Gorichanaz, T. (2020). ‘Did Not Finish’: A Phenomenology of Failure. Sport, Ethics and Philosophy.

Abstract. This paper explores what it means to fail in an ultramarathon---be marked DNF, or Did Not Finish---through hermeneutic phenomenology. In today's popular culture, failure holds a paradoxical position: Particularly in the "startup" ethos, failure is touted as a good, but only because it brings one closer to success. On a Heideggerian perspective, this is an inauthentic understanding of failure. This paper proposes that sport, and specifically ultrarunning, is a site for an authentic understanding of failure---and, consonantly, success. The notion of death is a major consideration: Though death is often described as a kind of failure, it is better understood phenomenologically as that which reveals and focuses one's authentic possibilities for success. Failure, on the other hand, is a cutting-off of possibility. Three types of DNF can be discerned, corresponding to a cutting-off in the past, present and future, respectively. In ultrarunning, an athlete exists as being-toward-death, and finishing belongs to the athlete as part of their self and world. When a DNF happens, an athlete is suddenly rendered incomplete, worldless. This is a jarring, painful experience, from which it takes time and effort, and a reconstruction of self, to recover.

Running, I took it easy. I walked up all the hills from the start, and I chatted with the runners around me. The farthest I'd ever run before was 50 miles. I couldn't quite fathom going twice that today, but here I was. I tried not to think about it.

Around mile 25, it really hit me: I'd been running for over five hours and I was nowhere near done. But I was tired already. My eyes were burning. I felt a little seasick, and it was hot and humid. I remembered what someone had told me: It doesn't even start until mile 50. Could I really be so beat already and yet not even have started? I contemplated dropping out at that point, but I decided to keep going. Things weren't that bad.

I fell into step with a guy about my age, and we talked for a few hours. When you meet people on the trail, your conversations go deep fast: anxieties, life purpose, love, death... At an aid station we got disconnected, and then I was by myself for a long stretch. Feeling lonely, I tried listening to an audiobook, but it was too much to pay attention to. I switched to music---I put a Kanye West song on repeat, and that kept me going for a few hours. I checked behind me frequently and pulled out the headphones any time I encountered another runner. Usually we exchanged a few words. "Good work," we told each other. "Looking strong." But moving was getting harder. More and more, all I could do was walk. The idea of dropping out kept returning. This was a dumb thing to be doing, anyway. What was the point of all this? I could end it right now---it would be so easy. But I kept moving forward, my skin crusted with salt.

When I got to the mile 43 aid station, my mom and our friends were there hanging out. It was encouraging to see them, and I left the aid station with renewed vigor. A few miles later my quads started cramping up, and intermittently the rest of my legs were beginning to seize. A woman passed me. "Keep it up," she said. "You're doing better than you think." But things got progressively worse. Before, my energy came and went; now it only went. By mile 47, I was resigned to walking, all alone in the dwindling daylight. My quads consumed my attention. Now even my calves were shouting from time to time. To make things worse, it was raining now, and it was forecast to continue through the night.

I was still walking as I crested the red dirt hill leading to the 50-mile mark, but my step was different now. My shoulders were hunched, my feet shuffling. The cramping hadn't gotten worse, but it hadn't gotten better, either. For hours I'd had a low-level nausea, but now my stomach was throbbing. I was done. I knew I was done. There was no way I could keep going like this, cover that whole distance again. And anyway, it was only March. If I tried to keep going and completely destroyed myself, what would that do to the rest of the season? I'd been dreaming of training for speed this summer and qualifying for the Boston Marathon in the fall. Even if I could possibly finish this 100 by running myself into the ground, the rest of the year would be gone. And I hadn't put in enough training, anyway; I'd been injured over the winter. Who was I to try to run 100 miles with little training and an injury? Respect the distance---that's rule number one. I was fully justified in taking a DNF, I told myself. At least I started.

At the aid station, I found the race director and told him I was finished. Like a good race director, he tried encouraging me: "But it's only been 12 hours. Very few people can go 50 miles in 12 hours and be looking as strong as you do." He advised me to walk to the next aid station, to not even try to run, that everyone has dark patches in their 100-mile races---that, heck, I could even walk from now on and probably still finish by the 30-hour cutoff. This went on for some time, but my mind was made up. It was my first DNF.

The next morning I went into the shared cabin kitchen to make coffee. The race director was there chatting with the woman who had passed me around mile 47. She had gone on to finish in 27 hours. We talked about how our legs were sore. But my soreness and her soreness, I was sure, were very different. I wondered then if I had made the wrong choice. Whereas yesterday I was sure of my decision, now I was disappointed that I'd given up. My legs were not that sore. I could have finished, but I let myself down. I let my family down, too. Why did I do that? If I couldn't finish this, what could I finish? My Ph.D., for example, was that doomed to fail, too? A grayness set over me then, and it followed me home. My life felt flat, lacking any highs or lows, and disconnected, like my efforts had no purpose. This feeling persisted until I signed up for another race---my next attempt at the 100 mile distance.


