(Did Finish But Barely
Just call it anything but DNF
With a Sense of Sadness)
By Jack Andrish
I have had the good fortune to start 8, 100 mile ultras and have always been "inspired" enough to put down my thoughts and emotions in writing (with most if not all, "published" on the VHTRC web site). I have never had difficulty in finding the words for any of these "diaries," until now. Although not a 100 miler, my wife and I have just returned from the Arizona desert after participating in a tough 50 K held out side of Phoenix, this St Patrick's Day weekend. It was the first ultra that my son ever ran; the first ultra I ever ran; the first ultra my wife ever ran; and the first ultra my daughter ever ran. We have all participated in many events after our first one in the desert, but have always come back. My son has won the event three times. I have personally made the trip from Ohio to Arizona each year since my first one, eight years ago. It has been a special place for me and my family. It introduced our family to the joy of ultra running and the special people that comprise this community. I found that ultra running, and trail running in particular, is about the experience and the privilege that one has when running through miles of natural terrain and pushing ourselves beyond physical and mental limits we didn't know we had. It is beautiful. And ultra running is about caring; caring for the environment and for our fellow runners. In a sense, it is a gentle sport.
But I have a sadness within me now. A sadness because an ultra that had held a very special place for me has demonstrated a hurtfulness that was unexpected. Each and every runner has a story to tell and each one is as important and precious as the next. For me, this year it was to run together with my wife in our special event and special place. And it was not without risk. My wife is 63 and living with a medical condition that has created several physical hurdles for her such as impaired balance; and where running is concerned, intolerance to heat. Not just working up a sweat earlier that normal, but having an internal thermostat that goes out of control. It has limited her ability to participate. But this year she was going to try and go as far as she could to celebrate the desert as we once had before.
And so we signed up and made it to the starting line. But the weather was not so kind. The race weekend this year experienced four consecutive days of record high temperatures. Race day found the "highs" somewhere between 95 and 100 degrees. Nevertheless, we started with her using the early start and I using the regular start one hour later. (The thought behind this was to let her run her own race in the beginning without the "pressure" of me and then after I caught up to her, to run together as far as we could.) We did just that. But it took me 20 miles to "catch" her and only then because she elected to wait for me for 30 minutes until I arrived at the aid station, which was probably a good thing as she was having a lot of difficulty with the heat by this time. Nevertheless, we pushed on, albeit at a reduced pace, and "celebrated" together while traversing the dirt road that wound its way up and up and over the mountain and ending in the delightful mining town that supported the finish. But the temperature was unbearable; the dust from the constant stream of 4-wheelers and off road motorcycles as well as the relentless climbing took its toll. We pushed through this and to my amazement, she kept going and going (But isn't this what ultra running is about?).
More than me, my wife was aware of the "absolute" cut-off times for the aid stations and pushed to make them all. Even the final cut-off was made on the final climb and we pushed on. Some others were not so fortunate and were dropped along this final climb. There must have been about eight of us within 15 minutes of each other on that final climb and then the two miles of decent to the finish. We suffered and celebrated together as ultra runners about to complete a very special effort. But then when we made the final turn onto the road one mile to the finish, someone stationed by the road with a walkie-talkie told us that they were turning off the clock. Well, that was a bit disappointing, but we will deal with it. We pushed on and ran the final stretch to the finish. The "finish." The clock was turned off and was being dismantled. Our friends from Virginia were kind to us and found a stretch of yellow tape for a make-shift finish line. We finished. We celebrated. But then the race director informed us that "nice job, but you will be listed as a DNF." A "DNF?" How can we have just spent the whole day celebrating and suffering in the desert; climbing the mountain; in record temperatures; making every cut-off time along the way except for the finish line, missing by 12 minutes; and completing the distance (33 miles); and then to be told that we will be listed as having not finished! I found that cruel and not in sync with the ultra running spirit of compassion and recognition of the human effort put forth to "go the distance."
Two years ago I "finished" the Western States 100 in the unofficial time of 30:09. I completed the distance, but was not listed as a finisher of any kind. I was recognized with a special plaque that recognized the achievement of climbing the mountain and going the distance; and that was nice and it did help. But the emptiness of having passed the last aid station cut-off within the allotted time after having a day and a half that included a ½ hour wait by the Rucky Chucky for a boat ride across the American River; and then sustaining a concussion and three broken ribs at 80 miles after falling backward onto a creek boulder; but pushing on another 20 miles to the finish line, only to be told that I would be listed as a DNF, still hurt a bit more than the broken ribs.
And so I think it is about time that we recognize those runners who pass all of the aid station cut-off times only to fail in crossing the finish line in something considered "not official time" should be listed as anything other than DNF. Forget the medal; forget the paraphernalia; just don't label our effort as "did not finish!" I propose another category of "finisher" that we can call CTD (completed the distance). It is accurate; it is fair; it is kind; it reflects the effort put forth by the runner and it is in keeping with the ultra running spirit.