I propose a third acronym: DNL. This stands for “damn near last,” and it’s somewhere between DNS and DNF in the runners’ dread spectrum. DNL means you finished the race, and you weren’t last, but you were awfully close to last, and that’s sometimes worse. Last has certain perverse bragging rights attached; besides, most people who finish last in a race do so by design of some sort. Many times the last person to finish a race is someone who’s lucky to be alive at all, or else they’re a joker who stands a foot away from the finish line until the last possible second and then crosses, thus gaining the dubious honor. But damn near last is something else entirely.
I know a number of runners who have a shot at winning any given race they enter. I have no idea what that’s like. I’m one of the masses of runners who has, on occasion, when feeling less than confident about a particular race, said “I just hope I’m not last!” People who hear us say this will scoff and assure us that there’s no way we’ll finish last, and they’re right, but they’re also missing the point. What we really fear is the DNL. We are proud to be runners, but this doesn’t come easy to us, never has, and for a lot of us being “athletic” is scary new territory. And one of the things that scares us is the possibility that we’re not really that good at this after all—that we don’t deserve to call ourselves runners, despite what everyone tells us. Better runners will smile and assure us that the most important thing in a race is to finish. If you finish, you’ve won. You accept their assurances in public, but privately you reflect that these are people who actually have won. What they haven’t done is ever come close to the possibility of a DNL.
I say all of this because at one point very early in the 50k trail ultra I ran on Saturday, I was in last place. Dead, absolute last, no one behind me, everyone in front. This happened after only half a mile. The toughest part of this course was right at the start: long steep hills, zigzaggy switchbacks, paths crazy with exposed roots and jagged rocks. At around the half-mile point I tripped on one of those roots and bashed my knee on one of the rocks. It was a hard fall, so hard that every single runner behind me stopped to see if I was OK. I waved them on. They couldn’t do anything for me, and I was near enough the starting line that I could easily hobble back unaided if I decided I couldn’t go on. When every remaining runner had said “are you sure?” and then moved on after I said I was, I stood and tested the knee. It felt OK, so I continued—in last place.
I didn’t stay last for long; fairly soon I passed the woman who was recovering from back surgery (woo hoo!) and two silver-haired gentlemen probably in their 70s (I am awesome!). Then I didn’t pass anyone for a long time, and that’s when I started thinking I really could DNL.When running long distances you have a lot of time to reflect on life. During this particular race I spent a lot of my time reflecting on my running life. Unlike other aspects of my life right now, running hasn’t been going so well. It hasn’t truly sucked—I haven’t had a debilitating injury and the longest I’ve had to lay off the running has only been about a week—but between truly sucky and true bliss is a lot of uncertain territory, and I started to wonder if I’m really cut out to run ultras. Since I’m not ever going to do them fast, I need to find them fun, and I have to admit, at many points in that race, I was not having fun. My fear of DNL status dogged me the whole way, yet my fear of falling again kept me from pushing my pace. I had a vivid mental image of going down, my knee slamming against a boulder and exploding like an overripe mango, the impact so hard that my leg would actually be bent backwards, like an ostrich’s leg, and then how in the hell would I find usable running tights?
Of course, one of the great things about running is even if it isn’t going so well, it’s still just running. You can be depressed about it and still function in your everyday life—still feel good about that life, even. I did finish that race, and I wasn’t last, probably not even DNL, though my time was a thoroughly unimpressive 7 hours and 14 minutes. At the finish line, I was greeted enthusiastically by the BF and his dog, who had been waiting patiently in the very warm weather. Later over chorizo scrambled eggs and a chocolate-peanut butter milkshake (when you run 50K you can justify nearly anything), I admitted my disappointment both in my performance and in my inability to simply stop worrying and enjoy the run. I admitted all this because that disappointment was real, and I’m not going to pretend to feel great about a race that did not go the way I or most runners would want. But maybe DNL deserves its own acronym because it is, in fact, its own unique experience, with its own accompanying intensity of sensation and emotion. I know a lot of runners who will never know what this experience is like, and I know a lot of non-runners who might use their fear of such an experience as a reason not to run at all (that and, of course, the fact that they only run if something is chasing them—yeah, folks, we’ve heard that before). For the rest of us, though, DNL is always a possibility—one that you, too, might one day be describing in a story over a post-race meal. If that happens, I guarantee that despite your disappointment, you’ll really enjoy telling the story.