Super Fit at 50: what to do after a DNF

I’ve just finished my first week’s training after DNFing at the Cotswold Way Century. It’s times like this that make me appreciate having already thought through a plan for dealing with disappointments to help me move forward quickly. And I’m not just talking about prepping myself mentally for race DNFs; I’m also talking about any sort of ‘failure’ in life.

A brutal beauty

Ultra-runners: we’ve chosen a sport that’s probably best described as ‘beautifully brutal’. We run in idyllic places, yet we push ourselves physically and mentally beyond most people’s limits. But therein lies why we do it, I guess: the drive to push those limits leads to huge satisfaction and reward when you conquer them. And that mental strength – call it ‘mental endurance’ if you like – can then be applied to other areas of life. It’s often why ultra-runners tend to be in high-powered jobs, or have overcome huge personal battles.

So, what happens if you aim for a huge goal – to conquer your ‘limits’ – but it doesn’t go to plan, or you fall short? I like to think that process of learning ‘mental endurance’, of training your mind as well as your body, can also bring us back to a safe place when things get scary.

I’ve written before about doing regular ‘systems checks’ during race events. I start at the top of my head and scan down through my body. How’s each part doing physically; how am I feeling emotionally; what is my body telling me?

Applying the same ‘mental endurance’ to overcoming disappointment

Often, when I’ve DNFed and left a race, I’ve already made it across some distance. I’ve already pushed myself to some of my mental and physical ‘limits’, regardless of whether I got the finisher’s medal. If I follow the logic that ultra-running is about pushing my limits and therefore becoming stronger, even at a DNF, I’ll have learnt something and grown in ‘mental endurance’.

I can trace my default position when things get tough back to an episode of Parkinson I watched at some point in the ‘80s. He was interviewing the wife of an ANC activist who was in jail. Unfortunately, I can’t remember her (or his) name. I was (and still am) a great admirer of Nelson Mandela and devoured any coverage of the ANC movement. I was fascinated by the strength and determination shown by the leaders.

I remember vividly Parkinson asking this lady how she coped knowing that her husband was imprisoned, possibly beaten, and she may never see him again. Her reply has stayed with me over 30 years later – something along the lines of:

‘A diamond is formed under intense heat and pressure over a long period of time. Only under significant duress, can it become a precious – and strong – diamond.’

I don’t know whether she would have quite argued that she was glad to have gone through her hardships, but it was clear that she believed she was a stronger person for them. It’s a brilliant testament to how a change of perspective – no doubt, a hard-won change of perspective – can transform how you think of tough times. Whenever I’m in trouble, I think of that interview.

Three steps to overcoming a DNF

Here’s what I’ve learnt to do, to get myself up and running quickly, and gather what I need to learn from any mistakes without being too emotionally bogged down:

  1. I take a good look at what went well. What went right? I make a note of them and add them to an ongoing set of ‘foundations’ I keep – i.e. a basic tool kit I go back to before any big run event
  2. I brace myself and take a look at what went wrong. How can I mitigate the risk of it happening again?
  3. Then I dig a little deeper. What did other people do better than me? I’m never too proud to embrace other people’s good ideas or ways of doing things. I might be an endurance running coach, but I need to listen to how everyone else does things! At the end of the day, we’ll be judged solely on performance.

As I start to up my training again and enjoy some autumnal running, I’ll be constantly asking myself how I can do better next time, how I can prepare better, and how I can train better. I’ll let you know how it goes!

I hope this post gives anyone who’s ever DNFed a modicum of hope. Endurance is a way of thinking, not just how much power you have in your legs. I’d love to hear what you do to pick yourself back up after a disappointment – let me know in the comments or drop me a line on andy@lifeisasinecurve.com

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