my first DNF: gastroc + gastro = no-go

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I was hoping to post better news this morning. But I want to be transparent about my running experiences here with the hopes that we can all learn something from them.

Yesterday, I experienced my first - and hopefully last - DNF, after deciding to pull out of the Philadelphia Rock N Roll Half Marathon at mile 8.5. Even though I know I did the right thing in retrospect, a DNF is never a happy choice.   

DNF is runner-speak for Did Not Finish. DNFs happen for many reasons: injuries, illness, mental freak-outs, equipment malfunctions, underpreparation, overtraining, and/or accidents. 

In my case, my nagging gastrocnemius, which I'd been nursing the past few weeks, reared its ugly head fairly early on in the race. Plus, I was dealing a side of GI issues and did not enter the race feeling well rested. In a post-mortem phone conversation, my coach and I concluded I was slightly overtrained. Type A people like me are most susceptible. (More on that below.) 

This said, I'd like to change my DNF acronym to stand for "Did Not 'F' up my fall racing season."  

Happily, I am not experienced in DNF-ing. Of the 34 races I run since 2010, this is my first, and hopefully, last DNF. As with many important decisions in life, I was plagued by uncertainty as to whether or not I made the right choice. Could I have slogged on and finished with a shitty time? (Probably.) Could I have slogged on and PRed? (Possibly.) Would I have had a GI and/or gastrocnemius blow-out in the final 4.5 miles, thus blowing my entire fall racing season?  (Almost certainly.) 

Race 13.1 miles when my paw is sore? No, thank you. 

Race 13.1 miles when my paw is sore? No, thank you. 

I was upset for the first few hours after making my decision. As the day wore on, the rational replaced the emotional, and I felt confident I'd made the right choice for my body and for running healthy over the long term. As with most decisions in life, I think the true test of whether or not you did the right thing is how you feel the next morning. I woke up today feeling peaceful and certain my choice was cogent.

My friends, teammates, and ultimately, even my coach were all supportive and provided healthy perspective. One of my super-speedy teammates, perhaps phrased it best in an email. She wrote: 

"...I've DNF-ed, and you'll find that most elite (and even sub-elite/collegiates) have dropped out, due to injury or just feeling poorly ... putting together a good performance takes all the stars lining up, and wasting a bunch of energy on a clearly bad day isn't worth it if you're making your money or highly invested in high-quality performance...when you run a bunch of good races this fall, you'll be glad you didn't hurt yourself over a race where everyone ran poorly due to the heat." Amen! (Thank you, JM <3)

So, what happened?...

Going into this half, intellectually, I felt prepared and confident. But a few physical indicators hinted it might not be my day to shine:

Samba snuggled with me as I licked my wounds, elevated/iced my gastroc and navigated my gastro issues. 

Samba snuggled with me as I licked my wounds, elevated/iced my gastroc and navigated my gastro issues. 

  • First, my right medial gastrocnemius has been flared up for the last few weeks, particularly after speed work, which I've been doing an awful lot of this summer. Too much, in retrospect, without enough rest. 
  • Second, Why was my gastroc flared up in the first place? Because I entered this race overtrained. I've never worked harder in my life on my running than I have this summer. I did not miss a single session. I have nailed every workout, hitting and even exceeding paces I never thought possible. Those in my circle joke about my high energy level and my tendency to be an over-achiever. So when I say I'm tired – and I'd been saying it for a few weeks – I'm probably not just whining. Usually, I have one rest day a week and feel refreshed the next day. Last week I ran very low mileage and had two rest days, including Saturday, the day before the race. I napped, read, listened to music and puttered around. I did not even leave my home. And you know what? I was exhausted, not refreshed. A few days before that, I felt like I was getting a cold – and I never get sick (gargling with salt water, hydrating and zinc nipped it in the bud). My legs had felt heavy and tight for the past few weeks. All classic overtraining symptoms! But Little Miss Denial pushed them under the rug; I convinced myself that it was all in my head. No bueno.
  • Third, I was experiencing GI issues. (I'll spare you the gory details.) They began Saturday and continued all day yesterday, even post race. Anyone who has run or raced with GI issues knows that it's super uncomfortable and can cause much anxiety. 
  • Fourth: The muggy, warm weather did not help. As evidenced by my solid performance in the Mayor's Cup, I have the mental and physical aptitude to power through much more intense heat. Could I have done well on that muggy Sunday had I not had been overtrained and had no gastroc and gastro issues? Probably. But given all of the above, the steam bath certainly did not help. (Check out Jen A Miller's Twitter account for insightful and sometimes-hilarious race-day commentary.)

