Brittany shares a very painful lesson – DNF lessons learned

Learning to DNF: Brittany Crombie (Senior Champion Kent County Athletics Association Road Race Grand Prix 2023) shares some painful lessons.


On a grey and drizzly Sunday morning I set off to Western Heights, a 19th-century fortification system atop Dover’s White Cliffs, designed to protect the town from French invasion. Whilst the weather was dreary, I was feeling bright, energised, and ready for the challenge that lay ahead of me: a 50km trail/road race with over 4,000ft of elevation. I’d been training well (when was I not training, really…) and I felt strong, both physically and mentally. This was the first Utramarathon of what is set to be my biggest year of running so far. I was ready.


Before getting to this point on Sunday morning, there were a few bumps in the road: train cancellations and rail replacement buses meant I had to rely on the kindness of my housemate for a lift; above-average rainfall throughout the winter meant that across the country there was low-level flooding and waterlogged agricultural land; the last-minute realisation that what I thought was a circular route was in fact three laps of an approximately 10-mile circuit. In spite of all this, I woke up on that fateful Sunday feeling positive.

Listening to the pre-race briefing, there were a handful of things to be cautious of: grazing cows in a field; one underpass that you were to avoid, another you needed to go under; runners racing different distances headed in the opposite direction. Nothing too untoward.


And so, we set off. Marathon and Ultramarathon runners started together, a slow stream of people headed for the hills. The rain had picked up a little since earlier that morning, though that didn’t dispel my enthusiasm. In front of me was a day of doing what I love doing most: running. The hills didn’t bother me, either – anybody that knows me knows I love a hill – and, at first, nor did the weather. It was only until we got into the undulating fields that the impact of the weather really struck me. As the rain continued to fall and, eventually, mist set in, the ground was getting softer and softer, muddier and muddier. I slipped over once pretty early on coming too fast downhill. Fine. I got back up and carried on. I then slipped over again, but this time on an uphill. Fine. I got back up and carried on. And then I started slipping on the flat. Maybe this didn’t feel fine, after all.


I had a sense that there were four other runners ahead of me, two women and two men. This meant I was sitting at third place in my gender category and fifth place overall – great. But the constant slipping and sliding meant that not much running was happening at all. The mud was so churned up after only four runners having run before me. What was it going to be like after the hundreds of runners behind me had also run through it? And we had two laps left to go…


Trail running involves problem-solving. Which route is the easiest? The quickest? The safest? It involves concentration and focus, pushing through the brain fog that sets in when your body is exhausted to make decisions about how to safely get from A to B, how to most efficiently move your legs in order to make it to the finish line in one piece. I had been problem-solving from the beginning and the solution to the problem of the pretty much “un-runable” course was to… stop. But no, I can’t stop. Stopping is not an option. Your legs feel good, you’re stronger than you’ve ever been, confident on trails, and more than capable at tackling hills. But no matter how strong, confident or capable you feel, this sort of running will, inevitably, lead to injury. You’ve already fallen down twice. You’re slipping and sliding everywhere. You’re not safe and, ultimately, you’re just not having fun. I debated with myself in this way for what felt like miles and miles until I came to a crossroads: turn right for the second lap or turn left to the finish line. I turned left. I dropped out.


I was devastated. The hardest thing about making this decision was how out of control I felt. I was running well (when I was able to run) and, one third through the race, my legs felt fresh. They wanted to carry on running. It’s in their nature. But my instinct was that if I continued, I’d more than likely injure myself. Which would mean no running at all for a period of who-knows-how-long. Weighing up my options, the decision to pull out, to ‘DNF’ (did not finish), was the most sensible in terms of preservation and longevity. I wasn’t willing to sacrifice the rest of the season for this one race. So I quit.


On the journey back to Margate, I cried. I cried to a race organiser. I cried to my mum. I cried to myself. I felt heavy with regret, weighed down with the speculation of “what if”. I could’ve made the podium. I could’ve ran a PB. But I didn’t. Instead, I got a big fat ‘DNF’. How could these three letters feel so crushing to me? I felt like I’d let everybody down. I felt like a quitter, taking the easy option. But this decision wasn’t easy for me. To follow my instinct, to listen to my rational brain, to override the desire of my legs to just keep running, was incredibly hard. So I cried some more, just for good measure.


This morning, the sun shone, the sky was clear blue, and the sea was still. I got up and ran. I ran away all of the regret, the shame, the disappointment, the hurt of yesterday. With each step, the crushing power of those three letters became less and less. I’ll run tomorrow, too. And the next day, probably. And I’ll race again (in less than two months, actually!).


What I learned from Sunday is that a race does not define you. Three little letters do not define you. Whilst running is such a crucial part of who I am, it is not all that I am. Learning to ‘DNF’ is part of the process. And what I’ve learned is in going through this process, we become better, stronger, more resilient runners.

I’m sure that like us you will applaud Brittany (our ladies vice-captain) for her honesty and courage.  This race was clearly a painful experience for Brittany, who only 2 months ago won the Senior Champion Kent County Athletics Association Road Race Grand Prix 2023.  For such a strong runner to share her experience is of such value. 

It wasn’t just Brittany who had a terrible race.  Traccie Claire Morgan completed the half marathon (14.99 miles!!!) and said she could barely stand up at points on this course, properly falling over twice, banging her head twice and finishing with a big hump.  Perhaps this isn’t a race to put on your wish list!

We LOVE to receive your race reports and photos, but this heart felt report with lessons learned is so valuable to so many.  Thank you Brittany.


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