“Well you can finally call yourself a ‘real’ ultrarunner- you finally DNF’d!”

Where did this statement come from and why must we make it our initial response to a fellow runner’s woe of not finishing a race? Although well meaning, it certainly wasn’t what I wanted to hear after my failure to finish the Run Rabbit Run 100. After all, I have failed plenty of times in my life; I would go as far as to say I’ve failed more than most; and not because of poor effort, but because I’m not afraid of trying…and I try quite often.

I will not define an ultrarunner as one who has failed but one who has tried. The “ultra” community is still small and I have great respect for the few who bravely train, prepare, and believe in what most humans consider “crazy” or “impossible.”

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I like to believe that it is not our failures which define us but how we respond to them…what do we do afterward? Who are we when things don’t go as planned; when we miss the mark; when the culmination of all our hard work and preparation amounts to nothing but letdown?

An ultrarunner who DNFs 17 times and yet continues to try is just as admirable as the one who has finished 17 races; and I say this because what is common between the two of them is what inspires our community. It’s the journey forward- the courage to continue putting one foot in front of the other.

Failure is standard and it is through each of these failures that we learn a little more about ourselves and how we can work toward becoming better.

Here are 7 things I learned about myself after my first DNF:

1. No Matter the Issue, I Need to Choose Peace

Juggling work, kids, and stress in my personal life has been a battle at times; however, I have learned over the years how to handle this stress. I’ve even used it as fuel during training and racing. I also know the negative effect stress can have on my body. As an athlete, alleviating stress in the weeks leading up to a race is of utmost importance. I fought to do this during race week.  I lost. I know how to lay my burdens down, but I didn’t and instead, foolishly spent the night before my flight drenching my pillow and worrying. True peace can be found in even the most chaotic situations, and I need to always choose it.

2. I’m a Quick, Positive Problem Solver

Despite the stress in my personal life during race week, I chose to focus on everything else that needed to happen to ensure a successful race. Lack of sleep? I slept on the plane. Heavy mind? Met new people and focused on my pre-race plan. Hydrate, Eat, Rest. And I continued this into the race. My bottle of liquid fuel flew out of my pack and was kicked away just 15 yards into the race start.

No problem, I still had water and food- all good. Got lost 2 miles into the race- no worries it was only a couple minutes and I chose to be thankful that the runner ahead alerted me. Back ache at mile 4- no worries, I told myself I just needed to warm up. At mile 10 I noted how unusually cold I was so I picked up the pace and passed several people. Stomach felt off at mile 13 but not nauseas so I ate a whole bar and a pack of ClifBlocks to keep my energy high. Mile 16 I wasn’t well but it was the start to a 4 mile road section and knowing I could easily pedal along at a good pace, I dropped my pack, grabbed a water bottle and allowed my belly to reset. It worked!

Mile 21 the ache in my low back began shooting down my legs- no worries, I chose to power hike. Still cold, I made a mental note to grab warm clothes at the next aid station.  With every negative detail, I made sure to counter it with something positive. Water only aid station was completely empty as was my pack…no worries, it was all downhill to the next aid station. I have chosen to live my life in this same way; problems and negativity are not lacking in life, so I have trained myself on and off the trail to always look for the good…what “can” I do to make this better; is this really a problem at all? There’s always something we can do no matter how small, move toward the positive.

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3. I Need a Better Cold-Weather Plan

This hurt my race a bit. I am not sure I have ever felt so cold in all my life. The last few hours before dropping, I was wearing 5 layers, a thick beenie, thick gloves, and tights; and for whatever reason I still shivered uncontrollably. I am still debating the root of the problem; either I didn’t bundle up soon enough or it was simply because I was sick. Either way- I knew I was in trouble when the thought to “Look for a boulder to crawl under so I can get warm” sounded like a logical thing to do!

4. If I’m Not Having Fun, It’s Going To Be A Tough Race

I suppose this goes for most things in life- if we’re not having fun, we’ll likely miss out on  a desirable outcome. And as much as I hate to admit this (seeing how excited I was to get in those Colorado mountains) I did not fully enjoy this race. For one, my body just felt yucky after the first couple miles- which I combated rather well; that’s normal in a 100 mile race, and it’s more often than not that it goes away.

But why was I not enjoying the trails? Where was my smile? Was stress stealing my joy? I don’t think this necessarily contributed to my DNF- I’ve had crappy training days; and painful races in the past, but this was worth noting as I genuinely strive to make the most of every race and enjoy the experience.

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5. I’m Stupid Stubborn

Weird, do I hear my dear friends and family applauding this one? Me? Stubborn? There have been times where my stubborn nature has powered me through some difficult events, but there have also been times where I have stubbornly backed myself into a stupid situation…like I did at mile 45.3- where I should have dropped. I hate to even write that! But it’s the truth.

Ultimately, my pride put me back on the trail for another 5 miles. And for those 5 miles my teeth chattered and my body ached. My race was done- but I didn’t want to admit it. “I’m tough, I can do this!” But the reality was that I wasn’t tough, I was stupid. I arrived into the Long Lake Aid Station Mile 51.4 where I would sit for the next couple hours attempting to get warm. And with a sleeping bag wrapped around me, a bowl of soup, hot tea, and a spot by the fire- it never happened and I miserably accepted my first DNF.

