Stacy Bernal – Perspective on the dreaded DNF

Races don’t always go as planned.   Sometimes, although you’ve done the hard work, you’ve put in the training and are ready to PR it just isn’t your day.    Stacy Bernal, awesome and famous OPR member (her picture below is the cover photo for this year’s Idaho Wine Run) shares her perspective on handling races that don’t go your way.

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When I tell people I have run six full marathons, it’s not an entirely true statement. The whole truth is that I’ve attempted eight marathons, completed five, and finished varying distances in three, but one was an unofficial race so I don’t necessarily count that one. In other words, I am a DNFer- Did Not Finish. This is quite possibly the “Scarlet Letter” in the world of running.

Sometimes people are surprised when I tell them I haven’t always been a runner. (I mean really, how can someone always have been a runner? Do they come out of the womb with Nikes on??) In high school I was in band- an accomplished clarinetist and the drum majorette of the marching band. I know, I know- total nerd. Running was punishment for slackers who showed up late to practice. I NEVER wanted to be late, and on the few occasions I was, I was not happy about that one mile around the track.

In my early 20s I plumped up. Bad eating habits, no exercise, after-work drinks with friends, and the stress of being a single mom led me to about 180 pounds of pudge. In my late 20s I started a pretty regular exercise regimen and joined Weight Watchers. I got to my lowest weight of 125 and then wouldn’t you know it- I got pregnant with my son.

It wasn’t until I was 31 that I began running. It initially began when my employer wanted to get relay teams together to run the 2008 Ogden Marathon. The teams were made up of five members who split the 26.2 miles in distances varying from seven to three mile increments. I ended up with the longest leg, which was the first leg. I trained for that seven miles and hated every minute of it. I swore after I finished the stupid race I’d never run again.

The morning of the race, I met up with friends at the ungodly hour of 0400. I was a bundle of nerves and adrenaline. We hopped on the bus and got dumped off in a cold, frosty field in BFE. We socialized for over an hour as we waited for the race to start. There was an energy in the air that I had never experienced. When they finally announced that it was time to line up at the start, I was so nervous I thought I would barf.

I put in my earbuds and got in my groove. Mile signs ticked down. Maybe it was the energy of the crowd, but I remember thinking the miles went by quickly. When I got to the transition station, I handed the baton to my teammate, grabbed some oranges and water, and hobbled over to the bus that would shuttle us to the finish line. I felt like the biggest badass. I had just run seven miles, the longest distance I had ever run. And I was sore as hell.

As we made our way through the winding canyon, I opened my window to shout cheers to the runners on the course. I kept thinking to myself how amazing (and stupid) these people were who were running the full. At the finish line, someone handed me a cowbell and I proceeded to spend the next two hours of my life screaming encouraging and congratulatory words to strangers. I had to keep wiping away tears as I saw the triumph on the runners’ faces. In that moment, I decided I would run a marathon.

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In 2009 I trained, prepped, fueled and otherwise got myself ready to run the Ogden Marathon in May. I told myself and anyone else who would listen that I would be “One and done”. The usual reply was, “Okay, we’ll see.” I finished in just over 5 hours. The next day I was online searching for more. What could I do next? I just did the impossible. I was completely high. And I wanted that feeling again. I ended up running my first Ragnar in June and then the Top of Utah marathon in 4:46 in September. I was bit by the running bug.

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I registered for the 2010 Ogden marathon. I also returned to school that same year. My training took a necessary back burner to my school and work schedule. I was a little worried about how race day would go, but I knew I had done it before so I was physically capable (and I figured 90% of a marathon is mental). I ended up getting a horrible blister on the fourth toe of my left foot. At about mile 16 it popped. I took my shoe off to assess the damage. Blood was all over my sock. An aid station volunteer bandaged me, gave me some ibuprofen and sent me on my way into the canyon. I thought it would be easier to run, but it hurt to put any pressure on my left foot so I was compensating on my right leg and started having shooting pains in my right hip. I limped my way to the next aid station where I sat down and sobbed. I knew as soon as my blister popped I wouldn’t finish in my goal time of 4:45, but I didn’t consider the idea that I might not finish at all. I was devastated.

I had eight miles left. ONLY eight. OHMYGOD eight. I didn’t think I could walk that far let alone run. A volunteer sat me down and said, “There will be other races.” She helped load me onto the bus with relay runners who were heading to the finish. I sat there, defeated and broken-hearted, and ugly-cried my guts out.

In 2011, I signed up again. My best friend Gigi was running her first full and my sister Christy was running as well. We all started together but by mile eight I begged them to go ahead. I was dragging and didn’t want to drag them down with me. I was plagued with blisters and knee pain. I took my shoes off the last mile and schlepped my way to the almost-completely-broken-down-no-spectators-left finish line. It took me over six hours.

That was my last full marathon… For a while anyway. In 2012 I was pregnant and had to miss out. In 2013 I did a relay team, “Team Running to the Altar,” with my family and future hubby. I was leg three so I ran the second half of the full marathon. I then ran the Huntsville marathon that year. In 2014 I ran the Ogden half with my two sisters, my baby sister’s first half marathon. And this past year, my hubby announced he wanted to run the full. I didn’t want to steal his thunder, so I registered to be on a relay team so I could start with him, then get on a bus to meet him at the finish. But race day, in the freezing, pounding rain, I couldn’t stop. My longest run up to that point was 16 miles. I don’t even know how I had it in me, but it had been four years since I had done it, so I pushed through and got to the finish. (And didn’t steal my hubby’s thunder!)

I decided after that to sign up for the Huntsville Marathon in September. I got on a schedule, stuck to it and got in all my long runs. I was ready to PR!

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…And then I got sick the week before the race. I tried every remedy and medicine to try to kick it. I felt well enough on race day that I thought I’d be okay. My first eight miles I flew down the canyon. I was feeling great about finishing in my goal time of 4:40. At about mile 10 I started getting wheezy and short of breath. I was having chest pain and fighting off anxiety. The temperature was climbing to the high 90s. I had a friend on the course trying to encourage me to keep going. But I knew, like the race in 2010, it was just not my day.

At mile 15 I called it. A police patrol drove me down to the finish area. I heard the radio communication about runners who were injured, some heat related, and one that was being transported to the hospital. It just wasn’t their day. The officer dropped me off and I shakily sat in the grass, dry heaving and head spinning. I called my husband.

“I didn’t make it. I need to stop doing this. This is stupid.” He adamantly agreed.

So do I feel like a fraud for saying I’ve run six marathons? No way. Does it suck to have a couple “DNFs” on my record? Sure. But a DNF is a helluva lot better than a DNS- Did Not Start. I don’t think it makes me a quitter that I didn’t finish those races. I think it makes me wise enough to know when to say when. As runners, we tend to get in our heads and be our worst critics. I hate that I’m not as fast as a lot of runners. But I get it done. I lace up, I head out, I pound the pavement, I traverse the trails. I start. And now, I cannot be stopped.

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Thank you, Stacy!
We think you’re one smart and incredible lady.
– OPR

  • Jenna - What an amazing post!! It brought tears to me eyes. I 100% agree that being a DNF’er is WAY better than never starting at all!ReplyCancel

  • Donna - Wow! You take fantastic run photos! Loved the story, Stacy, you are awesome! And I agree, a DNF is much better than a DNS! So glad I got to know you better the night before Big Cottonwood last year.ReplyCancel

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