Ultramarathons come in many shapes and sizes, but they all share the characteristic of being longer than a marathon, which is 26.2 miles. Ultramarathons often take place on mountainous backcountry trails, but they can just as easily take place in cities or on high school tracks. The shortest ultramarathons last only a few hours, while the longest can stretch on for days.

No matter the formulation, ultrarunning is a grueling sport. In races of shorter distances, often the question is who comes in first, or what a particular person's finish time was. In ultramarathons, the bigger question is who will even finish. Even elite runners---the best prepared among us---do not take it for granted that they will complete any given event (Jurek 2012). In a typical race of 100 miles, the cardinal ultramarathon distance, anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of the runners drop out, failing to complete the distance.1 In ultrarunning jargon, this is called DNF---Did Not Finish.

A spectator or volunteer at an ultramarathon can expect to see any number of DNFs: an athlete sitting back in a camp chair, totally still except for leg spasms every so often, their shadowy eyes staring off into the distance; men and women hunched over a picnic table in the dead of night, covered in mud and scratches, sobbing into their palms; runners reduced to a slow limp, sometimes carrying on for hours before deciding to give up, or having the decision made for them by a medic; and other athletes who by all accounts look perfectly well but who sit down and do not get back up. Over the years, I have borne witness to any number of DNFs. And for my part, I have DNFed four times so far at the 100-mile distance.

DNFs are intense moments in human life, yet ultrarunners seem quick to wave them away. In ultrarunning discourse (blogs, magazine articles, podcasts, folk wisdom, etc.), discussions focus on reinterpreting the outcomes of DNFs in a positive light, rather than understanding the emotional depth of the experiences. For example, says ultrarunner and podcaster Davy Crockett: "I believe runners should embrace DNFs. Instead of considering them as failures, they should analyze the experience and find helpful lessons to be learned from them" (Crockett 2014, para. 3, emphasis his). In like manner, Miriam Diaz-Gilbert (2016) writes, "A DNF is not a failure."

I would suggest that such denials of failure stem from our "culture of success," in which failure is linked to negative self-worth; when someone experiences a failure, they tend to think they themselves are a failure. To be sure, learning from one's failures is well and good. But it is much easier said than done. And to that end, simply denying the existence of a failure may not be the best path forward. Rather, we should seek to understand failure in the first place. Thus, I would contend that learning from a DNF can be made easier if we first understand what a DNF is---including what types of DNFs there are, how they come about, what they are like, and what they mean.

Though one might suppose a DNF can be understood by analyzing heart-rate and pace data and by watching an athlete from the outside, a DNF also entails beliefs, feelings, perceptions, etc. (Hauw et al. 2017; Hutchinson 2018), which can only be apprehended from the first-person perspective, and so an answer to the question of what a DNF is must take the first-person perspective into account. It is thus a phenomenological question, one that can be addressed with Martin Heidegger's hermeneutic phenomenology. For Heidegger (1927/2010, §7), phenomenology is the letting-be-seen (logos) of that which shows itself in itself (phenomenon) but which is normally veiled; it is a method for the investigation of lived experiences from the first-person perspective in terms of their structure (qualities and forms) and meaning (how they are situated in the world and contribute to understanding). In Heidegger's method, phenomenology begins with the everyday conceptions and cultural discourses that veil the phenomenon of interest, and it proceeds to uncover the phenomenon through interpretation in search of its underlying conditions for possibility, or transcendent truth. As a phenomenological exploration, this paper examines the nature of the experience of DNF, and its meaning and structure for people as they DNF.

The discussion in this paper draws primarily on Heidegger's (2010) analytic of Dasein,2 or being-in-the-world. Heidegger proposes a theory of valence for the modes in which Dasein can exist. Dasein can be authentic on one hand, or fallen (inauthentic) on the other. Authentically, Dasein lives as its own self, taking personal responsibility for making choices in light of its own past, present and future; inauthentically, Dasein lets choices be made for it by the anonymous "they" of society.3 Heidegger says that humans tend toward inauthenticity, what he calls Dasein's fallenness. We are for the most part absorbed by the current of social norms, and we engage in idle talk, ambiguity and distraction. Our task, then, is to rise up to our authentic selves, to take responsibility for our choices and who we are, a way of being characterized by genuine understanding of our situation. I suggest that ultrarunning is an exemplary site for authenticity. While in many realms of life, the they can have a pernicious, subtle influence, compelling inauthenticity, in ultrarunning the they has much less of an opening. The they is dispelled by an ultrarunner's commitment to their choice to run. Throughout this paper, I will argue that ultrarunning keeps one's own limits and contingency in view, promoting authenticity. Of particular interest here is how the DNF fits into that process.

