Lessons Learned from a DNF

Some times the best learned lessons hurt the most.


Dr. Ryan Peeters


November 1, 2023

For runners, the dreaded idea of not finishing a race is often a thought that circulates in the back of your head...but should you pay it more attention?

In my experience, a DNF (Did Not Finish) never got much attention.

In fact I am a big believer of where you put your attention is where you put your energy. If I want to visualize a good race I am going to spend a decent bit of mental energy seeing myself running through the race with a smile, enjoying the sights and sounds and finishing strong. 

Focusing on the what ifs of not finishing often feels like wasted energy and negative headspace. 

But after my first DNF I can learn from this experience and look at these outcomes with less judgment and see it for what it is - a learning experience with neutral emotions attached - not frustration, angst, or worry. 

Over the weekend of October 13-14th, 5 other runners and myself attempted to compete in our first every Ragnar Relay. We were an ultra team consisting of 6 runners (and 1 dedicated van driver) each running 6 legs which typically is the role of 12 runners each running 3 legs.  

Team Delco Dawgz

For those who are unfamiliar with this style of racing it is a point to point race that has assigned legs with distances ranging from 3.5 miles up to 9 miles depending on the section. 

In these relay races, teams will keep the same order throughout the race so you know when it’s your turn to run. 

I will say one of the great parts of this race was the attention to detail and logistics that go into planning an event like this. Even though the course passed through multiple towns with busy and neighborhood streets, everything was well marked.

For context, this course started in Harrisburg, PA and traveled through multiple townships on the way to Hershey, Lancaster and eventually through Radnor and Philadelphia. 

To get each runner to their starting exchange a vehicle is required and all teams have some version of a van to get them through the course. Unfortunately for us this was a contingency we did not consider as being a potential hole in our plan. 

Our Chariot

In fact, when planning an adventure like this one the gear check and amount of planning actually felt a bit above and beyond what most of us (who were all experienced runners) have planned for around race day.

But sometimes, things happen that you cannot plan for. At exactly the half way point somewhere between 11pm and midnight we had to drop out of the race due to vehicle issues. An unforeseen battery/electrical issue ensued which set us back 2-3 hours from the progress we made. 

After brainstorming ways to try and get another van, split our team up or even somehow get an Uber, we had to make the tough decision to call it. It felt especially demoralizing because how out of our control it became.

On top of that was the frustration of quitting because we were doing so well with our pacing and chemistry as a team. 

I’ve often preached how our failures tend to teach us more about ourselves than our successes. 

A nice slice of humble pie if you will…

And although this doesn’t feel like a complete failure it sure has been an excellent teacher. 

I’ve been fortunate enough to complete various types of road, trail and obstacle racing across distances from 10km to 100km and the thought of a DNF has always been out of the question.

Often my thoughts are “I will walk if I have to!”. 

But a DNF, which is unfavorable, offers more room for growth, better planning, and a deepening of the hunger to do better and come back stronger. 

Resilience is the ultimate badge of honor and a DNF may be one stepping stone along that journey. 

As our mantra goes, I am strong, I am capable, I am resilient.