I also hang with folks who go the distance…and then twice the distance…and then twice that. A friend told me his mother once remarked that he was the only person she knew who had done a marathon. He thought about that for a moment and realized that nearly everyone he knew had done at least one marathon or were about to run their first. The same goes for me, to the point where the marathon distance is entry level and numbers like 30, 44, 50, and 100 are routinely brought up during beer conversations. Car distances, only without the car.Despite this, the running stories that amaze, astound, and move me the most aren’t the ones about great feats of speed, strength, and endurance. They’re about the other side of things. The goals we didn’t meet. The days we want to quit. The times we feel like failures. DNF.
DNF stands for “did not finish,” and it’s used to signify a runner who began but did not complete an official race and so didn’t receive an official finish time. Runners dread these letters. I did at one time, too. I haven’t DNF’d yet, but it can always happen, and it has happened to many of my friends. They all describe feeling crushed, humiliated, defeated.Well, not quite all of them. You know those stickers you see on cars with “26.2” on them, signifying that the driver is a marathon runner and is highly desirous that everyone know it? (Yes, like the one I have on my own car.) Well, one of my favorite hard-core runners has a “DNF” sticker on his car. Everyone who knows this thinks it’s the greatest thing ever. You kind of have to know this runner to understand the humor, but the gist is that this guy has run so many crazy races in so many crazy conditions that his DNF seems more like a well-deserved vacation than a badge of shame. As one runner put it, he earned that DNF.
But what about the rest of us? Have we earned our failures? That’s a silly question. Maybe this is a reflection of my negative thinking, but I believe life is far more about losing than winning. Any teacher (or at least any teacher with a negative way of thinking) will tell you that the way to learn is to fail first. Any fan of The Princess Bride will tell you that life is pain. And even though runners frequently pump sunshiny aphorisms out of their asses about never quitting, never stopping, never giving up, the beauty of running as I see it is that sometimes it is necessary to quit, stop, and give up. This is hard. You don’t always succeed. Sometimes it hurts so much you have to stop. And, perversely, sometimes it hurts so much you can’t stop. You succeed not because you cross the finish line but because you experience the intensity of living. Living means suffering, feeling loss, giving up. It also means joy, triumph, and holding on. Who knows what it will be today? I guess we’ll find out, won’t we.