Eight Lessons From My First DNF: A Very Belated Leona Divide 50 Race Report

By Crista Tappan - July 15, 2015

"Racing is pain, and that's why you do it. To challenge yourself and the limits of your physical and mental barriers. You don't experience that in an armchair watching television." -Mark Allen

Lesson #1: Sometimes races go as planned; more often than not, however, the unexpected happens.

- Laz, Founder of the Barkely Marathons.

Leona Divide was the first race I ever signed up for that I didn't really know if I could finish.

The race entry fell right into my lap and it was one of those situations where you kind of just shrug your shoulders and said, "Why not?"

Fifty miles. Over 10K feet of elevation gain. Notoriously hot and exposed.

But it wasn't impossible. In fact, it was very possible that with the right amount of training I could pull it off.

Part of me was absolutely terrified of what it would feel like to run fifty miles, and the other part of me was absolutely determined to do everything I could to finish the race. Even if it meant suffering.

I had been running ultras for almost three years and had yet to take the leap from 50K to 50 miles, which is where many would consider the true shift from marathons to ultramarathons. I knew it was my time to try.

I asked my boyfriend Peter to write me a training plan, and for three months I fell into a black hole of training and learning everything I could about the race. 

Trail and ultra runners are a unique breed. We can try and prepare ourselves by analyzing course maps and elevation profiles. We can stalk the weather forecast a month in advance and read race reports from the previous years. We can try to imagine ourselves running each section of the trail, guess what kind of gel flavors we might like at that time and what emergency gear we might need to carry in our packs. We can nail down every little detail until it's almost a science, and then have it slip through our fingers from something we never anticipated. Racing is in many ways a gamble, and part of the game is accepting that there are far more factors that we cannot control than those which we can.

I was ready to see what hand unfolded in front of me.

I stepped up to the starting line of Leona telling myself something I'd never said before (with the exception of running a 5K):
Run as hard as you can, the entire time.

This approach was a huge risk.

Most seasoned ultramarathoners will tell you to run the first half of your race conservatively and the second is when you give it your all. This is also scientifically proven to be a successful race strategy for performance.

Leona Divide was a different type of race. It had strict cut-offs, huge climbs during the first half of the race, and the temperatures were unpredictable at best.

There were two main factors pushing me to run hard and abandon my previous approach to racing: 1) The heat, and 2) Cut-off times.

I knew that I had to finish as many miles as possible while it was still in the cool early morning. It seemed like a logical choice when dealing with a race where the temperatures could become scorching by mid-day.

My second goal was to finish as many miles as I could so I wasn't chasing cut-off times during the heat of the day.

The morning of the race, I was ready to see what the day would bring.

Lesson #2: Stay consistent with your hydration and nutrition throughout your entire race.

Nine miles of beautiful single-track running down a mountainside = paradise!

The first half of my race was glorious, and it flew by in blur of early morning sunrises over the landscape and beautiful mountains.

I was running as fast as I could and pushing my body hard. I felt focused and excited for the day ahead of me.
Stoked on life and jumping for joy around the 8-mile mark. Photo by Michelle Evans.
Michelle captures my best sides, always. Feeling pretty silly at mile 8.
Peter, along with two of my good friends Tyler Clemens and Michelle Evans were able to crew for me at three locations. I was so appreciative of having them there, and knowing they were at each aid station gave me the motivation to push myself. The next thing I knew, I was heading towards the mile 18 aid station.

When I finally made it to the aid station, I was over an hour ahead of the cut-offs and I was feeling great. 

I spotted Peter and made my way over to him, smiling from ear to ear and proud of getting there so quick.

He took off my pack and pulled out the bladder to fill it up. It was still more than half full. He had filled it up over nine miles prior, and by the time I made it to the aid station, it should have been empty.

"You haven't been drinking enough!" He said. I could hear the concern in his voice.

I stared at the bladder, realizing that in my joy of running fast through the first eighteen miles of the course, I had completely forgotten about my hydration and nutrition. In my head, it seemed like I was being good about drinking often enough and taking in gels. Having a bladder on your back and out of eye-sight, however, made it harder for me to gauge than the handhelds I was used to.

He then inspected the two front pockets of the pack and pulled out only two empty gels. The rest were unused.

I knew immediately that I had fucked up big time.

I made a face as him that said, I know what you're about to say to me...

"You're not eating enough either....dude!" 

The next look on his face said, You better hope you're not already too far into a caloric deficit. 

I had the biggest climb of the day ahead of me, and I swallowed hard, knowing that a seemingly small mistake could end up costing me my race.

He began to stuff more gels into the front pockets, and handed me another few to hold.

