Did Not Start

A little bit of running history from 2011.

Assumed audience: Folks interested in fitness, especially (but not only) running, or who are just up for a bit of personal narrative.

These days, many of my friends know me as a runner. I am, as my Strava profile has it, a serious amateur half-marathoner. Amateur, because there is no world where I would be fast enough to be a professional; but serious because I really do take my training seriously, and give it a substantial amount of my time. These days, I take it as more or less a given that I will finish any given road race half marathon under 1:30:00 — which involves running faster than 7-minute miles for 13.11 miles. My most recent race, I ran 6:45/mile on average, for example, finishing in 1:28:36. While very far from competitive,1 it is also a number that most people I talk to find fairly striking, and one I am proud of.

But I am not here today to talk about how well I do in the races I run today. I am here to talk about the times — plural! — I did not even start. Including the first half marathon I signed up for, all the way back in 2011.

DNF — “did not finish” — is a thing that happens to many a serious athlete. No one goes into a race wanting or expecting a DNF. It happens, though. A friend of a friend recently bailed on a marathon that was to be a Boston Marathon qualifying race because his heart rate spiked a third of the way into the race and would not come back down to a reasonable level. People end up with heat exhaustion. Or a stomach bug. Or a broken foot mid-race after landing wrong. Or any number of other reasons why a race becomes unfinish-able.2

There is no shame in a DNF for those kinds of circumstances. People feel shame about DNFs, though: as if they just gave up. A lot of that comes from the reality that just giving up” is sort of anathema. We dislike quitting. That is mostly to the good in contexts like this! Our dislike of quitting enables us to push our bodies, to be healthier and stronger than we would be if we gave up just because a race was hard — even unexpectedly so. A DNF that was the result of just giving up would be something to feel bad about. (Note that I really do mean just giving up: not for any reason other than fear of a hard thing.) But people often misapply that and continue when they should stop.

Or even: start when they should not.

I have never had to log a DNF. I have an even rougher entry for two separate races in my own personal history, though: DNS — “did not start”. Twice, I have come down quite ill a day or two before the race, and judged it wiser to sleep than to run a race. The first of those was the very first half marathon I ever signed up to run: the 2011 Oklahoma City Half Marathon. The day before the race, I was so sick I could not make it two miles; I had to stop and walk home. I hoped when I went to bed that night that it would clear up, but when I awoke the morning of the race, I was no better. I sighed, turned off my alarm, and went back to sleep.

Sometime that week, I picked another race to run: the 2011 Dallas White Rock half marathon. When the sickness had cleared up enough, I started running again. Seven months later, I completed my first half marathon, at a very respectable pace. Despite the cold and drenching rain (no one who ran that day will forget it!) it was a huge success for me.

Starting out my running career with a DNS gave me a very healthy perspective. Races are fun — really fun! They are the reward for months of hard work. They are not, however, worth sacrificing your health for. (That is true even for professionals; sacrificing the rest of a season for once races might be the right move once in a blue moon, but as a rule it is folly.) There will always be another race. If you destroy your health, though, you might not be able to run in it.

Indeed: I have actually bailed on four races I was registered for over the past 12 years. Once more after that first time, I was acutely ill and could not run. Two other times, I identified sometime in the months between registering and the race that showing up would be unwise. Once, I was coming back from a nasty case of walking pneumonia and was still working back up to good health. Another time, family circumstances dictated that I dial back to basic maintenance miles instead of training.

I have zero regrets about those DNSs. If I ever hit a point where I know I need to log a DNF, I will not feel bad about that either. Sad, perhaps. Those outcomes are disappointing to be sure. But better to take each race as its own thing than to hang too much on any one event.


  1. When I say very far from competitive”, I mean it. The slowest man in the top 10 finishers at my last race ran it more than 10 minutes faster than me. The winner ran it almost 20 minutes faster than me — about a minute and a half faster per mile than me. He ran the whole half marathon about as fast as I could run a single mile. For that matter: the winner of the marathon ran 26.2 miles over a minute per mile faster than I ran the half marathon. Competitive runners are much faster than me. ↩︎

  2. Or, if finish-able by some heroic feat of will, then foolish to finish. ↩︎