A friend of mine attempting the Vermont 100 Mile this weekend posted a message to Facebook this morning that he was unable to finish. “Stopped at mile 70 with stomach and achilles issues,” he wrote. His post prompted a long string of replies, mostly people expressing sympathy, get well wishes, and many sincere words to the effect of “go get ‘em next time.”
He had finished many races before, some quite spectacularly. I was a member of his support crew when he completed the Badwater 135, arguably one of the world’s toughest road races, for the second time – and significantly faster than his first attempt. I had witnessed him not finish as well, dropping out with other injuries or stomach issues. And I remember not being able to finish some of my own races – how it felt to slowly, reluctantly come to the realization that there was nothing more to be done that day, fumble with the number safety pinned to my shirt, hand it over to the race director as others continued to run by, and say “I’m done.” Then that long, often exhausted drive back home or to the hotel afterward, knowing you had not been able to finish.
DNF. “Did not finish.” It’s often treated as the most dreaded phrase in the running vernacular. Many times the races you don’t finish are the races you have to travel for, the ones you spend the most time, effort, and money training to finish. You follow the training guides, you heed the advice of mentors and friends, you take care of yourself, you plan your nutrition and hydration down to the half mile markers. And something twangs. Something beyond yours or anyone’s control. And the longer the race, the more likely it is to happen. When you do manage to escape the uncaring laws of probability, it’s cause for real celebration.
And when you don’t finish, when the old, dark lords of the universe trap you and don’t let go, it’s no cause for despair or for beating yourself up. Because there are no real starting lines or finish lines. We begin where we are with every step, every breath. Will there be another starting line, another finish line? Just breathe in, breathe out, once, slowly. That’s a start, and a finish. And, in its own way, a miracle. “Everything is a miracle,” Picasso said. “It’s a miracle one doesn’t drown in one’s own bath.” Recognize and enjoy the miracles you can manage to make happen daily. Train for the others, accept what the days give you, and rejoice if you can truly feel all of the satisfaction and pain that comes your way. Starting, finishing. What are they, really? Shadow markers in a freewheeling universe. The real joy is in the being.