My pack was overflowing and I frowned at it, knowing that forcing myself to consume a large amount of calories at one time would be hard on my body.

"I'll focus on eating and drinking the whole way up," I told him.

I opened a package of gummy bears and started shoving them in my mouth.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

I chewed hard, and the taste of the sugar made me feel queasy.


Peter put my full pack back on, and it felt ridiculously heavy on my back.


I looked at the mountain ahead of me. I had some serious climbing to do.

My friend Naomi was leaving the aid station, and knowing I do better with company, I hurried to catch up with her.

When I reached her, I saw that she also had several gels in her hands, and was quickly eating while eyeing the mountain ahead of us.

"Eating is sometimes the hardest part," Naomi said. "But you just gotta do it."

Too busy trying to figure out where to stuff my gels to realize that Michelle was taking a photo....

Lesson #3: You don't have time for too much shit. Literally and figuratively. 

The sun was almost completely overhead as Naomi and I made our way up the side of the mountain. 

After a few miles, I started to have a hard time keeping up with her. My calves were cramping and the heat was starting to make me feel light-headed.

Peter had put a bandana filled with ice around my neck and I cradled it against my face.

The sun was completely overhead and I felt like I was inside of an oven that was slowly heating up.

The gels and watermelon I had gorged myself on at the aid station were starting to turn my stomach.

Cramp. Churn. 

I wished I had some Tums.

Cramp. Double-churn.

I wished I had Pepto-Bismol.

I wished I had anything to spare me the discomfort of having my bowels go at war against themselves.

"Go ahead without me, I need to uh, use a bush," I told Naomi. "I'll catch up with you."

She gave me a look of concern and nodded, continuing on up the trail. 

immediately started looking for a nearby bush. 

Not looking where I was stepping, I accidentally walked directly into a patch of foxtails. Dozens of the little sharp fuckers embedded themselves into my socks and I knew I would have to pull them out before doing anything else. Instead of fussing with them, I took the socks off, and hoped that I wouldn't get any blisters between then and the next aid station. I wished I had put an extra pair of socks into my pack. Another lesson learned.

I spent about twenty minutes huddled behind a bush, clutching my stomach in agony. Every second felt like an eternity under the hot sun, and my legs hurt from crouching down.

I don't have time for this shit.

After spending so much time on the side of the trail, when I finally started back up the mountain, I felt pretty disoriented.

I stopped looking at my watch and decided to tackle the mountain as safely as possible.

My legs felt unsteady and I was slow.

I was pushing myself as hard as I could, yet I moved at a snails pace.

I was able to drink water but every time I ate a gel or a piece of a shot block, my stomach turned. I did my best to take in calories, but I knew that I was way, way under what I should have been eating for how hard I was climbing.

As I neared the top of the climb, I spotted a couple of runners sitting on the side of the trail. They had their heads against their knees and they looked wrecked.

"You guys okay?" I asked as I made my way up to them. "Do you need any gels or anything?"

One woman looked up, slightly annoyed. "I'm fine." she said. Her face was bright red and flushed. She looked anything but fine.

"Good luck," I said with a small smile, and continued on. 

Lesson #4: Having a crew comprised of your significant other and best friends is really, really awesome. 

When I was almost to the top of the climb, I saw two figures standing at the trailhead. I still had another three miles until the next aid station, and wondered who they were.

As I made my way closer, I saw that it was Peter and Tyler, looking out over the valley. They each had a beer in hand and I was insanely jealous.

Normally, I would go up and take one of their beers, cherishing a few sips as a reward for such a climb.

Instead, the very idea of beer made my stomach do one of those "I'm warning you" rumbles and I pushed the thought out of my mind.

"You guys are such dirtbags," I said as I walked up. It made me so happy to see them a few miles early on the trail. 

"We decided we wanted to drink a beer at the top of the mountain and wait for you!" Peter said. 

Tyler grinned. "How was that climb?"

"Brutal," I said. "I spent twenty minutes behind a bush wanting to die. I think the watermelon I ate at the last aid station went right through me."

Peter looked concerned.

Tyler looked down at my feet and saw that I had taken off my socks.

"You didn't use your socks to..." He started. I knew what he was thinking.

"No! I got them covered in thorns when I was trying to get to the bush," I said. "I had TP."

"My legs feel trashed, and I'm having a hard time taking in gels," I told Peter as we headed back down the side of the mountain. We had three miles until the next aid station. I was starting to lose my ability to form complete thoughts.

I knew I was heading into the danger zone. 

It was probably pretty obvious how wrecked I already was, because Peter told me that him and Tyler were going to run ahead and get things ready for me at the aid station. They knew they were going to have to do some damage control.

