MCM: Anatomy of a DNF

DNF – runner-speak for Did Not Finish.  It’s a hard pill to swallow, but at one point or another, every runner experiences it, at least once. Ever since my ankle twist on Friday, I knew it was a possibility – it was also possible I would DNS (did not start). But I was walking fine, had good strength and mobility, and wanted to give it a shot.

I don’t think I have it in me to write too much about all the excitement and build-up, because usually i do that to emphasize how great the race was – especially this year, which until this weekend was an absolutely stellar one (and still is, really, this race being the only blemish). But I want to be as frank as possible because if even one other injured runner who had to pull out of a race reads this, I want him/her to know that he/she isn’t alone – it’s a hard decision, and no one else can make it but you. Only you know what’s going on in your own body and mind. So here are my most raw and honest thoughts.

The expo and weekend

This was our biggest race expo ever. The packet pick-up was in a separate tent, run by super-friendly Marines who had me grinning from ear-to-ear (they were all awesome, and so, so inspiring).

And the expo itself? Doesn’t even fit in an instagram photo

I got myself a couple bondi bands, which I’d been meaning to buy as an in-between to keep my ears covered when I don’t need a full, super-warm earband.

We had an awesome sushi dinner out with our lovely hosts, Emmarie and Chris. They took awesome care of us, especially considering they had had a crazy week as well as a busy weekend. Emmarie, for the record, makes a FANTASTIC bourbon Manhattan (pictured in my previous post). Between that and continuing to RICE my ankle, I figured I could be in good shape in no time (despite that by that evening when I removed the ace bandage, I saw how swollen and black-and-blue the ankle was. Eek. But still walking fine!)

Saturday we spent a little time touring around after attended the charity luncheon I was invited to as a runner on the ZERO Cancer team. We spent a bit too much time on our feet for being the day before a marathon, but my ankle still felt fine, and was less swollen that day.

Oh hey, the White House!
Basically a photobomb.

That night, we made our usual pre-race grub: granola and cinnamon pancakes, with tons of syrup, eaten in front of an episode of Stargate SG-1.

Baby pancake!

We got to bed late, and I was pretty wired, and slept like absolute garbage, pure usual pre-race. But the pre-race nerves in my chest were not the usual: Will I make my goal? Will I hit the wall? Will I quit or will I push? Will I have an amazing, magical, stars-falling-into-line kind of day?

The knot in my stomach told me one thing: I wasn’t even sure my left foot would allow me to finish the race. The bruising and swelling was way down, sure. I had done ankle exercises with a resistance band to check mobility and loosen it a bit, and done some careful calf raises, and everything felt pretty good (I couldn’t quite get my left foot to the very top of the calf raise, but that was no biggie, and it mostly just felt tight). I set aside my soft brace with the rest of my race morning gear in case I decided to wear it – I knew I would for sure be wearing compression socks.

Race day

The alarm blared at 4:30 a.m. and I’m pretty sure I was already wide awake. I snuck out of bed to get the oatmeal going and discover that I wasn’t quite as adequately hydrated as I would have liked (ahem) so I chugged 16 ounces of water (trust me, this matter later. Hydration strategy fail). I got the perfect consistency for both bowls, so hoped that this was a good omen for both of us. After much waffling in the days prior, I settled on a long-sleeve tech tee, charity singlet layered over, Oiselle bum wrap, purple ProCompression socks, gloves, bondi band, and of course of my trusty Brooks Launch.

Our LOVELY WONDERFUL KIND SWEET AMAZING HOSTS got up at like 5:20 to drive us to one of the parking shuttle pick-up points, since the bus we would have needed wasn’t running that early, even on race morning. We said our goodbyes, knowing we wouldn’t see Emmarie again and not expecting to see Chris, and jumped to the back of the line, which was HUGE but pretty fast moving, before climbing onto the super-swank charter buses with the super-cheesy but motivational information video playing as we drove to the starting area.

HUGE BUS
HUGE (GOOFY) SMILE

We immediately headed for the porto-potties before squatting in one of the tents to get all our gear arranged – we were running without water, so had to jam all our gels in our spibelts, plus our cell phones which we decided to run with (I’m glad I did – I could notify people ASAP who were tracking me that, no, I wasn’t dead).

Cutie 🙂

Before long, it was time to walk over to the self-sorting corrals, marked by estimated finish time (seriously, run-walkers – I adore all of you, you seriously rock, but please, for the love of all things holy, line up where you should), listen to the National Anthem as sung by a fabulous a cappella group, watch at least half a dozen parachuters float down, some carrying huge American flags, and wait for the howitzer to fire.