This paper focuses on failure in ultrarunning, but it holds lessons about failure in human life more generally. Famed ultrarunner Ann Trason has said, "I've always just looked at 100 miles as life in a day. You have all the trials and tribulations of a life in one day" (Trason and Strout 2015, para. 8). A complete analysis of this claim is outside the scope of this paper, but some preliminary remarks may be welcome. Indeed, prima facie, an ultramarathon contains many aspects of life in microcosm: intense emotional highs and lows; times of being alone, and possibly lonely; periods of togetherness, even friendship, community and service; moments of gritty struggle; and of course times when things come easily. To consider this more systematically, we can examine ultrarunning as Dasein; for Heidegger (2010), Dasein entails, among other things, being thrown into existence (§29) and manifesting care about and for other things in the world (§41). These phenomenological dimensions are evidenced in ultramarathon running (perhaps obviously, as ultrarunning is not separate from life). To speak of care, for example, ultrarunners are engaged in the project of finishing the race, which is accomplished through any number of smaller projects along the way (e.g., making it to the next aid station, dealing with a blister), and ultrarunners are often concerned about each other (e.g., offering water, advice, etc., to those who look down and out). More interestingly, in thrownness the race in a sense becomes one's entire life, as one's stimulus field is narrowed in the flow state (Csikszentmihalyi 2000). As Michael Novak writes of sports in general, "A game tests considerably more than talent. A game tests, somehow, one's entire life" (Novak 1994, p. 47).

The journey of an ultramarathon, then, might serve as a metaphor for the journey of life. A corollary of this is that lessons learned on the trail can be useful to a person elsewhere. In empirical, phenomenological research on ultrarunners, this has come up time and again (Gorichanaz 2017b). At the individual level, overcoming the myriad obstacles in a 100-mile race prepares one psychically to face other challenges as well. For my own part, I have found myself saying on many occasions, "I know I can do this, because I've done something much harder before." More broadly, it has been argued that athletic pursuits can be socially useful and educational (Reid 2009; Skillen 1998), and even part of the foundation of human culture writ large (Pieper 1952; Taylor 1998). So if ultrarunning may be considered life in microcosm, then we might consider the consummate failure in ultrarunning, the DNF, for the lessons it holds for human failure in general.

Failure misunderstood

A phenomenological investigation should begin with the established discourse (Heidegger 2010, §4). As such, a study of the lived structure of failure in ultrarunning can begin with how failure has been framed in popular culture. In recent years, failure has been celebrated as an unalloyed positive in the business world---more precisely, in "Silicon Valley" culture---a trend dubbed a "failure fetish" (Altman 2013). The sitcom Silicon Valley poked fun at this when CEO Gavin Belson presented a PowerPoint slide that read: "Failure = Success" (Aniobi & Berg 2015).

Among the problems of fetishizing failure, first and most obvious is that the experience of failure can be painful and even outright devastating---a source of real harm. Moreover, failure does not automatically lead to positive outcomes, nor can all failures be construed in positive terms. And repeated failures, even "successful" ones, can levy a "psychic toll" (Carroll 2014). The fetishization of failure may even be detrimental in the long run; venture capitalist Robert Hatta (2017), for instance, has discussed the mounting hidden costs of Silicon Valley's culture of failure. Lastly, the idea that failure should be taken as a goal unto itself is contradictory; if we try to do something (even if it be to "fail") and we do that something, then we have succeeded, not failed.

To be sure, framing failure as a kind of success is useful to some extent. Insomuch as we are open to failing, we are willing to try, which often is better than not trying. (In ultrarunning culture, a DNF is far more acceptable than a DNS---Did Not Start.) But as the reservations of Altman (2013) and Hatta (2017), inter alia, make clear, the dominant view is somewhat naive. It masks the real meaning of failure. As such, what we might call Silicon Valley failure constitutes an inauthentic understanding of failure---failure in the eyes of the they. One purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that deeper insight into the phenomenon of failure can be found in sport, specifically ultrarunning, suggesting that sport is a challenge to inauthenticity.

Consonantly, though failure is much discussed, we haven't given due attention to what failure is and means. Indeed, Merrill Turpin (2008) points out that dictionary definitions of failure say what failure is not, rather than what it is. Failure has been defined as a lack of success, an omission of something expected, an instance of non-functioning. What failure is remains to be explored. William Desmond (1988) also argued for the importance of developing a philosophy of failure in our culture of success, in which people ran from, rather than toward, failure. On Desmond's account, failure is ignored and unmentioned, and the role of failure in success is unappreciated. Thirty years later, failure has become a buzzword, but we still seem to live in a culture of success---hence the joke that claims "Failure = Success" can work. And yet, Desmond\'s observation is still relevant, that "the modern cult of success ... misses the opportunity to give to failure a further significance" (Desmond 1988, p. 296).

The urgency of understanding the phenomenon of failure is evidenced in the present-day rise of perfectionism. Perfectionism is the attitude that, to be worthwhile, something must be superlatively rare, high-quality, difficult to attain, etc., and that if it doesn't meet this standard then it is utterly worthless (Landau 2017). The credo of perfectionism is, "If you ain't first, you're last," to quote Reese Bobby in Talladega Nights (Miller, Judd and McKay 2006). This attitude is associated with suicide ideation and attempts (Smith et al. 2018), and it has been growing more common over the past three decades (Curran and Hill 2017). This is not the place to enter into the causes and effects of perfectionism. Here, it suffices to note that perfectionism evinces a discomfort with failure, even during an era that purportedly embraces failure. Moreover, perfectionism seems to betray an ignorance of the nature of failure. For one, we count too many things as failures. Second, the prospect of failure grips many people to a debilitating extent. If we had a better idea of what failure was, rather than blithely suggesting that failure is simply a good (or simply a bad), then the definition of failure may not be so swollen, and the prospect of failure may loosen its grip.