6. A Good Memory is Important to Me

Despite my disappointing experience, I still wanted to leave Colorado with a good memory of race day. I awoke from a nap knowing the race was still happening and although I wanted to hide my face and sulk in bed, I knew I’d regret it if I did. So we went back to the Finish line, cheered on the finishers, mingled with fellow runners, and made new friends. I’ll always remember RRR100 as the race where I had my first DNF, but I will also have many good memories to recall as well.

7. I Am Not Afraid of a DNF

I thought a DNF would throw me into a storm of sullenness and negativity, but I’m actually okay. The first couple days I was upset, mainly because I was confused as to what  went wrong. Upon my return to California, I spent a few days sick in bed with flu like symptoms followed by a solid two weeks of a nasty respiratory infection. Bad timing? Maybe. But it is what it is.

It simply wasn’t my day to thrive and I am content with that. Does that mean I give up on 100 mile races because I had a bad one? Does it mean I beat myself up for my lack of perfection? Do I spend hours ripping every mile of the race to shreds, trying in vain to change what can’t be changed? No…no to all of that. 

I went on a run just before sunset the other day and hoped to pause at the peak and watch the sun drop into the ocean, but I missed it by a few minutes. At the time, I was thinking about my race, a little down; but it occured to me as I scanned the glowing horizon; sometimes we miss the grandeur of watching the sun rise and set and that’s okay. The splendor of the glow it leaves behind is often just as brilliant- gently reminding us we need not ache for “missing the mark” but rather we should bask in the glow- there is always “a glow”…a hope- another chance! There is work to do and more races to run! So onward and upward I go…failing and thriving along the way; always moving forward.

And a race report would not be complete without taking a moment to give thanks to those who supported my race day. Special thanks to my good friend Billy Yang who hopped on a plane from LA to crew, pace, drive, encourage, cheer, and support me in the most selfless way- I am so grateful for your friendship. Thank you to my teammates Chris Vargo and Alicia Shay for also crewing and encouraging me late into the night- so grateful for both of you!

Thank you to Race Director Fred Abramowitz and your entire staff. You put on an incredible race weekend and might I add….the course was marked so much better this year than last year! Thank you! Looking forward to racing again next year!

And as always, I am incredibly grateful for Nike and their support and belief in me as an athlete- I love our team! Thank you to Vespa, Pocketfuel, RunGoo, Ugo, and Vitargo for fueling me along the way…all of you are delicious(minus the RunGoo…I don’t consume that stuff! ha ha!)

And a heartfelt thanks to YOU; my friends, readers, and fellow trail runners who have ceased not to inspire me with all that you are- I am grateful for our amazing community and the many wonderful souls I have met along the way. Hugs to you!

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Gear

  • Nike Team Race Kit (Half tights/Tank)
  • Zoom Wildhorse Trail Shoes
  • Ultimate Direction AK Race Pack
  • Petzl Tikka RXP Headlamp

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Author Sally McRae

More posts by Sally McRae
  • Grace Weil

    Sally! You are such an inspiration. I love that you can find the positives in difficult situations. As a former competitive figure skater, I think the key to dealing with cold is to not let yourself get cold to begin with. BUNDLE UP EARLY! Better safe than sorry. I tell my skating students to come into the rink bundled up … then work off the layers. Hopefully that helps 🙂

    • yellowrunner

      Hi Grace! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment! And so appreciate your feedback about the cold…I think you’re right! I never got warm and paid big time; such a simple thing I could have fixed early on. Also, sidenote…so cool you were competitive skater- y’all are AMAZING!! I LOVE watching figure skating when I get the chance- you rock! =) (thanks again for the note!)

  • Dawn Scott

    Amazing what we can learn through running/racing and apply it to life in general, and also what we can learn through each run. Running is amazing. I feel grateful every day I can run. Love your report. Also…it made me want to break out my Kigers..they still had a few miles left in them. Took them out yesterday. Do you run in those also, and how do you think they compare to the Wildhorse?

    • yellowrunner

      Hi Dawn! Thank you for the feedback; and so agree with you; running IS amazing and such a privilege! In regards to the diff between the Kigers and the Wildhorse, I think the WH is better for the “long haul” there’s a little more to the shoe yet you can still get a great feel for the ground. I work the Kigers into the cycle and I love them- most of my teammates wear the Kiger; it’s a great shoe!1

      • Thanks! Will check out the Wildhorse. Definitely ordering a new pair of Kigers soon!

  • Leslie

    Your report and TRN’s posting it on FB – incredible timing for me as I gear up a try at my 2nd 50 miler this coming weekend after DNFing Mt. Hood in July. I’ve been doing my best to push the negative thoughts out regarding that DNF, but once in a while they creep in. Firetrails is a fresh start, and with perseverance and a positive attitude, I know I will be successful. Thank you, Sally ~

    • yellowrunner

      Leslie, appreciate you taking the time to read and share…hoping the best for you as you go into Firetrails; DNFs can make us better, stronger, and more determined…go into the race girded with all three of those things and crush it!!