DNF – Did Not Fail!

Finding energy to write recently is a bit like scavenging iron filings from the dirt to first construct a pen from. The demands of my graduate studies have been pulling hard on me; free time is more like the space between commitments. In those moments, I want to run, hike, spend time with my kids, or do anything other than… sitting down to write! Maintaining this journal has become somewhat of an old habit though, regardless of how infrequently I can get to it. Simply reflecting on this introduction, it seems quite ridiculous that I ever assigned such importance to the least relevant of life events, the first DNF I received at a race in as long as I’ve been running.

DNF?

Those three little letters stand for “Did Not Fail”, and are the reward someone receives when they start a race but don’t finish it. Of course, those letters actually stand for something else, “Do Not Fixate”, as in: don’t get hung up on not completing a race, it couldn’t matter less. There is always another day, there is always time to put in more training, to eat and sleep better, and to figure out what a sustainable pace looks like. It’s commonly understood that DNF also stands for “DO Notice Feelings”. For instance, taking in what it means to have the ability and privilege to traverse great distances across the natural places we love is important. In other words, receiving a DNF is quite a gift.

Race Report

I’m losing interest in writing race reports as my mindset returns to the places from where it came from… the Forest, the Mountains, the Desert. Places where finish times don’t matter nor are social media selfies relevant. So, I’ll keep this short… Bandera is a radical course if you like technical, runnable courses. It only looks easy on paper. With an understanding of how trail surfaces contribute to course difficulty, among other things, it’s clear to see what makes this course tough. Bandera is a challenging course, I like it a lot.

Bandera Swag
Bandera, Where everything cuts, bites, and stings. A great number though!

The trails twist and turn, they’re strewn with just enough rocks to demand your focus, and on race day this year, anything not covered in rocks was covered in peanut butter. Some people said it was mud; I’m sure it was peanut butter.

I arrived at the 50k mark after just over 5 hours. I was right on pace, but my feet were a mess due to a bad choice in using some old — years old, but familiar, shoes combined with some issues with my toes smashing one another that has been progressively worsening. It was way too early into the day to be experiencing foot problems.

Bandera Backcountry
The Prickly Bandera Backcountry

Just Cruising Along

I decided that I’d gotten what I came for and I had zero motivation to finish with wrecked toes (yet again) by going out for another lap. I handed my chip in to the RD as the crowd surrounding the race headquarters still cheered for me. “You don’t want to drop!” he said, “You’re doing great!! No way, I’m putting your chip in my pocket. You can change your mind in an hour or two and go back out.” I didn’t.

Do Notice Feelings

For a moment I felt shame. That feeling disappeared quickly. I’ve dragged myself through much worse, going back out would have been easy; the ultrarunning culture teaches us this is normal. For whatever reason, I did something different than what I would normally do — I considered the idea that maybe finishing didn’t matter.

The fact was, I had been having a great time (aside from my toes getting their revenge on me). I reflected on how fun it had been to run like a billygoat over the rocks, fruitlessly trying to avoid sotol plants and laughing at myself as they added to the tally of a thousand cuts. I was able to chat with other runners and share some miles. I got to have the experience I love to have. Proving something wasn’t on the agenda, and instead of doing that, I went and took a nap, then woke up to watch the frontrunners come in before catching a ride out of the Texas backcountry.

Sotol Kissed Legs
Sotol Kissed Legs

What is enough will change.

The above is a quote from Sakyong Mipham, however, anyone could have have said it. There’s a universal truth in those words. The idea being, at points in our life we might seek more to feel satisfied, and at other times, we will be content with less. What is “enough” does change, as we change.

Even from moment to moment, and run to run what is enough changes. Some days 7 miles barely feels like scratching the surface and I need to get out for another 7 or 8, other days that’s plenty. The 50k is a sweet spot where I can have fun and also run as fast as I can. This idea that only finishing is “enough” no longer resonates within me.

The ideal is built into us as ultrarunners — to never quit — no matter what, no matter how much physical suffering or mental anguish one is experiencing. Nobody ever talks about how it’s a double-edged sword that we inadvertently wound ourselves with, over, and over again.

I no longer believe these ideals demonstrate one’s strength. It’s just as plausible they hint at our weaknesses. Maybe we hold onto these ideals out of fear of acknowledging the truth, or we simply don’t realize what the truth is — that we show our inherent strength by choosing to pursue challenging activities. Instead, we take that up that doubled-edged sword and use it to defend our fragile sense of strength. Ultradistance runners have the uncanny ability to be at once both incredibly strong, and incredibly vulnerable. It is a duality that I am fascinated with.

To embrace one’s strength is a powerful experience. I envision it as a massive wave. There is potential to ride on its crest, in the sunlight. There is also potential to be crushed in its cold, dark trough. Receiving its power requires accepting  these things, being vulnerable and being alright with failure. When we can’t accept these, we constantly spend our energy fighting, trying not to be crushed — when we accept though, we move with the wave, surging upward with quiet strength and unstoppable power, even through the inevitable crashes down and churning before the next surge.

On a cold January day in Bandera Texas, I realized and accepted a truth… there was nothing to prove, and no good reason to push forward on feet that would become yet more mashed on the rocky trails… just to finish a race, the least important of tasks. It was enough to stop chasing an idea, and simply enjoy the day I had experienced.

My education is my ultra now, and the trails are my pleasure. This is a long path with an end that’s hard to see sometimes. The hills ahead to push up and over are steep, and the days ahead long, though I am ever more determined to be unstoppable. I’m surging upward, with the power of the wave, and ready to rise up again after each thundering crash. -JD

“Pleasure, which is fundamentally the intensified awareness of reality, springs from a passionate openness to the world and love of it.” ~ Hannah Arendt (from: Men in Dark Times)

Jacob D Written by:

Dad, Runner, Student, Berserker, Questionable Partner... on my path to living an exceptional and real life.