Finally, I would suggest that understanding failure can give a deeper meaning to success. Just as there can be no beauty without ugliness, we cannot fully appreciate what success is without an account of what was at stake and what was avoided. And to the extent that our lives can be seen as series of successes and failures, better understanding success and failure will give a deeper meaning to human life in general.

Failure and death

Desmond (1988) wrote that in our culture of success, we find ourselves fleeing from failure. For Desmond, the ultimate sort of failure is death. Novak, too, wrote, "Human life is essentially a defeat; we die" (Novak 1994, p. 48). If we flee from failures in general, this explains why we flee from death most of all, pretending it won't happen, trying not to think about it too much. Heidegger (2010), too, wrote that human being is constantly dealing with death, but that in everyday life, we tend to flee from the future certainty of our own deaths. Death means that our bodies will not remain intact forever, and consequently that our conscious existence will come to an end. Fleeing from death is the denial of these facts; Desmond sees such denial as connected to our obsession with youth and health, part and parcel of the culture of success.

Contemporaneously, Scott Montgomery (1989) argued in an early philosophical examination of the ultramarathon that ultrarunning is a ritualized form of flight from death. He quotes Theodor Adorno: "The triumph of mounting mileage ritually appeases the fear of the fugitive" (Montgomery 1989, p. 382). He does not expound on this, but it seems that the flight from death is a defiance of the fact that the body will break down and decompose, and that one's existence will come to an end. Indeed, in sport generally, it is common to conceptualize failing as death. As Novak writes, "To lose symbolizes death, and it certainly feels like dying" (Novak 1994, p. 21). In this section, I discuss why these views are incorrect.

If an ultramarathon is life in microcosm, as I have suggested above, and moreover if ultrarunning is a matter of fleeing from death, then it is tempting to think that getting a DNF---being unable to keep fleeing---is death in microcosm. After all, just like a DNF, death may be expected or unexpected, it can happen silently or with fanfare, and it is the most dreaded possibility of many people, just as a DNF is the most dreaded possibility of many ultrarunners. However, one who finishes a race also stops fleeing, and so on Montgomery's (1989) account finishing the race should be considered a kind of dying as well. And yet it would be odd indeed to regard one who finishes a race, or even wins a race, as a failure. Still, there is a certain merit to Montgomery's argument, as ultrarunning is indeed engaging with death; this idea will be picked up below.

First, should death be considered a failure? To say so would be to construe a person only as a biological system. If being alive is construed simply as a matter of cellular processes, then indeed the halting of those processes is the failure of the system. But human being can be construed in other ways---as zoon politikon, as imago Dei, as Dasein, etc.---and it is in these other ways that we most commonly and fruitfully construe our lives. Even in the case of a heart failure or car accident, the ending of one's life does not imply the failure of their social, moral or imaginative life.

So what should we make of death? On Heidegger's (2010) account, Dasein is incomplete, as it is always projecting forward toward goals and possibilities (§45); "its 'not-yet' belongs to it" (p. 234). How can Dasein be whole? For Heidegger, the answer lies in death: "In Dasein there is inevitably a constant 'lack of wholeness' which finds its end in death" (p. 233). Expounding on this, Heidegger characterizes the way in which death relates to wholeness. Death is not completion for Dasein in the sense of settling an outstanding transaction, nor quite in the way that a fruit's ripening is its completion (§48). Rather, for Heidegger, death always stands before Dasein as its "ownmost, nonrelational, certain, and, as such, indefinite and insuperable possibility" (p. 248). We will all die, we each must die for ourselves, we don't know when it's going to happen, and there's no getting around it. On this account, death is not the negation of life, but rather, almost paradoxically, a constitutive part of life. Only with death is one able to live.

Heidegger says that in everyday life, we conceal this reality from ourselves, fleeing from death (§51). But to live authentically, to live one's own life, Dasein must live as being-toward-death. This is not a matter of trying to bring about one's death, nor brooding over death, but rather it is living the reality of death-as-possibility (§53). This means recognizing the certain-but-indefinite-possibility of one's own death, knowing that one's time is inescapably limited and inestimably precious, and pursuing projects in that regard. What's more, being-toward-death gives a person a wider perspective, allowing them to pursue their projects sub specie æternitatis, in a way: The anticipation of death "shatters all one's clinging to whatever existence one has reached" (Heidegger 2010, p. 253). It reveals that any apparent justifications for choices given by the they are ultimately groundless, and that a person must be responsible for their own choices. In this way, recognizing the ever-present possibility of death shapes and alters all our other possibilities. Crucially, the phenomenon of death individualizes us, unshackling each of us from the they-self we inhabit for the most part. So if we flee from death, it is not because death is a kind of failure; rather, it is that being-toward-death is living an authentic life, and we flee from living an authentic life, whether out of fear, custom or unknowing.

