What is worse than a DNF?

The Head Ache

Image via Wikipedia

Musselman (half-Iron distance)
Geneva, New York
July 18, 2011 

DNF.  Three letters that no runner, cyclist or multisport athlete wants to see by their name.  When you factor in three sports and all the gear alone that goes with them, the number of things that can possibly go wrong in a race is huge.  Many of these can be anticipated.  Some of the things that can’t be anticipated can, nevertheless, be dealt with.  Sometimes however, the day will throw something at you that you didn’t expect and can’t cope with, and you end up with a Did Not Finish next to your name.

Much worse, however, is a DNS.  Did Not Start.  Because, in fact, you almost never see these letters next to your name.  A DNF says that you fronted up, gave it a go, but the day just got the better of you.  If you DNS it is as if you never existed as far as the race concerned.  You didn’t train, you didn’t hope, you didn’t have any goals, you are on a par with the vast majority of the population who have never even heard of a “triath-a-lon” and are still happily abed, slumbering quietly in church, or digging contentedly in their gardens.

Since participating in this event last year I had been looking forward to doing it again.  It is a gorgeous location, a wonderfully organized event, and although the run is challenging the bike ride is one where you can really put down a fast time.  I’d spent the evening before enjoying the usual pre-race rituals: organizing my nutrition, attaching race numbers, checking tires for embedded debris, etc.  I got to bed at a good time (just after nine) and fell asleep pretty quickly.

Then I was awake at somewhere around 2:30.  Anxiety?  Nerves?  No, the unmistakable signs of the onset of a migraine.  By the time my alarm went off at 4:30 there was no avoiding it: my race was over before it had even started.

Now, on the one hand, a migraine is the lamest possible excuse for bailing on a race.  In many people’s minds it probably connotes the excuse used by the delicate flower of southern womanhood grown tired of pushing their husbands off them.  At the end of the day, you’ve nothing to show for why you didn’t show up: no cast, no bandages, no ER paperwork.

But for those of you who aren’t familiar with a migraine, here is what it is like.  For me, they typically strike at about the same time, in the wee hours of the morning, and you feel as if someone has hit you with a shovel.  The headache is so severe that it feels as if all your senses are swimming.  It is accompanied by nausea, which in my case at least never seems to get to level of tossing your cookies but you have that feeling that you are right on the verge. . .for hours.  Some people become extraordinarily sensitive to sound (hence the “Mommy just wants to be left alone” stereotype); that isn’t the case with me but I do become extremely sensitive to light.  Opening my eyes produces a searing pain. . .pain on top of the “hit by a shovel” pain.  By lying still in the dark you can keep the pain at bay.  At times you can convince yourself that it is receding.  Then you move, and it is back full force, overwhelming you in waves of nausea with sharp spikes being pounded into your skull.

When it had first hit every instinct in me was to tough it out, and somehow try to get up and at least get to the race start.  But then I got up to go to the bathroom and was hit by a dizzy spell that left me grasping at any piece of nearby  furniture to keep myself upright.  Mary took one look at me and immediately announced to everyone else in the house that we were renting that we wouldn’t be making it to the start.

It was almost 1pm before I was able to get out of bed.  After this point, however, you have what my friend Es referred to as a “migraine hangover.”  You feel completely wrecked, drained, rung out, as if you have done a hard day’s work.

So how do I feel about all this?  It is barely possible to imagine that I might have got myself to the start, wincing, my eyes squinched shut, trying constantly to stop my gorge from rising as I waded out into the start.    But I’m glad I didn’t.  In my condition I would have been nothing but a danger to myself or–worse–to others around me.  But I am, of course, bitterly disappointed.  I didn’t anticipate that I was going to have a great race; I haven’t put in the training for that.  But it is a great event and I was looking forward to being out there with over a hundred of my team mates.  Musselman isn’t just the A race for a lot of people this year, it is one of the A races for the team as a whole.  We really made an impression at the race last year, and this year, bringing almost ten percent of all the athletes competing in the Half-Iron distance race, we once again had a pride-of-place location right before the finishing line.  The race organizers also learned from the size of our team last year and supplied us with not one but two dumpsters (one for recycling).  After a getting a taste while spectating at the sprint yesterday, I was looking forward to being a part of all the craziness.

As it turned out, the day was a horrendous one for many of my team-mates.  The temperature kept climbing throughout the day and finally reached the 90s.  The run is pretty exposed on many parts and features some long climbs and long downhills; if you are allergic to hills and don’t train them, especially in the heat, it can be a really tough day.  Some people had great races, but others had epically long ones, finishing way past the official finish line closure of 8 hours.  One team-mate in our house was hospitalized because of the heat.  My friend Es repeatedly told me that I was a very smart man.

So, OK, maybe I’m a complete sicko (and if you are into multisports you have to be at least a little touched!) but all of the horror stories didn’t make me feel grateful that I’d missed a bad day; instead, they just made me feel even more depressed and isolated.  First of all, I have a history of thriving on really difficult days.  But the real reason was that sharing the suffering is part of what makes a team.  With a team contingent this large you are racing alone, sure, but we all do our best to encourage one another as we pass each other on the bike leg, or coming and going on the run.  My team had been going through the wringer and I’d been stuck on the sidelines.

The whole migraine thing has also given me food for thought, part of a regular banquet I’ve been delivered this year, so it seems.  Migraines do run in my family, and most of what I’ve read suggests that there is a genetic component to them.  In the past, however, I’ve maybe had one relatively minor one every couple of years.  This year, I’ve had three so far, and they have been an order of magnitude worse than anything I’ve experienced before.

Migraines are a tough nut to crack.  For many people there are certain foods that trigger them: red wine, cheese, processed meats. . .  All of these I’ve eaten for years, often in combination, without any problems.  Some research suggests a strong age component, with migraines appearing and disappearing as you age.  Stress also seems to be a possible trigger.

This is definitely something I’m going to have to figure out, but there do seem to be some obvious clues.  I’ve been really neglecting my sleep lately, I’ve been feeling pretty stressed, and I haven’t been eating as well as I should (and let’s just say that stepping on the scale at Musselman registration–something about which so many of my team-mates were surprisingly phobic–was a bit of a wake-up call).  I’m being forced to confront the fact that when compared with the general population I would probably be counted a fit guy. . .but that isn’t necessarily the same thing as being healthy.  I also need to take into account that I’m getting older.  Now I hasten to add that this is not to say that I’m waving the white flag and condemning myself to fuddy-duddyness.  I’m really fortunate to have team-mates–Chris Wren, Dave Gearin–who continue to be reminders that age is no barrier to pushing yourself and excelling athletically.  But as you age your body changes.  And those changes change things.

And I’ve never been a big fan of change.

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3 responses to “What is worse than a DNF?

  1. Ugh so sorry. Migraines are vil. Mine feel like someone is driving a railroad spik from the back of my head through my eye. Light and sound are painful and exaggerated and I feel seasick on dry land.

    Imitrex has ben a savior for me but I’ve been scared to exercise on it.

    Could you even have done the race without medicine and not risked bursting a blood vessel?

  2. Pingback: Mix Tape Volume 17 | My Running Shorts

  3. I used to have to keep my head the same level as my heart or I thought my head would explode. So a trip to the bathroom was amusing to those who did not understand. I could not read as a huge light blub obiterated one eye and then as time progressed it would locate itself to the other eye. Anyone whohas not had a migraine does not get it. Yours sound awful and I sympathise with you.

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