The Fear of DNF

When I run my mind likes to wander. Even though I know exactly where my feet are going, it’s always a mystery where my mind will take me and where it’ll end up. One particular day I was contemplating the meaning of life and whether I had the guts and ability to run a 50 mile ultramarathon. While I have ran a couple marathons and plenty of smaller races, an ultra is way beyond anything I have ever experienced before. All I could think of was my dead body being medivacked off the course, which then reminded me of my very first (and last) bicycle race.

When I was in high-school I was obsessed with bicycling. I religiously read my Bicycling magazine from cover to cover, absorbing every little tip and trick. I would spend hours tuning, cleaning and buffing my Trek 830 Antelope until it gleamed. I would swap out components for newer and better ones. I spent hundreds of dollars on Paul Love Levers when they first came out (kudos if you remember these). While I could rattle off a plethora of bicycling facts, when it came to actually bicycling, the only places I rode were to the bookstore and the grocery store.

I had an older friend who was hardcore into both road and mountain biking. He knew how much I liked bicycling and asked me if I wanted to do a road race with him. I figured I’d give it a go, how hard could it actually be? I didn’t have my own road bike so I borrowed a friend’s that was at least 15 years old. Despite its age it was still in great condition.

With a race ahead of me and a bicycle to race on, I did everything I could possibly to do get ready for the race, except train. I honestly don’t know if I even rode the bicycle once. I did tune up the bicycle and cleaned and polished the frame until it shined with all of its potential winning glory. Visions of me crossing the finish line were dancing through my mind.

I showed up at the race feeling confident in my abilities (the ones that had never been tested or trained). I felt smug and confident as I pulled up to the starting line with my polished bicycle. I would surely beat a lot of these people. How hard could it actually be?

The race took place in downtown Lansing, MI, my hometown. It looped around streets near the capital building and was a multiple lap race. I pulled away from the starting line fast and kept up with everyone for about a block and a half, but all of a sudden, something happened. My legs suddenly started to burn and felt dead tired. I started losing steam fast and the pack kept going. It was at this moment that I realized I had bit off more than I could chew, or more truthfully, hadn't trained like I should have.

Huffing and puffing I was nearing the end of my first lap, when suddenly I got lapped by the front runners. They had already completed two laps while I hadn't even completed my first lap. It was at this moment that someone was telling me to get off the course, I had completely DNF’d it up. My friend thought that maybe I was in the wrong age group, but I knew deep inside that I just wasn't prepared at all to race. I could have raced 10 year olds and would have still gotten beat.

As small, silly and insignificant as this story may seem, I am still haunted by that failure. The embarrassment of looking like a fool, like someone showing up thinking that they could win without putting any of the effort in. It’s crazy how this decades old failure tries to control my life and my decisions. I have never participated in another bicycle race since.

What I’ve learned over the years is that failure isn’t as bad as it seems. It can be a great source of learning and change. Running a 50 mile ultra marathon feels like a seemingly impossible challenge, but this time around I'm going to rise to that challenge whether I finish or not. The biggest difference between my high school self and me today is that I’m actually doing the necessary training to finish.