I was a little bummed to lose their company on the run down, but I knew I needed to get in and out of the aid station as fast as possible. 

I watched them run quickly down the mountain, beers still in hand.

It was in that moment that I really appreciated having a boyfriend who is also an ultrarunner, and such amazingly supportive friends who were willing to give up their Saturday afternoon to crew for me. I also appreciated that they were trail running with beers, and somehow managed to not spill anything as I watched them run down the trail. 

During the race, Peter, Tyler and Michelle became lights at the end of the tunnel, pulling me forward and motivating me to push harder. It was emotionally rejuvenating to be supported by the people I loved. All I could think to myself over and over was, I'm so damn lucky.

The dirtbag royal treatment. Photo by Michelle Evans.

When I reached the mile 26 aid station, Peter had a chair out and a re-filled another ice bandana for me. My friend Jack had a giant liter of soda waiting and Tyler had a fresh new pair of socks for me. I was starting to feel pretty terrible and this was easily the best part of the entire race for me. Kara came over with her dog Molly and I literally could have lived in that moment forever.

Kara and Molly giving me some encouragement at mile 26. Photo by Michelle Evans.

"This is quite the dirtbag royal treatment," I told my crew.

I saw Naomi and my other friend Jen heading up the trail, and figured I was on a pretty good pace so far. I relaxed a little into the chair a bit and allowed myself the time to re-energize.

After a few more minutes of aid station bliss, my friend Derek walked up. "You gotta get out of here, girl!" He said, pointing to his watch. "You have an hour and fifteen minutes to get to the next aid station!"

It was like a giant adrenaline rush.

"Shit!" I said, and stood up immediately. "Shit! Shit! Shit!"

I looked at my watch and did some quick mental math-- I knew I was in serious, serious trouble.

Peter put my full hydration pack on and again, stuffed the pockets full of gels.

I stood in place, afraid to move. I didn't want to leave my crew and I knew this was my make-it-or-break-it moment.

"You got this, dude," Peter told me, with both hands on my shoulders. I nodded, and kissed him goodbye.

I gave my friends a thumbs-up and made my way back on the trail. 

Lesson #5: The race often begins when you have hit your physical limit. This is when you learn to run with your heart. 

"This is it," I thought to myself. 

I was a mile and a half out from the last aid station, sizing up the climb ahead of me. 

The trail twisted and curved it’s way up and over the top of a small mountain. 

It was nothing compared to what I had already climbed. Yet somehow, it looked like of the largest mountains I'd ever laid eyes on. I had less than an hour to run four miles up and over the other side to make it to the next aid station cut-off. I knew that climbing over 2K feet of vert in less than fifteen minute miles would be a challenge on fresh legs.

My legs were anything but fresh.

In the mile and a half I had ran since the last aid station, I had gone from feeling pretty shitty to feeling the worst I'd ever felt during a run. I regretted fully filling my 2-liter hydration pack. It felt like it weighed twenty pounds and my body struggled against the extra weight. I tried to drink as much water as I could but my stomach turned every time I took a sip. The muscles in my legs were beginning to cramp again and my hips strained with each step.

I willed myself up the trail as fast as I could go.

It was like I was running up a sand hill. Each step seemed to take me nowhere, and oftentimes, I felt like I was being pulled backwards. Frustration boiled inside of my mind, clouding my judgement.

I was losing my ability to focus, drifting between the edges of my own sanity and the trail. I was suddenly afraid of being alone. Fear was creeping up on me quietly, slinking in around my mind like a snake on it’s sleeping victim. What if I passed out on the side of the trail? Had I pushed myself too hard? Could I still make the next cut-off in time? 

Could I will myself to simply stop hurting and run at top speed up this mountain? Could I mentally pull myself out of feeling like I was literally falling apart?

The miles passed, and I remember nothing but a mixture of rocks and dirt and dry air and sun. My ice bandana had completely melted and dried. My lips were cracked and I felt like I was on a dead-end journey into the middle of the Sahara Desert.

My heartbeat was like a drum in my head, and I could feel the beads of sweat running down my temples. The heat was dizzying.

Dirt and rocks and sun and footsteps. 

A view of the valley opened up in front of me and I realized that the climb was over.

I was completely blown away by the beauty of the landscape. I was elated that I could run downhill for a little bit. I felt my legs come back to me, just a little bit.

For a few glorious minutes, I let gravity pull my body down the side of the trail. I ran with complete joy and a belief that I would make it to the next aid station in time. 

As I rounded a corner, I glanced down at my watch.

It felt like a punch to the stomach.