How, then, does death connect to failure and success? In light of this discussion, it seems orthogonal at best. As a they-self, fleeing from death, we might still achieve successes in life, but these will be the successes of the they-self---achieving what "they" think we should achieve. And as being-toward-death, one might likewise achieve successes, those won in authenticity. Failing, too, is possible in both existential modes. But in any case, it doesn't seem appropriate to regard anyone's eventual perishing as a failure on their part, even assuming they lived entirely inauthentically. So losing, though possibly a failure, is not a form of death, as death is not a failure.

Let us return to the connection between ultrarunning and death. Is ultrarunning fruitfully understood as the denial of death, as Montgomery (1989) and perhaps Novak (1994) would say? If so, it would mean that ultrarunners ignore or avoid evidence of the facts that, first, the body will break down and decay, and second, that one's consciousness will not last forever. But on the contrary, ultrarunners willingly engage in risky activities, sometimes in dangerous locations or conditions, which may lead to their demise. And even more centrally, ultrarunners face directly the limits of the body with every step. During an ultramarathon, one's muscles break down and stiffen, the legs grow heavy and slow, the mind goes to dark places... The limits of the body are brought into plain sight, and a central allure of the ultramarathon is to come into contact with these limits. And just as one's body is limited, so is one's time. Running an ultramarathon is not deceiving ourselves into thinking that our conscious existence will stretch on forever, but rather a way to ensure that we make the most of the time we are given. Making the most of our time means engaging in activities we find enjoyable and meaningful, particularly in light of the fact that we don't have unlimited time. Ultrarunners are constantly confronting the limits of time, from scheduling lengthy training runs amidst a busy life, to the clock ticking during a race. Moreover, ultrarunners engage in the sport not only because they enjoy running, but also because it is a way to experience nature, travel to new places, meet interesting people and build friendships. Ultrarunners recognize that death will happen---not just intellectually, but experientially, with the whole body---and seek to live well in light of that fact, which involves taking worthy risks and doing the things one loves, so as to not let any day go to waste. Ultrarunning is a matter of understanding that we will die and so seeking to more fully understand what it means to live.

In this way, Montgomery (1989) is wrong to suggest that ultrarunning is a form of denying or fleeing from death. Ultrarunning is, rather, a way of being-toward-death. Living with the certainty (but indefiniteness) of one's coming death means seeking out and living one's possibilities while one is still alive, and ultrarunning is a paragon of doing just that. Ultrarunning is a way for Dasein to directly confront its own finitude. It is said that philosophy is learning to die well (see Hadot 1995, ch. 3), and I think the same could be said about ultrarunning.

Failure as cutting-off

So what is the lived meaning of the DNF, if it is not a rehearsal of death? In an ultramarathon, runners engage as being-toward-death with the project of finishing the race. So not finishing, getting a DNF, is not like death, as Montgomery or Novak would have it. Rather, a DNF (1) cuts off the possibility of finishing and (2) covers over the phenomenon of death.

With regard to cutting off the possibility of finishing, an illustration from Heidegger (2010, §48) is instructive:

Hence ending, as stopping, can mean either to change into the absence of objective presence or, however, to be objectively present only when the end comes. The latter kind of ending can again be determinative for an unfinished thing objectively present, as a road under construction breaks off. (Heidegger 2010, p. 235)

With a DNF, the race stops, but "the race" does not disappear; rather, the race becomes troublingly present, as the athlete asks themselves: What went wrong? What could I have done differently? Why me? This is evident, for instance, in the anecdote of my first DNF related at the outset of this paper. In Heidegger's terms, the race becomes objectively present to the runner as unfinished, like the road under construction which simply ends. But whereas the road might come to be finished one day, this is not possible with a DNF: Finishing the race---this particular event on this particular year---is no longer a possibility, and the race is left incomplete.

Perceiving the race as objectively present, the athlete loses their sense of being-with and becomes worldless. World as a phenomenological notion does not refer to the physical matter and energy that compose the earth, but rather to Dasein's situated, ongoing interpretation of the lived environment; so world is not a physical space, but a space of possibilities (Heidegger, 2010, §14--18). In experience, the world shines through the totality of useful things as Dasein is absorbed in them. For Heidegger, Dasein emerges with its world---the world is world-in-the-being just as Dasein is being-in-the-world. Heidegger (1971) writes of art as the paragon of this notion, but ultrarunning also provides an excellent example; ultrarunning involves a deeply felt being-in-the-world. As described both in the sports psychology literature and firsthand accounts of ultrarunners, the ultrarunner during the race at peak moments doesn't distinguish their self from the rest of the world; rather, they merge with nature by transcending the activity of running (Jamison 2003). This state of mind is called Absolute Unitary Being, the grasping of the inseparable oneness of everything (Jones 2004). This state characterizes spiritual and mystical experiences in many traditions, and so it is unsurprising that many runners talk about their running as "spiritual" (e.g., Alter 2015).

