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The Curious Case of 7 Ultramarathon DNFs

dnfs

I started running about 16 years ago, and my first race was Delhi Half Marathon on September 15, 2006. Five years later, I ran my ultramarathon and continued running only ultras thereafter. Long distances gave me peace and solitude. There was no hurry to finish a run under two hours and I could afford to go slow, just enough so I could enjoy the landscape and still finish. There was a sense of accomplishment in being on the trails. I would die multiple times, yet would feel immortal. However, the last time I actually finished an ultramarathon was four years ago, and since then, I have had seven DNFs, back to back, from distances ranging from 50 km to 250 miles. I trained for months for these races, however, I barely made it to halfway mark for nearly all of them, including that 50 km! So, question had to be asked – what is going in? Had I gone physically so incapable? Now I’m coming to terms with the fact that it was beyond perceived physical limitations.

About six months ago, after struggling for what felt like a lifetime, I reached out to my Physician and opened up about my mental health while seeking help. I was diagnosed with clinical anxiety and depression back in 2017 and started seeing a clinical psychologist, although briefly, immediately after I made a failed attempt to potentially kill myself. However, he soon passed away following illness, and I never had courage to reach out to seek help again. It was too painful of a process. What did I do to cope up? I started running on trails, mostly in nights, so I do not see another human. To fill the void of this limited human interaction, I started telling stories! (Yes, that’s the original reason why I did what I did). And then, pandemic happened, everything was shut down, I grabbed a bunch of injuries and moved to a locked down Norway exactly two years ago! In this time, I continued telling stories online for about a year, but then talking to my camera got exhausting, so I gave up and never did it again, barring a few exceptions where I was told to do.

Today, while talking to my therapist, she asked, “When we talk of your behavioral changes, you said it started to get worse about 4-5 years ago. Can you tell, how has your ability to deal with triggers changed along this time?”

While answering to this question, as I explained how I have lost the mental resilience to deal with the spiral of negative meta-beliefs, and I would soon be lost in my head without even trying, I was shocked when I heard myself say it! Later, in my office, with a heavy heart, I picked a marker and drew a chart of triggers and my escape mechanisms. Parallel to that, I drew a timeline of intensity. And next to that, I started listing my race DNFs. In all the seven ultras, I was mentally lost while standing at the Start line. On all seven occasions, question was not if I will quit, question was “when”? Now when I look back, I wanted to quit each of those races before I even started. I can recall wanting to write an email to race directors before the start of each race to check if I could defer or cancel my registration with refund! 

I would happily start the race with the new and old friends, would fight the mental battle all the way until the burden of my expectations and worries of what all could go wrong, what all has not gone right, how I am the most ridiculous runner on the field, would overpower and without providing any resilience, I would quit.

It hurt the first time, it did hurt the second, but then it became a part of my behavior. There was no fortitude. In these mental struggles, often I would either injure myself, or make fatal mistakes under brain fog. In 2022, I pulled out of each of the race I signed up for; not because I was injured, because I had no capacity to deal with the anxiety of the race, something I always loved! Escaping even mildly uncomfortable situations became the new behavior and uncertainties started scaring me. A peaceful DNS became much more comfortable as I didn’t have to fight even for a second. I am registered for another race in October, but I know, I won’t show up! I have Rovaniemi 150 coming up in February that I’d been waiting for years now. The registrations are yet to open! If I do end up sending my application, that may be the first test of all the resilience can I develop in the rest of 2022 and start chasing my dreams again. However, I’m no hurry to return. 

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