Rethink the DNF: Did Not Fail

“One hundred miles.” The sheer utterance of that simple two word sentence often elicits varied responses from the individuals who take a few seconds to process the statement. Some proceed with a flurry of questions and intrigue about how one completes a 100 mile run while other express crunched, contorted faces of horror and disgust. But to the crazy, niche community of runners trading the even, consistent footing of roads and pavements for the sometimes barely considered a path, rocky, twisted, and ungroomed trails that can barely be considered a path (despite some race directors trying to declare otherwise), the 100 mile run represents the ultimate challenge that has eluded us all of our lives. This past weekend I had the distinct pleasure of crewing/pacing a Baltimore ultra-runner in her second 100 miler race.

The lessons I gained from this experience are invaluable. One such lesson was the determination to mentally accept failure halfway through a race and to be at peace with that decision. A DNF (did not finish) is the tally which all ultra runners have come to face at some point in their running careers. To some it's a rite of passage to truly being called an ultra runner. To others it is the credence, the tangible proof that you have failed. It will sit with them, it will dwell with them, and it may end them as a runner. But to the incredible strong, resilient, and humble ultra runners, it will tear them down before blazing a fire in their soul and building them up stronger and better for next time.

There is a mentality that all runners, regardless of distance, have to have when it comes to failure. You have to open a space in your soul to allow failure. But you also need to understand there is a distinction between failure to do something and failure to not do anything. The latter is exactly what you're thinking when I say failure. It is the attitude of I should have, could have, and would have. Hindsight is 20/20, friends. This is failure that is not earned, it is not respected, and it is a lack of your ability to try. The failure that I am referencing here, however, is failure from daring to dare. Failure to not be afraid to try something out of your comfort zone. Failure to not be ordinary. This is failure you experience through adversity.

Taking on a 100 miler exhibits one dedication to face adversity head on. It requires absolute dedication to one's training, body, self, and mind. It represents thousands of training miles logged, and hours upon hours of hard work. But more importantly it represents one's courage to face the unknown. Each race is different, every trail has its own challenges, and there is no training that can prepare you for the distance. Your longest previous training run may be a 100k (62 miles), so you are going into the unknown in terms of distance. All you can do is believe in training, your crew, and most importantly yourself. The 100 mile distance is the unknown, and it should scare you beyond belief!

Have courage, be humble, respect the runners, and believe in yourself. These are the pillars of a true ultra runner. Running, training, physical strength are all necessary, but not required to call yourself a runner on the trails. So, I leave you with words from the runner herself. Hopefully, this inspires you to dare to fail trying something you love. Don't be afraid of failure for doing, but be afraid of failure for not attempting.

"Had my first DNF this weekend at Mountain Lakes 100 and I couldn't have been more proud of it. I gave it all I had and I just wasn't strong enough for this course. I've always prided myself for pushing my limits and I found it. Now I know what I need to do to get stronger and better and push my limits some more. To all those who have DNF-ed and feel terrible about it, don't. All successful people fail at some point. It's because they take risks and have the courage to take on bigger than life challenges. They are not afraid to fail.  I can't wait to get back at it and get my second buckle! And my third, and my fourth...." - Sandra James

I, too, will be attempting my first 100 miler next year. I am not afraid of the failure that may await me. I have embraced the reality I will fail at some point and time; I will find that breaking point; I will not finish at some race but I will become stronger because of it. I urge you to change the dreaded “Did Not Finish” to “Did Not Fail” because as long as you are doing something with all your heart and being, you are not failing. So, what will you dare to do?

Happy trails,

The Average Joe Trail Runner

About the Author: Alexander Harris

I am the self proclaimed Average Joe of trail running. I am not fast or elite, but I enjoy it passionately. I have my sights set high wanting to run my first 100 miler next year, and completing 4 ultras this year. In my spare time when I am not running, I enjoy photography and am working on bettering my skills to start producing my own running vlogs and documentaries. Feel free to follow my adventures on my blog at