Ultrarunning: Knowing When to Quit and Accept a DNF

July 31, 2012

This article is part of Endurance Planet’s ultrarunning article series. If you have questions, comments or feedback about “Knowing When to Quit and Accept a DNF”, please leave it below in the comments section…

A common denominator among most if not all ultrarunners is the desire to test one’s physical and mental limits. What better way to push the boundaries of endurance than to run distances that range from 50 to 100 miles, or to participate in a footrace that will go on for several days.

There are apparent risks to pursuing such a goal through an ultramarathon. These can be mitigated by proper training, rigid discipline, and meticulous planning. Some boundaries however are not so clear. “Personal limits” is after all a completely subjective idea. Where is the line between pushing through the pain to gain a triumphant finish and pushing through the pain to only end up with a permanent injury or come too close to a fatal end?

In other words, how do you know when to quit, accept a DNF (did not finish), and live to run an ultra another day?

Listen to your body

Your muscles are going to get sore. Your joints are going to ache. These are inevitable physical difficulties that you’re going to face in such a sport. When they do start to happen, the usual tactic is to run on willpower. Set the pain aside and let your mind take over your body.

The mind is so good at doing this that in certain cases it can become dangerous. Blocking out the pain is essentially a form of self-deception. You’re willfully ignoring your body’s complaints. There is only so much that the body can take.

Are you vomiting frequently? Is it difficult to take deep breaths? Is there blood in your urine? Are you so disoriented that you can’t think and talk straight anymore? When physical difficulties start reaching a critical level, you’ll have to be honest enough to take it down a notch and start listening to what your body is telling you.

Accidents can and do happen

There are things where you can exert certain degrees of control – training, provisions and equipment, race strategy, etc. Then there are things that you can’t effectively predict like sudden weather changes, falling tree branches or confused-out-of-their-mind runners slamming into your path.

Let’s say you’re doing well so far and making the cut-off times for each stage of the race. Then on a downhill trail, you somehow missed a jutting root, tumble and get an awful sprain or fracture. It is during such moments that you have to be very objective in assessing the situation. While it takes a lot of discipline to move forward, it takes just as much honesty to accept an unforeseen tragedy.

Win the battle or the war

Running every race as if it were your last is a noble sentiment that can really motivate you. Take it too literally and the cliché can very well become a reality. Ultramarathon is a great sport. Wouldn’t you like to keep doing it for as long as you can?  Other runners perhaps like to get on the podium and sermon about commitment and ambition. In the end however, you’re the only one who can judge your own limits and set a course of action to overcome them.


Do you have questions about knowing when to quit and accept a DNF, or what you’ve read so far? Do you have any ultrarunning pointers of your own to add? Please leave your feedback, comments and questions below, and we promise we’ll respond.

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