What I learned in my first DNF (Did. Not. Finish)

This past weekend I ventured to the Cascade Mountains to participate in my 3rd 200-mile Ultramarathon.  I was beyond excited, in the best shape of my life, and had an amazing crew and pacer with me to get the job done. I was ready to absolutely crush this race. The stage was set for a great weekend. With cool weather, mostly shaded trails, and two years of 200-mile race experience under my belt, there was no way I could fail. Wrong, very wrong. With starting the race out in the top 10 and destroying my pace time for the first 50 miles, I was flying high and feeling even higher. Slowly I started to get a pain in the side of my left foot. With my push-through-all-pain mentality, I put this pain in the back of my head. By mile 60 it was hurting with every step I took. Then a few miles later the same pain appeared in my other foot. “WTF,” this can’t be good. At first I got very scared, but then told myself to “toughen the f*** up,” and I continued to push. The pain got so bad by mile 80 that I was running with tears in my eyes. I showed up at mile 91 a mess. I got on the radio with Todd, the Medical Director and told him my symptoms. He told me exactly what I suspected, “it sounds like you took in too much salt.” Yup, I am an idiot. I was taking in salt pills 3x the strength of what I was training with all summer. Not to mention it was an average of 68 degrees the past 24-hours and I have not been sweating a lick. All of the salt I ingested held all of the water I drank and swelled my feet up. “Stupid, stupid, stupid.” All systems were firing, I was eating like a champ, and I had little to no muscle fatigue. I had done everything right in the past 11 months leading up to this race, and one small dumb mistake cost me my race. I still am having trouble getting over that fact.  At mile 91 we wrapped my swollen feet tight and I laid down for an hour. This squeezed out some of the fluid and I felt much better. “I have to try,” I told my crew. I put on my dad’s Hoka’s which were a size and a half bigger than my normal shoe. This allowed me to run with some bearable pain, but after 2-3 miles the swelling came back and filled these giant shoes as well. I ran for miles crying, trying to think of ideas on how to continue. “I am Ryan Lange, I do not quit.” When I got to mile 102 aid station I could not walk. I sat and contemplated with the medic at the station, James. He told me I am 22 and I had plenty of racing ahead of me that I did not want to ruin. This gave my exhausted brain an excuse, the last excuse it needed. I could no longer keep going. This was a moment I thought I’d never see… As I don’t think there are many bright sides to a failed attempt, here is what I learned.

1.) As much as you may think, you are not invincible

  • I pride myself on being someone that can push through any and all pain that presents itself to me. I have gone through two 200-mile runs; I figured I had experienced all pain and am able to push through it all. The truth is, I have been through a lot of “hurt,” but have never seen true “injury” in my life. People always ask how I have stayed healthy through all of this, and I usually respond with “just stretch, and you won’t get hurt.” Well, I am wrong with that too.

2.) Don’t depend on your crew to do everything for you

  • I had an amazing Crew behind me. My dad Chris, brother Brandon, and Pacer and best friend Helgi Olafson, were all ready to go to war for me. They were ready to do everything in their power to get me to the finish line. Although they can do a lot, they cannot do everything. I cannot just run like a brainless idiot until I drop. I have to take care of myself, and I neglected to do that. When I thought about fixing something I would think, “Oh yeah I’ll tell Dad when I see him at the next aid.”

3.) PAY ATTENTION TO DETAIL

  • This is BY FAR my biggest lesson learned from this race. I bought salt pills and ate them. I didn’t look to see what was in them. I didn’t calculate how much I should have been taking per hour. I didn’t think about how I was not sweating. I simply did not think. I have been told this my life and am now ready to admit to myself that it is a flaw of mine, and I need to improve.

4.) Not everything is guaranteed

  • You can be in the best shape of your life, best position for success, have all the factors in your corner, and failure can still be waiting for you. You are not guaranteed to win, finish, do well. Regardless of what you think.

5.) Failure is the biggest motivator of them all

  • I am proud to say that this is my first failure, not just in ultrarunning but in life as well.  When I really want something and I put my mind to it, I get it. I have never felt what it’s like to come up short. Our family motto of Persistence and Determination has brought me success all my life. I can say without hesitation, I have never been this pissed-off, hungry, and motivated to go back Bigfoot next year and utterly ruin this race mile-by-mile. As soon as I woke up the morning of my DNF, I began thinking about how I can become bigger, faster, better, strong, and smarter. I like to say I am a motivated individual, but I have a balled-up feeling of energy in my heart that makes me want to go run Pikes Peak every weekend for the next 52 weeks. This feeling is new to me and has brought me a whole other level of motivation.

Conclusion

My feet still are not better and I cannot walk yet, but I will soon. And I have something to prove. Not to anybody else, but to myself. I need the mental clarity of going back to Bigfoot and punching this race in the mouth. I know I am capable of a great finish time. It’s just going to take a little longer than I expected to see the results. Now it’s time to hit the trails harder, longer, and more often than ever.

3 replies on “What I learned in my first DNF (Did. Not. Finish)

  • Heather La Conte

    Ryan I think sharing our story will help others when it comes to the same “push beyond limits” mentality that we all seem to get. Especially when the stakes are high in longer distances such as these. I am sorry to hear that your journey came to an end but you did push yourself and you didn’t let the DNF defeat or define you. Instead, you are using it to reshape the way you look at these races and how you prepare for them. I can guarantee you that you made the right move in DNF’ing when you did and you have the best outlook about it. I have been where you are – you did the right thing no matter how bad it hurts to look at. However, you will get back out there and you will complete it when you do. Nice work though, seriously – being as positive about it as possible, making the right move and still kicking butt in the process. You are one tough SOB and you’re just barely getting started. Can’t wait to see what you do next. Best of luck in you recovery.

    Reply
    • ryan lange

      Thank you Heather. It is certainly forcing me to become a smarter runner which may be a good thing long term. I just found out I tore my peroneal tendons. Going to have the feet up and ice for 6 weeks. Then I’ll be back…!

      Reply
  • Patty

    Good Morning , Ryan!
    You are setting the bar mighty high for other athletes. I know that the DNF is upsetting, but, being the true champion you are, you turned it into a huge victory because you chose to reflect and learn from your mistakes. You are channeling your ” angry energy” into fiery motivation. That is the mark of a champion!!!
    Be well. Be safe. Be smart. Have fun!!

    Reply

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