DNF – Three Letters in a Trail Runner’s Vernacular

DNF translates to Did Not Finish and like it or not, these three letters are often part of the trail racing experience. Like many trail runners, we’ve had our own DNF experiences and chronicled stories of others.

After winning the 2011 World Mountain Running Championships in Albania, expectations were high for Max King at the next up/down world championships in 2013 in Poland. Unfortunately, Max badly sprained his ankle at the 2013 World Mountain Running Championship and had to drop from the race.  ATRA’s executive director Nancy Hobbs wrote about her epic DNF in Japan way back in 2005. After winning the 2016 USATF 50 Mile Trail Championship, Tyler Sigl (pictured above) had a tough race in Portugal later that year and dropped from the Trail World Championships. More recently Alex Nichols shared his DNF experience from the 2018 UTMB. We also covered a few DNF experiences from the 2021 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run.

To get a better understanding of why runners don’t finish races, we recently conducted a survey to find out how many trail runners have posted a DNF in their careers and what led to their decision to bail out before crossing the finish line. The following is an overview of the survey results from nearly 1200 respondents. 59% of respondents were men, 39.5% were women, .5% identified as non binary and 1% preferred not to answer.

DNF

Max King DNF’d the 2013 World Mountain Running Championships after spraining his ankle.

Survey Results

How often do you run on trails?

  • Every day – 3%
  • 2-4 days per week – 50%
  • 5-6 days per week – 15%
  • Once a week – 28%
  • Never – 4%

How many trail races will you run this year?

  • One – 10%
  • Between two and ten – 73%
  • More than ten – 8%
  • None – 9%

Have you ever posted a DNF at a race?

  • Yes – 59.5%
  • No – 39%
  • I don’t run races – 1.5%

How many times have you had a DNF?

  • Once – 28%
  • More than once – 32%
  • Never – 38.5%
  • I don’t run races – 1.5%

At what distance race did you DNF? (respondents could check more than one distance)

  • At less than Half Marathon distance – 5%
  • Half Marathon to Marathon distance – 17%
  • 50 Kilometers – 13%
  • 50 Mile to 100 Kilometers – 20.5%
  • 100 Miles or more – 21%
  • I’ve finished every race I’ve started – 39%

If you ever DNFd, what were the reasons? (could check more than one reason)

  • I injured myself during the race – 27%
  • I didn’t make a cutoff time – 24%
  • I got sick during the race – 20%
  • Pain in my feet, calves, knees, or quads – 15%
  • The weather turned horrible and I had to stop -12%
  • I didn’t feel like running any more…I was over it! – 11%
  • I knew I couldn’t finish, so I dropped out of the race – 9%
  • I got lost or went way off course – 6%
  • Course was harder than I thought it would be…I was in over my head in technicality – 5%
  • I ran out of fuel – hydration, or food – 5%
  • I was going for a win (overall, or age group) and realized “today wasn’t the day” and dropped – 2%
  • Equipment or gear failure caused me to drop – 1%

We received additional DNF reasons from respondents including the following:

  • I’ve almost DNFd for each one of the reasons listed above. Probably should have DNFd a couple of races that I finished and hurt myself.
  • I felt weird and fatigued and mentally freaked out. In retrospect, I’m sure I was fine.
  • I had raced the two weekends prior and had a brand new daughter and just felt I needed to be with her and my wife at my son’s soccer game instead of out in the woods.
  • I was injured prior to race start and figured, I’ve paid the fees, let’s see how this goes… and it didn’t.
  • I was in a bad place going into the race and shouldn’t have started it, but I did and during the race realized I couldn’t/shouldn’t be doing this, so I stopped – it was very difficult to stop, but I wasn’t doing my body or self any favours by continuing on.
  • I knew I could finish but a finish would destroy my love of running and so I dropped.
  • I was tripping even when I walked and had 18 miles to go and I knew that I was out of gas. I got ahead of the friends I was doing the race with. I realized that they wouldn’t make the cut off time so I ran back along the course to DNF with them since I felt bad! I actually have zero regrets about this!
  • The course where I did not make cutoff is designed to have a low finisher rate. Some years no one finishes. I DNFd it five years in a row. So while it is not making a cutoff, it is an intentionally difficult to reach cutoff. Fear of falling and hurting myself on technical trails at night.
  • I already had a Western States 100 qualifier from another race, so I didn’t have the same motivation as I usually did.
  • A minor injury, unrealistic expectations for a finish time, and large gap in fueling led to a DNF primarily due to mental weakness. All of my issues were manageable and I could have finished the race (albeit slower than I wanted).
  • Twice I have DNFd a race in Switzerland. Once I was turned around because of weather and the other time I was the caboose but ahead of the cut off time. It was a very hot day so I was struggling but could have continued but at the last aid station before the summit the race physician and I agreed to just call it a wrap – I also had another Strongman competition the next day and I was struggling with the heat. I helped pack up the aid station and we all helicoptered to the finish together. Those are my only two trail race DNFs.
  • Had too many ‘pit stops.’

Undeterred by past DNFs, Max King won the 2017 Chuckanut 50K in Washington State.

If you’d like to share your DNF story, please send us an email here: nancyhobbs@trailrunner.com

To see more words and terms in a trail runner’s vocabulary, check out this article on our website.

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