The race play-by-play

Given the heat and humidity, I did an abbreviated warm up: a .5 mile jog and some dynamic exercises to get the blood flowing. 

My TrainingPeaks summary from yesterday's run.

My TrainingPeaks summary from yesterday's run.

My gastroc reminded me of its presence at mile 2, even after pre-race Tylenol. By mile 5, it was really nagging me and became a focal point. I decided I would take it one mile at a time and see how things went. Mile 6, my calf screamed at me. By mile 8, gastroc was not only screaming at me, but was also cursing – and stinging and cramping a bit. I found myself altering my stride, trying to compensate to somehow assuage the calf pain. 

Speaking of assuage, the lingering GI issue was getting worse, not better. The thought of running 5 more miles under duress was daunting, to say the least. 

I ran 8.5 miles at 7:32 pace, at which point I decided it was best to stop and recoup my losses. It was a painful decision, especially since it was a goal race and I was on track to PR. But my instinct said I needed to stop if I wanted to keep running this fall.

Hopping back on the saddle 

Race a half-marathon when we're utterly exhausted? Mmmmm....no. 

Race a half-marathon when we're utterly exhausted? Mmmmm....no. 

My coach warned me that DNFing can mess with your confidence and make it easier to DNF in the future. But that's not my style or personality. Yesterday evening, determined to avenge this race. I hopped back onto the proverbial saddle and registered for the Trenton Half Marathon in late October – the first local-ish half that fit into my busy schedule over the next month. It's close enough to this half to allow me to maintain my hard-earned fitness, yet it gives me enough time to rest up and rectify my calf.

"Own your shit"

It's interesting how the universe sends the same lessons over and over until we ultimately learn them (or not). The same patterns tend to appear in multiple areas within our lives (eg, work, relationships, family, friendship, hobbies). A recurring lesson of mine has been to trust my instinct and to act accordingly to course correct my personal pursuit of happiness – a lesson about identity, self preservation and maintaining healthy boundaries. 

At the end of the day, our decisions are ours alone. To truly change your life, you need to own your shit.  And then change your behavior. 

My coach and I spent an hour on the phone yesterday afternoon doing just that. My coach's mistake was not taking my feedback seriously enough. My mistake was not listening to my body and resting. Yes, my coach pushed me (That's why you hire a coach.) But ultimately, I am responsible for my own decisions. I knew I needed rest, and I could have simply rested. In the end, we both agreed that, regardless of what the data said on TrainingPeaks, I had entered this race slightly overtrained. 

Armed with this information, we can now move forward and improve both as individuals and as a team. 

Even though I am not thrilled about not finishing the race, I am pleased that I finally learned more about that important, recurring life lesson: I listened to my body's wisdom since an ultimate goal of mine is to run for life. This race was but a mile in the proverbial marathon. I'm not going to let this get to me.

I've had a great running year so far. I've only run a handful of races this year, but I've done well in all of them, most notably qualifying for the Boston and NYC Marathons again while running the 2016 Boston Marathon; finishing 6th female overall/1st age group in the Gary Papa 10K; 4th female/1st age group in the Kennedy Cancer Survivor's Day 5K; and 11th female/1st age group in the Leprechaun Run 5-Miler. Even my Mayor's Cup Performance was solid (9th female/1st age group), taking the heat and the challenging course into consideration. 

Reframing the situation, with the Trenton Half Marathon as my new goal race, I will say that yesterday, I had a great speed work session in the heat. I have a 10K scheduled for this upcoming weekend. We'll have to see how the rest of the week goes before I decide if I'm rested enough to race it.

More perspective on DNFs

I dreaded writing about this, but composing this blog post actually helped me process everything and put it behind me. If you've DNFed, I hope it helps you think through your own decision. Reading other runners' DNF stories also helped me:

Have you ever DNFed?