The Race

This was our biggest race ever, so even the previous crowded starts weren’t really a match for this. It was truly a sea of humanity. The start is on a split highway with a median strip, and we happened to be on the left, which within the first mile went a totally different way than the right side for like a tenth of a mile and completely flipped me out. I mean, it was fine – they merged back up again and I’m guessing there is zero (or minimal) distance difference, but man was that weird. Our first few splits were slow – very slow – especially the second mile which probably has the only hill of consequence in the entire race, and it really wasn’t a joke. I had kind of written it off, but it was already hard to find a solid pace in the thick of so many runners, let alone when clawing through going uphill. Won’t underestimate it again should I run this race in the future (hopefully).

It stayed pretty crowded through mile five, but we were able to lock in by mile 4 and hovered between 8:3x’s and 9:0x’s. I kept my watch to overall time for a while, though I eventually switched to lap estimate, but generally tried to ignore it and soak things up. It’s a really beautiful course. At one point we were on rolling hills bordered by a thick grove of trees, then we were running along the Potomac. It was spectacular. We saw WAY more public urination than ever before (we’d been warned of this) and saw at least one runner totally bite it on the ground (yeeowch! Like I said – crowded), but most of the sights were very positive.

I had had that “nervous pee” feeling at the start line, but as the miles ticked off toward 10K, I realized it wasn’t going away. It wasn’t just nerves – I had to go. I passed up a porto opportunity and begged the feeling to subside, but my gut was very uncomfortable, and during mile 9, I apologized to my guy and told him I needed a potty break, and that I’d see him at the finish. We exchanged “I love you’s” and “good luck” wishes and parted ways. I lost probably 60 to 90 seconds to the stop, but it was totally worth it. That was a first for me – must figure out how not to let that happen again (like not chugging 16 ounces of water when I woke up, without allowing for a secondary pre-race potty stop?).

After that, I was locking into 8:30s and 8:40s and feeling pretty darn good. I got a great boost a couple miles later when I saw Bart Yasso and yelled out “Bart!” (because we’re friends, obviously) and got a high five. I saw him again a few miles later and got similarly amped.

Around the halfway point, I saw I was coming in around 2:01.30ish – slower than I had wanted, but it was basically all the bathroom break, and I was still clocking sub-9s, so I knew I could make up the time and could still nab a sub-4:00, or close to it. I ran astride with another woman holding a similar pace for a while, and I think we kind of silently paced off each other.

Then there was the blue mile. Oh, the blue mile. It’s silent, and lined with photographs and flags – photos of fallen Marines, each one with his name, his age, and when they were killed in action. I tried to force myself to look – to dwell on the memory of these brave men and women, to feel the way I know that mile is supposed to make you feel: humble, grateful, saddened, yet filled with patriotic hope. But I had to spend a lot of time looking away and focusing on my pace and my rhythm, or else I’d have been struggling all the more to breathe as I choked back the tears that continually threatened.

Past the halfway point, I felt myself getting into my own head, but my pace was still right on. I had known for a while that my distance was pretty thrown off – when I was still with NF, we ran under a long overpass, and satellites went haywire, clocking us at 10:00+ min/mile pace, when we weren’t slowing down at all. The pace corrected, but we lost a good quarter mile, so I knew I’d have a little more time to make up, and of course the mile markers came in very strangely compared to the course.

Mile 16 was my decision point. I had decided, somewhat last minute, to go ahead and wear the soft ankle brace. I had brought it with, attached it to my fuel belt, and slipped it on over my compression sock as we were getting situated pre-race. Now it was noticeably digging into my foot and getting uncomfortable. I took a minute to pull off to the side and remove it, and then jogged off, sliding it onto my fuel belt so it would be secure and out of the way.

But the damage was done. I’ll never know if it was just the brace pinching/bruising/cramping my foot, if it was the ankle, if my gait was ever so slightly altered those first 16 miles, but I was very suddenly in a lot of pain. The outside of my left foot felt like it was being stabbed. I tried to walk it out, tried to figure out if it was just a cramp, but nothing seemed to be working. I broke it a jog, and almost immediately had to stop again.

So many people saw the agony on my face, the limp in my walk. Onlookers tried to encourage me to keep going, telling me I could do it. Runners who passed me tried to buck me up, one even patting me on the shoulder and trying to press me onwards. But I could barely walk, let alone run.