When a runner is confronted with a DNF, this sense of integration comes undone. Rather than experiencing oneself as being-in-the-world, the athlete now experiences worldlessness. One may feel like the world is falling apart because, in the phenomenological sense, it is.

With regard to covering over the phenomenon of death, in the race's becoming objectively present, the athlete returns to their state of fallenness, no longer being-toward-death. Recall that, on Heidegger's account, death is a possibility, but a certain one. For a runner, finishing a race is also taken to be a certain possibility---a promise. (The greater the extent to which the runner assumed they would finish, the greater the failure. Of course, if a person never thought they would or could finish, there is no failure to speak of. So in this sense, it may be that not all DNFs are failures, and some are greater failures than others.) A DNF, then, is experienced as a broken promise, an impossibility, a contradiction in terms.

The promise of finishing seems to emerge from two directions: from the self, and from nature. First, a runner promises to finish. This is evidenced in the time, effort and expense taken to train, register and travel for a race. This is a promise to oneself just as it is a promise to family and friends who may be more or less invested in the athlete's project. Discord arises here because we may feel we had no choice in the matter; normally when it comes to promises we have a choice whether to keep them or break them. But with a DNF, it feels like there was simply no other way it could be---our agency is gone. And so there is a sense in which such promises are playing with someone else's money. One's finishing an ultramarathon is not totally in their control. In this light, one also sees the promise to have been made by nature. For instance, one assumes that if they sufficiently train their body and mind, they will finish. This is evidenced in the common running folk wisdom is to "trust your training"; typically athletes do not run the distance of their race in training---one training for a 100-mile race would not run more than 62 miles (100km) in preparation, for instance---and so it is taken on faith that this is enough training to finish. And so if the athlete does sufficiently train their body and mind and yet does not finish, the DNF is experienced as a betrayal.

What this amounts to is that a DNF pulls apart one's sense of self. During the race, finishing belongs to the ultrarunner as part of their self; the not-yet of finishing the race belongs to the ultrarunner-as-Dasein. But when the athlete DNFs, this part of the athlete's self is cut off; the runner no longer feels whole. A possibility, and its suite of corollaries, which was part of the world---part of the athlete's self---has been destroyed. As with any broken promise, one feels the malaise and perhaps anger of discovering that the world is not as one supposed it to be. As the runner loses part of their self, they may experience hatred, incongruity or self-doubt, as seen in my own story. Being flung from the self of possibility, one must confront the broken, degenerate self that one actually is, and one may hold contempt for this lesser self. And not only is this failed self a lesser self because its possibilities are cut off, but it is also lesser because it has lost its world.

The temporality of the DNF

So cutting-off is the basic structure of the DNF. But all DNFs are not the same. Ultrarunners DNF under many different circumstances and for many different reasons. Common ones include a lack of sufficient training (both physical and mental), physiological issues (musculoskeletal injury, indigestion, dehydration, overheating, etc.), weather and terrain issues, and equipment malfunction. These forms of DNF can be grouped into three types: suffering an acute condition, being too slow, and undergoing mental failure. In this section, I will consider how these different types of DNF manifest temporally as cutting-off.

For Heidegger (2010, §69), time is the horizon of being, and so temporality is the meaning of Dasein (§65). For Heidegger, time does not proceed in a succession of "now"s, but rather is experienced as a unity of past, present and future in every moment. The past comes to the present in Dasein's thrownness, its already-being-in, the way yesterday's circumstances form today's possibilities. The future comes to the present as Dasein projects forward, ahead-of-itself, into the possibilities it perceives. And the present is encountered by Dasein as absorption in the world, its being-in-the-world. Thus Heidegger (2010, p. 312) says that Dasein, completely formulated, is being-ahead-of-itself-already-being-in-the-world as being-together-with. In my view, the three types of DNF correspond to cutting off at these three ecstasies (singular: ecstasis), to use Heidegger's terminology---respectively, at the present, future and past.

The first type of DNF is when an athlete suffers an acute condition, such as falling and breaking one's leg or passing out, wherein pain or immobility prevent an athlete from continuing. The athlete may either pull themselves from the race or be pulled by race officials after a medical check. Acute conditions may also involve an athlete's equipment; for instance, if one's shoes come apart and the athlete doesn't have a spare or is far from aid, they may not be able to continue. In such a DNF, the primary site of Dasein's cutting-off is the present. This ecstasis is characterized by being-together-with, wherein one is encountered by a world of things that are made present---a world of relevance and flow. On Heidegger's account, the present is usually concealed as Dasein is usually fallen; in being authentic, the present is un-concealed, and ultrarunning is an example of such unconcealment, as described above. Commenting on Heidegger, Michael Watts (2014, p. 121) writes that "master athletes usually achieve their highest potential while 'making present' in a state of utter absorption in the immediate present." But a DNF, particularly an acute one, re-conceals the present. The ultrarunner's body or equipment lose their status of handiness and become objectively present; the ultrarunner is no longer absorbed in the world but becomes worldless as described above.

