Along with our New Year’s Resolutions (are you still sticking to them?), many of us have planned out (or at least have some general ideas for) our next 12 months of running and racing. Invariably, we look to build or improve upon (or perhaps just maintain) what we’ve accomplished in the prior year. It was through this process that I came to a weird realization about my running in 2015.
The things I’m proudest of, and what I consider to be my biggest accomplishments, are my DNFs.
I know that sounds backwards, particularly in the age of UltraSignup Ranks and Strava Segments. To get excited about a DNF is almost sacrilegious, right? But let me explain.
Defining Success. It’s tempting for me to look at last year’s results and focus on the one or two performances where I exceeded my own expectations or assumptions about my ability. Defining my biggest accomplishments or successes in terms of time or pace, or compared to how I’ve performed in the past, or in reference to other runners, would certainly be the normal approach.
But “success” is a loaded word, and it can mean something different to different runners. For me, a “successful” race rarely has anything to do with the time on the clock when I cross the finish line. Chasing those numbers is a battle that I can never win, since it’s always possible to try to run a little faster than last time. (“Sure, I gave it my all and got that PR, but did I really give it my all?”) If that were my approach, I’d always finish a run wondering where I could have saved a minute or two somewhere out on the course, and so I’d never be satisfied.
Instead, I enjoy running on trails, and even entering races, to see new things, to visit new places, to learn something new about myself, and sometimes have adventures.
Defining Adventure. We tend to use that word — “adventure” — a lot when we talk about trail running. And while I might consider my regular runs on my local trails to be more adventurous than running on the roads or paved bike paths, that’s not enough for me. I love my local trails, but I also love new trails. So I generally satisfy my craving for adventure by participating in races, even ones that might be a little out of reach.
After all, a true “adventure” should make a person feel at least a little bit uncomfortable, and not merely in the sense of exertion or effort. Everyone who participates in a trail race, from the first finisher to the last, is going to feel some level of physical discomfort. Specifically, I’m thinking of the mental discomfort that comes from being at least a little bit afraid.
Fear (as long as it’s not accompanied by unreasonable risk) makes for adventure. Maybe that fear is the fear of not finishing, or the fear of being up at too high of an elevation for too long and being exposed to electrical storms, or maybe it’s just something as instinctive as the fear that comes from being out on an unfamiliar trail at 2:00 am, where even the best headlamps and flashlights won’t reveal all of the monsters and bogeymen that my inner child is desperately trying to convince me are hiding in the trees….
I know that the line between between being adventurous and being stupid can be a little fuzzy. For example, while I don’t think it’s necessary for me to wait until I’m 99% confident in my ability to finish a 100 race before I attempt it, I do respect the distance. As loudly as it’s been calling to me for a number of years, it wasn’t until last year that I thought I was maybe, possibly, ready.
Defining Failure. In 2015, I entered my first two 100 mile races, and I genuinely thought I was prepared. Instead, I failed to finish either of them.
They were still my two biggest accomplishments for the year.
I understand that a DNF isn’t an accomplishment in any traditional sense. I didn’t get a belt buckle, I didn’t get to write a triumphant race report, and I didn’t get to enjoy firsthand what miles 65-100 felt like.
But those two runs were successes, not failures, for me because they reminded me that I can still dream big. I can still be a little crazy and try something that inspires and excites me, even it it’s a bit beyond my current abilities.
My DNFs mean that there’s still the great unknown out there. I’m still excited by those adventures, and I want to give 100 miles another go. I’m not bummed out by not completing the 100 mile courses; instead my mind is churning with thoughts of how to approach those races with a little bit more knowledge and experience next time around.
My DNFs mean that I’m excited to still be hungry.