I stupidly passed up a med station just before my absolute breaking point, and as I searched for another one – or for a Marine, or a volunteer, or anyone who could help, I saw a PIttsburgh legend – the shirtless guy (yes, he has a name, but so many of us know him as the shirtless guy). He is at EVERY Pittsburgh race, and he’s always – yes, running shirtless – kicking ass, and when he finishes, high-fiving everyone coming in. I said hello and told him I recognized him from the local race scene. We asked each other how our races were going, and I admitted I was injured and about to drop out. He said he wanted to just make it to mile 18 and consider it a good training run (he was walking, too). We parted ways after a water stop, and soon after I saw a couple Marines and stepped to the side.

“I need to drop out,” I said, tears choking my words as I finally was saying it out loud. I hit stop on my watch. “Where’s the next med tent?” I stepped to the side as a woman tried to hand me a bottle of water, and fell to a crouch and burst into tears. It was over. Sixteen weeks of preparation – of blood, sweat, and tears. Of long tempos and endless mile repeats and shattered PRs at the half-marathon and 10K and early mornings and sacrifices to my social life and sleep and sometimes even almost my sanity. It was over, and had probably been over the moment I took that misstep Friday morning and rolled my ankle during an easy three-miler.

The Marine directed me across the grass to the next med tent, around mile 19. My watch read 18.13 when I quit but it was closer to 17.75 on the course because of GPS screw-ups. I hobbled over, starting to get cold, and had to jog across to the other side when there was the slightest break in runners.

The Marines in the med tent were amazing. They sat me down and examined my foot, had me fill out an intake form, and then took me inside, helping me ice my foot and wrapping me in wool blankets. I spent the next ninety-minutes contacting family and friends who were tracking me, and chatting with another injured runner – a 43-time marathoner who had to drop out around the same time as me with a gnarly IT band injury. She comforted me when I cried once more and we bitched about our frustrations and we heard each other’s war stories.

After a lot of waiting, the sweeper bus came by a little before 1:30, and I was stuck on it (despite it being full) for the next two hours. I’ve never been on a sweeper before, so I don’t know the usual system, but there were runners who were on there for three hours. There must be a better way. Everyone was pretty nice, though, and there was lots of clapping for those who didn’t quite “beat the bridge” and got pulled for not making it to mile 20 by 1:30 p.m. for road re-openings. And the ladies sitting around me were very sweet as they saw me limp on (not to mention the Marine I had to send back to the med tent when I left my phone on the cot like a dumbass. Thank you, sir!).

It was about 3:45 when I finally reunited with my guy, and at that point I wasn’t teary-eyed, just relieved to see him (you can read his race report here).  We hobbled through the Metro and made our way back to the apartment, where Chris was there to greet us (since it took so friggin’ long to get back). We had zero time to relax – it was shower, pack, hit the road immediately, though we took a leisurely dinner stop at Buffalo Wild Wings (which we haven’t had since JUNE), before making the rest of the drive, getting home after 11 p.m.

My handsome guy with his medal 🙂

So… what now?

Well, now it’s time for me to heal. At this point, my ankle is still a little swollen but fine to walk on (though I’ll continue to drive to work until the swelling is totally gone, so I don’t overtax it). I’ve been finding a heating pad feels better on the foot and ankle than ice at this point. I’m taking a week off from running, bare minimum, but possibly two depending on how this injury heals.

And my psyche? Well, it took a hit. As you can see from my data, I was totally fine… until I wasn’t (first three miles were the crowds, mile 9 was the potty break). Part of me wants redemption, right-friggin’-now. But another part of me wants a big ol’ break, which I’ve been looking forward to for a while. I had just hoped it would feel like a great reward to cap off a very successful season.

But here’s the thing – it still was a very successful season. I lowered my half-marathon PR three times this year: as of the very beginning of this year, my PR had been 1:59:03. It is now 1:43:56. I’ve also lowered my 10K best three times, and my 5K PR twice. If that’s not an incredibly successful year, I don’t know what is.

Yes, I’m probably going to cry some more over this DNF. Yes, I’ve cursed and I’ve yelled and I’ve gotten irrationally angry. But I made the right choice. I didn’t quit – I stopped when I knew it was wise to do so. When I knew I would be doing more damage, setting myself back more than just pushing past a little marathon pain.

And now, I have a score to settle. Next year, it’ll be mine. Next year, I’ll get that sub-4 hour marathon… and who knows what else?

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I'm a 29-year-old writer and runner. This is my running blog.

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