A second type of DNF is being too slow. Ultramarathons generally have cutoffs at certain checkpoints along the route, and athletes who do not reach the checkpoint by the cutoff time are not allowed to continue. This is common for slower, "back of the pack" runners, but elite runners, too, can DNF because of slowness: One who sets out to set a record, or to qualify for some other race, may decide not to continue at the point where it becomes clear that they will not reach that goal on that day (in this sense, the cutoffs can be self-imposed just as they can be institutional). Being too slow, of course, may be the result of an injury, either acute or chronic, but in this case the injury was not the proximal cause of the DNF. This form of DNF seems to have the most to do with the future ecstasis, Dasein's being-ahead-of-itself. The ultrarunner is constantly projecting toward possibilities, working to meet checkpoint goals (in space or time) as the race unfolds. In authentic running, Dasein pulls itself forward toward its most ambitious possibilities; the inauthentic or fallen runner, on the other hand, simply plods along and waits to see what will happen. In this sense, the inauthentic runner lets their outcomes be in the hands of the they; "I guess I'm only as fast as I am," this runner might say. The too-slow ultrarunner may DNF because of just such an inauthentic relationship to the future. The possibility of finishing the race gradually fades away as it becomes clear to the runner that finishing is no longer a possibility, for they are simply going too slow. In some cases, the goal of finishing might have been unrealistic from the outset; so even if this runner was projecting most ambitiously forward, we might say that their goal of finishing was proposed by the they-self and was inauthentic to begin with. Indeed, the DNF experience can rewrite our past's future---what I once thought was possible, I now think was impossible.

The third type of DNF is mental failure, where a person determines or realizes that they cannot continue running. For one reason or another, the athlete has concluded that they do not have it in them to finish this particular race. For example, the athlete may have interpreted certain symptoms (e.g., headache, nagging old injury, vomiting, etc.) as signs of imminent danger. In some cases, this type of DNF can be interpreted as one's not really wanting to finish, or wanting to perpetuate a narrative of oneself as failure. I would suggest that this type of DNF is a cutting-off in the ecstasis of the past. For Heidegger, the past provides the ground of possibilities from which Dasein can choose in its present situation. Authentic Dasein is always dealing with its past in this way, but inauthentic Dasein ignores its thrownness, no longer interpreting its past as a space of possibilities. Inauthentically, Dasein might see its past instead as a space of limitations. In ultrarunning, athletes are constantly interpreting their past as a way to guide their choices. In this type of DNF, the process of retrieving possibilities from the past is disrupted. The athlete now marshals evidence from the past to convince themselves that finishing isn't a possibility, that maybe it never was a possibility. As ultrarunning lore has it, one's demons have gotten the best of them. This was the type of DNF at play in my own first DNF, in the anecdote that opened this paper. Though I likely would have been physically able to finish the race, I conjured any number of reasons for myself why I ought not to (I didn't train enough, I'm still injured, etc.), and in the end those reasons won out.

Whereas the first two types of DNF are observable from the outside, understandable with respect to external measures, the third is not. Athletes who look perfectly well may throw in the towel, invisibly defeated, even while other athletes, looking haggard and haunted, go on to finish. Again, recall my anecdote from above, where the race director remarked that I looked too well to quit (we'll assume he was being genuine). This seeming incongruity is illuminated by recent work in sports science that shows how an athlete's decision to stop is sometimes not directly caused by muscle fatigue or physical breakdown, as the traditional human-as-machine model of endurance supposed, but rather can be modulated by an athlete's perceived exertion, beliefs and other psychological factors (Hutchinson 2018).


Failing in any domain can be devastating. This is certainly the case in ultrarunning. Preparing for a race requires a large investment of time and energy, and athletes may sacrifice other aspects of their life in pursuit of this goal. The prospect of finishing this race becomes part of the person's self. When the athlete DNFs, then, this prospect is cut off, and the athlete is fragmented---the person becomes incomplete and worldless. This is why a DNF is "psychologically hard to accept," as Norm Spitzig (1983) wrote in an Ultrarunning Magazine article reflecting on his first DNF.

Athletes speak of recovery after races---taking at least a few days of rest, eating plenty, and easing oneself back into a training regimen. We can also speak of recovery from a failure. Indeed, recovery in this sense more closely matches the first sense of the word's definition as given in the Oxford English Dictionary: "gaining or regaining possession, esp. of something lost or taken away." Confronted with the incompleteness of a DNF, a healthy person will sooner or later take up the work of recovery---of reformulating the self---that is, projecting toward new possibilities, becoming authentic again in a new direction. In the vignette with which I opened this paper, this new possibility was a future race. Hopefully, this is a step along the road to a comeback. As Jeffrey Fry (2011) writes, comebacks involve a personal transformation, a resurrection in microcosm, allowing the athlete to return with renewed faith, hope and love. The cultivation of these virtues is part of the cultivation of resilience, a central virtue in sport (Russell 2015). On the account I have given here, though, we should not understand this resurrection as one's having died and now come back to life, but rather more like a ghost who can finally be put to rest. Indeed, ultrarunners sometimes speak of being "haunted" by a DNF (e.g., Holmwood, 2019). This process is illustrated poignantly in the documentary 100: Head/Heart/Feet (Mooney, Peters & Watts, 2014), which chronicles Zak Wieluns' attempts to finish the Vermont 100 Endurance Race. After getting two DNFs at the event in consecutive years, on the third year Wieluns makes a comeback and, as a new man---and with significant help from his wife and friends along the way---finishes the race.

