a hundred or so steps at a time, and joined a huddle of other runners. Eventually, the exit bus (what a nice name for what feels like the cattle truck) collected us and we swished past the runners on the infamous Saartjies hill to the finish line. We disembarked a few hundred meters away in a parking lot, and after the joviality in the bus, the awful reality set in. Next to my name would appear the dreaded DNF. DID NOT FINISH. I wanted to sit on the side of the road and cry into my running vest. I still do.

I’m not so good with failure. I’m really, really not. It wasn’t enough that I’d entered, that I’d gotten over the start line, that I’d gotten halfway. It was the sickening realisation that even though I had trained, and followed the programs, I would not finish the race. Because no matter what they say, sometimes your best just isn’t fucking good enough. If I can’t do a 50km ultramarathon, then Comrades, a dream I have been cherishing for months and months, is just not going to happen this year. With only 69 days until the 31st of May, I have to somehow shave a whole hour off my marathon time. For the first time, my blind optimism has met its match in three little letters: DNF.

Which brings me round to a bigger question: how do we deal with outright failure? How do we fail without letting it go to the heart? I don’t really have an answer, or at least, not a fully-formed one. There’s the old aphorism about getting up and trying again, but that makes it sound like trying again is so easy. You know, just get up and brush your knees and butt off and keep trundling along. It is part of a mindset that fundamentally believes that success is the automatic result of hard work, when sometimes the two have nothing to do with each other. At least, for a given value of success.

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So perhaps the way to deal with failure is to understand exactly what success is, and that maybe it is not such a binary state. Failure does not preclude any kind of success, and perhaps that’s where the old comfort “at least you tried” is rooted. At least I signed up. At least I went with the intent of finishing. At least I got halfway. All the ‘at leasts’ maybe add up to some small measure of success. In the face of defeat, it may be small comfort, but if I don’t cling to those small gains, then I risk losing hope all together. For someone whose mind is a basket of hungry piranhas, it is very easy to sink into hopelessness.

And more importantly, the thing about failure is that it teaches us more than success does. I recently wrote a piece for beginner adult martial artists to remind them that it does get better, that they will improve and that people care, honestly and truly care, that they stay and improve. If all I take away from this incomplete race is that I need to train more, and that maybe it is too soon to give up, then perhaps that is enough. Maybe this sharp, brutal failure is the thing I need to spur even harder training, more than maybe dragging my ass along a road for 8 hours just to get to an empty finishing line and one volunteer begrudgingly handing out medals to the assholes who make everyone wait. (Cut-off times are there for a very good reason).

It still stings that I got on that bus. I hope that I’ll look back on it one day, and be really glad that I did. Right now though, it feels like a kick in the teeth. And you know, I think that’s okay. Anything worth having usually involves tears, and I’ve never been ashamed to cry. The tough part now is not letting the failure go to my heart. If I can come back from this, and not give up on getting to the Comrades finish line, then my heart shall grow three sizes bigger.

And also:

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