I was a mile and a half away from the aid station when my watch read 2:30PM, the last cutoff. The shock was like a punch in the stomach, and I stopped running completely. 

I swayed in place, reeling in waves of disappointment. I didn't know what to do.

My legs were suddenly unable to keep me upright, and I quickly sat down onto a large rock on the side of the trail. The tears fell down my face and there was nothing I could do to stop them. My body shook and I fell completely apart. 

Lesson #6: Sometimes you just have to cry it out.

The first time someone told me that they cried during a run, I couldn't fathom it.

Sure, I had hard runs before, but they never made me want to cry. Running was my source of joy. Running made me happy. I never connected crying and running.

Yet there I was, crying on the side of the trail and there was absolutely nothing I could do to stop it. 

It’s just a race. I reasoned with myself. This was not your day. It doesn’t mean it won’t happen in the future.

The tears continued, and my body shook.

You will train harder next time. This will be the last time you ever DNF a race.

I struggled to pull myself together.

And then, I heard footsteps approaching.

Oh god.

I took a deep breath, preparing myself for the embarrassment of having someone see me sitting in the dirt and sobbing like a child. I squinted in the sunlight and saw that it was my friend and veteran of the sport,  Larry Gassan. I felt overwhelmed with gratitude in seeing the first familiar face in over an hour. The comfort of having someone I knew with me on the trail was like having a warm blanket wrapped around me.

Known for his quick musings about life and satirical, off-handed sense of humor, I braced myself to be the butt of a joke. I knew I must have looked a little ridiculous.  

Nine times out of ten, Larry would have made fun of me for sitting in the dirt and crying. That day, however, he looked to be in a comparable state of misery. I felt bad for him, knowing he was also probably feeling like shit, but I was also kind of relieved. If Larry was having a bad day, that mean't that I wasn't completely being unreasonable about having one, too. Misery loves company (sorry, Larry!).

He paused when he reached me. His face was washed with an expression that said, I know exactly how you feel. 

I wasn't used to Sensitive Larry, but I sure as hell appreciated it at that moment.

We didn't need words, our exchange of glances said it all.

The day was so much harder than we both had anticipated. The sun was hotter, the climbs were undeniably more challenging. The miles were not forgiving, and neither were the cut-off times.

We stood for another few moments in silence, surveying the rest of the course ahead of us, until I finally spoke.

“I wanted this so bad, Larry,” said quietly, pushing a rock in the dirt around with my foot. 

“We both did, Darlin’,” he said. 

He looked down at the valley below us and towards the direction of the finish line.

"We still have another six miles to get to the finish," He said.

He pulled his handheld out of his pack and took a long drink.

“You know,” He added, “I’m not a bit sorry that we won’t have to do that very last climb. Come on, let's get our asses to the finish line," He said.

I stood up and mentally and figuratively brushed myself off.

"Okay," I said, feeling slightly more pulled together. "Let's do this."

We continued down the trail, and distracted ourselves by exchanging opinions on everything from race directing, to shoe choices, to what it was like being raised by parents who lived through the Great Depression. Although I was still reeling in disappointment, my spirit felt lifted from having Larry to run with.

When we made it to the aid station, we sat down in two camping chairs, savoring a moment of peace. We still had another five miles to go.

"It's kind of insult to injury that we miss the cut-offs and still have to run over five miles to the finish," I said, eyeing a piece of fruit on the aid station table.

Larry nodded, with a look that said you're fucking right it is.

An aid station volunteer walked up to us and wrote our numbers down. 

"You'll be continuing on to the finish from here," She said to me. "You're passed the cut-off time."

"Okay," I said, as if I didn't already know. 

Larry handed me a slice of watermelon with his pocket knife.

I ate it slowly.

Everything was going to be okay.

Lesson #7: Define your success based on your effort rather than your finishing time or mileage.

Exhausted and happy to be at the finish line. Photo by Michelle Evans.

The one silver lining of missing the last cut-off was knowing, deep down, that if I had more time,  I could have finished the distance. I simply couldn't do it fast enough. 

I crossed the finish line of Leona Divide a strange mess of emotions. I wanted to run through the finish line at mile 50, not 36. I wanted to run through with a smile on my face, proud of the hard work I had put in.

Instead, I found myself crossing the finish line, completely dreading the moment that I would have to tell Peter, Michelle and Tyler that I didn't make it.  

My eyes found Peter standing in a group a little bit past the finish line. Michelle and Tyler looked over, and giant smiles spread across their faces.

"Good job, dude!" Peter said, giving me a high-five before I had a chance to say anything.

"I didn't finish," I said quietly and looked down at my feet.

"You still ran a really hard thirty-six miles!" He said. "You did a good job today."