That finishing a different race brings us peace is an interesting observation: One is never going to be able to finish a race that one has DNFed (say, the 2012 Vermont 100), but one may finish a future edition of that event (say, the 2013 Vermont 100) and experience a renewed sense of wholeness and redemption thereby. I have also experienced as much in completing races that in previous years I had gotten DNFs. This cognitive shift seems to be a matter of finding a way to move from the particular details of past actualities, toward new possibilities in the same realm but on a new level of abstraction: no longer is the focus on never being able to finish the 2012 Vermont 100, but rather it is on the future possibility of finishing the Vermont 100 in general---or even the 100-mile distance in general.

Such reformulation, or transformation, is the focus of most commentaries on DNFs and on failure in general. To shepherd such transformations, many ultrarunners practice reflective writing, in the form of race reports to share stories, pictures and reflections from races (Gorichanaz 2017a). When it comes to DNFs, these reports may involve considering the factors one could and couldn't control, cultivating gratitude for things that did go well, separating what happened on that day from who one is, and reading and responding to the stories of others who did not finish (Atwood 2018). From such reflection come the lessons learned: Athletes may make changes to their training, try new equipment, implement a new nutritional regimen, and better understand how their motivation waxes and wanes in response to certain stimuli.

This work of reflection seems to be the mechanism by which the moral promise of sport is borne out in ultrarunning, and how ultrarunning promotes authenticity. According to Skillen (1998, p. 180), "the chief moral lesson of sport... is the acceptance of limits, in the face not only of opponents but of 'nature.'" Just as for Heidegger being authentic Dasein is accepting one's limits, for Skillen being a "good sport" is accepting those limits and appreciating others' talents. Skillen writes primarily of athletes being "given" a game by their opponents, and so for Skillen "sport has the capacity to teach us to live within the limits of a human fellowship informed by awareness of common frailty. Good sports have such generous wisdom in their bones" (pp. 180--181). Ultrarunning seems to provide a wider lesson: Except for the few elite athletes in each race, there are rarely any opponents to speak of; rather, the chief "opponent" is nature. Being defeated, or even finishing the race after facing difficulties, does seem to infuse one with the capacity that Skillen describes. It is not just about human fellowship, but about fellowship with all beings and parts of the world. And whereas in games such as cricket the moral learning has been formalized in post-game handshakes and the like (Skillen 1998), in ultrarunning it comes in the form of reflective writing and storytelling. And to speak of recovering from failures more generally, Iddo Landau (2017) contends that such reflective writing and question-answering may be a path to find personal meaning and overcome perfectionism in all spheres of life.

Whatever methods we use, we make meaning from our failures, turn them from ruptures into new ways of being. This is when the malaise fades and failure comes to mean something else, where we see the positive side of failure. But we cannot forget about the negative. Marder (2007) reminds us that, on Heidegger's account, a person can only be authentic if one recognizes their everyday penchant for inauthenticity. Authenticity is contingent on failure, i.e., failure actually provides the basis for authenticity to emerge. So we must live, experience and understand our failures deeply in order for them to bring us forward into future successes.

In the ultrarunning world, DNFs are not uncommon. As the maxim goes, every ultrarunner will DNF at one time or another. As we have seen, the sport itself emphasizes athletes' finitude and contingency---the inevitability of failure---as it compels authenticity. Any given DNF is still a failure, still a rupture of self, and that should not be denied. A DNF breaks off a possibility---one that, during a race, is the central and maybe only possibility. But it is vital to see that, in one's broader life, the DNF does not break off all possibilities. In Heidegger's (2010, §56) terms, though we live most of the time inauthentically, a failure can be a call to come back to one's authentic self. You may at first think that if you DNF it means you are not a true ultrarunner, but you then come to realize that because you DNF you are a true ultrarunner.


I am grateful to the anonymous reviewers and the editor, whose insightful, detailed, and above all patient comments tremendously improved this manuscript.


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  1. This was ascertained by examining posted results on UltraSignup, the system used to handle registration and the publication of results for most ultramarathons in the United States. 

  2. Roughly, this is Heidegger's (2010, §4) term for human being. Strictly speaking, Dasein is the way of being of a being for whom its own existence can be called into question, not limited to human being---but human being is to date the only known example of Dasein. 

  3. The "they" we hear of in locutions like, "They say that running is bad for your knees."