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    Learning from the DNF



    I’m back!  And better than ever (if you don’t count the alcohol withdrawal symptoms, sunburn and assorted beach volleyball/wedding limbo injuries)!  Although technically, I got back from Mexico last Tuesday, I was otherwise occupied until recently by the terror and horror that was my THESIS PROPOSAL MEETING, held last Thursday afternoon.  This is the meeting that graduate students and their supervisors have with the dreaded thesis committee members (professors in the department) to determine if the student’s thesis project will be judged acceptable or not.  Why was this so terrifying and horrifying?  Because, dear readers (who haven’t already heard this story), I had a thesis proposal meeting last December (2009) and it went very badly.  How badly?  To put this in running terms: I got a DNF.  That’s right – my committee wanted revisions so substantial that there was talk of scrapping the entire project.  So you can imagine how pumped I was feeling on Wednesday.  Lucky for me, my drive home on Wednesday night took some extra time and so I got some serious reflection time.  The more I thought about it, the more I saw the parallels between running and life. 

    Sooner or later, we all get some kind of a DNF, whether this is a race, a workout, a school/work project or a relationship.  It’s not really an “if” but a “when”.  The question, then, is what we do with it.  Do we let it break us down, lose hope or give up?  Or do we use this as an opportunity to grow ourselves?  I think most of us would vote for the second option but applying this to reality can be a challenge.  Obviously, I’m no expert at running or at life.  I’m still learning but I’m trying to look back at what worked so I know for the future.  Here are some of the lessons I learned from both my half-marathon DNF and my thesis proposal DNF this year.

    –         Get back on the horse as soon as possible.  I know you probably all heard this from a parent, grandparent, friend or coach at some point but it’s true.  If you can make some small token effort the very next day after a disaster, you’ll be less intimidated by the prospect of getting back to it.  Did you fall apart during a hard running workout?  Try for an easy run the next day or even a walk.  Did you drop out of a race because of heat, injury or wardrobe malfunction?  Sign up for another race the next day.  After my failed proposal meeting, I got back to work on the proposal draft within a couple of weeks and it really made all the difference for me because I didn’t have to deal with the “dread” factor on top of everything else.

    –         Dissect the failure for insights.  A few weeks ago, I felt sick to my stomach during a training run.  Take a way lesson?  Fibre bars do not make for a good pre-workout snack (obvious, I know).  Sometimes a failure is caused by circumstantial factors – there was nothing you could do to foresee or prevent it.  But  even then we can learn something.  For example: the day of my half-marathon DNF was extremely hot.  I had no control over that.  On the other hand, I probably should have revised my goal from “sub 2:30” to “just finish the damn thing.”  I learned something about the relationship between racing goals and weather that day: Mother Nature is a bitch and she doesn’t care how hard you train.

    –         Self-talk can build you up or break you down so watch what you say.  Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that we all practice unrealistic optimism.  But our thoughts can be powerful mediators between our experience and our emotion.  I could have spent the entire drive home last Wednesday ruminating about the potential for a second failed meeting.  This would no doubt have put me in a bad mood.  I might also have had trouble sleeping and woken up tired and in bad shape for the actual meeting.  Knowing this, I tried to focus on the improvements I had made to the proposal.  I thought about how the past failure had been caused by bizarre and unlikely-to-happen-for-a-second-time circumstances.  I visualized the moment when my supervisor would congratulate me.  And it helped.  I was still anxious the next day but probably not nearly as badly as I could have been. 

    What lessons have you learned from either running or life DNFs?  Have you applied running lessons to the rest of your life or vice versa?

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    Dana’s first attempts at running started at age 15, prompted by the desire to impress a boy. “Thankfully, the boy in question appreciated her other charms and running was quickly abandoned,” she says of her younger self. The habit finally stuck about two years ago, however, and she has since co-founded a two-person running team called “The Fighting Mongooses.” Dana offers great advice in her blogs, such as to think twice about the Toronto Zoo 10k. “A strong whiff of elephant dung is not the reward you’re looking for when you’ve just crested yet another f-ing hill in the freezing cold,” she advises. She also entertains with stories of, um, interesting people she met during races. “There was that guy in the short robe two years ago who invited us back to his house for pancakes after the race…we decided to keep running.” Funny and smart is a winning combo in our books!


    1. Dana,

      It has been a pleasure to see you grow over the past three years and to see you now and how you are experiencing your DNFs. I am so proud of you for all that you have accomplished to date.

      Your post has reminded me of my own DNFs and the way that I view them. I recently had a two month absence from the gym because of serious illness. It has been a real struggle to return and to actually enjoy it. I had many negative thoughts of “its too late now” and “I’ll gain back all the weight” or “I will never be able to run as long as I did before.” But after several attempts and the gentle approach of just trying, I am back to enjoying my moments of “oh my god I am not going to make it, but if I just pushed a little harder, I might get through it.”

      Thank you for the gentle reminder that my DNFs are not defining in who I am or what I can accomplish.

    2. Thanks for sharing such a profound post!

      Years ago I just missed getting into a PhD program. That missed opportunity was sad at the time but it really opened up so many possibilities for me that I would have otherwise put on hold — temporarily or indefinitely. Like having two awesome kids. Like running a marathon. Like pursuing a writing career.

      Thanks for your wise words and running and life insights!

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