I looked him in the eyes for a long moment.

I wanted to believe him.

A woman appeared next to me with a finishers medal. 

"But I didn't..." I started to say, and she ignored me, placing it around my neck anyway.

She congratulated me for finishing.

She didn't know that I didn't finish the whole distance, and it was then that I realized that it didn't matter.

I had literally just ran the hardest race of my entire life. I had pushed myself harder than I ever had before. I had given the race absolutely everything in me. And most importantly, I didn't give up. 

"That was so hard," I told Peter, bracing my hands against my knees for a moment.

He wrapped his arms around me and kissed me, reminding me again that I had done a good job.

Michelle chimed in,"Dude, lots of people didn't make the cut-off. It was a brutal day out there. You gave it your all and you should be proud of yourself!"

I also realized then that I was the only one disappointed in myself. Not a single person around me told me I should have tried harder or that I was a failure. In fact, as everyone was more or less congratulating me for a hard day's work on the trails. 

They were right.

I found Naomi and congratulated her on her finish. She smiled ear to ear, and then told me that she also got cut-off. 

"It's okay," She said, still smiling. "It just wasn't my day!"

Her ease and acceptance of missing the cut-offs amazed me. I knew she had a lot of experience as an ultrarunner, and it made me feel better to know that I was not the only one to not make the final cut-off time. 

We took a photo, and I began to feel my spirit lifted.

Naomi Ruiz and I at the finish line.

We had a pretty beautiful sunset to watch through the trees at the finish line.

So I did what any other ultrarunner who just finished the hardest race of their life would do--I cracked open a beer and sat down in a chair at the finish line with my crew.

It was wonderful. 

Lesson #8: Your first DNF will be painful, but you will survive. And, probably learn some very important lessons from it.

For many of us, the sting of the first D.N.F. in a race is particularly painful. We all know it is bound to happen sooner or later, yet somehow, when it actually happens, it's hard to not feel crushed and defeated. It took me a shockingly long amount of time to understand that I was the single limiting factor in moving on from the negative aspects of the experience and moving towards growth and understanding. Yeah, a DNF sucks but at the end of the day, it's really not that big of a deal. Beginners DNF. Middle-of-the-packers DNF. Pros DNF. It happens to almost anyone, unless your name is Kilian Jornet. 

As athletes, it is inevitable that we will go through periods of injury and set-back. Even though it may be challenging to find the lessons in difficult or disappointing situations, there is always a choice. Sometimes the lessons are big and hurt and sting and take weeks to fully process or understand. Sometimes the lessons are small and feel better after a few days of healing and a little bit of Neosporin. Either way, there is value to each experience.

Here is a reality: Ten miles is far. Fifty miles is far. Two hundred miles is really far. The first mile you've ran after a long break from running (or never having ran before) is really, really far. Too many runners (myself included) tend to make racing into an all-or-nothing gamble: you either win or you lose, there is no grey area. This is unfortunate because at the end of the day, simply being able to run is a gift and we should never take that for granted. All of the training you put in for a race where you DNF-ed can be channeled into another race in the future. Training and racing is like building a house from the ground up, rather than building castles in the sky. We need not shoot down our progress simply because we didn't achieve one of our goals.

Another important thing to remember: There will always be more races. New goals. Bigger sights and bigger mountains. Accept that fact and the fear of failing becomes much less disheartening. Failing becomes a part of the process. Failing paves the road to your future victories. 

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  1. The extra time you took to put this into writing this was worth it Crista! A great story that reminded me of the value of reaching for goals out of my comfort zone. You will rock Javelina! :-)

  2. Some people pride themselves on never having a DNF. The way I look at it, if you've never had a DNF you haven't tested your limits. The lessons you learned from this race will help you be better prepared for other big challenges.

  3. I never mock people having a bad day in an aid-station. Sooner or later, you'll be one of them. However, I will lampoon smugness.

  4. This is beyond classic. Helpful. Educational. Inspiring. Thanks for taking the time and for sharing.

  5. This is beyond classic. Helpful. Educational. Inspiring. Thanks for taking the time and for sharing.

  6. I really enjoyed this. Thank you so much for sharing. I am truly inspired by you!

  7. Great write-up Crista. It happens to all of us. If we can learn from it, we become better.

  8. Thanks for sharing! I needed to hear this after my first try at an ultra and now have my first DNF.

  9. I really loved reading this Crista! It was so well written and so inspiring! You're pretty fab!

  10. Well written, thanks for sharing.

  11. Good job...I was 2-3 miles ahead of you and managed to make the cutoff but by 15 mins. You did great getting what you did done. I was a long hot day in the hills!