Flirting with a DNF (The North Face Endurance Challenge)

I think I may have found my 50K.

As most of you know, I was signed up for a 50K on my birthday back in January, but after months of anticipation I ended up not racing due to our crazy living-circumstances at the time.  So no first ultra for me.

Since then I’ve been trying to find another race to sign up for.  The problem is, I’m sort of picky in a way that narrows my choices to a race that will, in all likelihood, kick my ass. Here are top two criteria:

  1. I need a race that is close enough that I can drive to the morning of, since making a week-end long trip out of a race isn’t really an option with us and our two kids at this time.  This limits me to about a 120 mile radius (at most), since most ultras start before sun-rise.
  2. I want a race that goes somewhere.  I love running as travel, as transportation, as adventuring.  While I’ve grown to think that the mental challenge of a short loop, like MtD, would be interesting, its really not what I want my first ultra experience to be.

For the first criterion, there are not a lot of ultras run close to New York City.  Lots when you get up in to Massachussets, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine, quite a few in Western New York, lots through the Mid-Atlantic.  In fact, the Tri-State area is a bit of a black-hole amidst a plethora of ultas just beyond my ideal distance.

The NJ Trail Series puts on a few ultras (as well as the fabulous Muddy Marathon), but only a few actually go anywhere.  There’s the Febapple 50K next weekend and the NJ Ultra Fest next month, but the first is run on a 5 mile course and the second on a 1.5 mile track, so both are loop runs.

And then yesterday I remembered the The North Face Endurance Challenge at Bear Mountain.


The North Face Endurance Challenge comes in all distances, 5K to 50M, but all the distances have one thing in common — the courses are technical, mountainous, and generally considered very difficult.  There is nothing that would recommend this course as a great candidate for a first ultra — except that it sounds amazing.  Forget the 1200 feet of elevation gain and loss, and the fact that I don’t get a chance to run on trails that often.  Forget the fact that I don’t even own a pair of trail shoes, and with the craziness of a new house and teaching and kids won’t get any serious long runs in before May 5th.  Focus on the fact that its in the Catskills and the mountains are beautiful.

That, and I think I might have a slight school-girl crush on the concept of a DNF.


If you are not a runner, DNF is the designation you are assigned if you “Did Not Finish” a race.  It means you dropped out.  Quit.  Gave up.  Failed.  Did not finish.  Whether due to injury, lack of will-power, or the growing realization you just couldn’t do it, at some point you stepped of the trail and said “That’s it.  I’m done.  I can’t finish.”  (This is setting aside the “technical” DNF, meaning you didn’t make the cut-off for the end of the race, which is 10 hours for the 50K at Bear Mountain.)  A DNF means you started a race that you just couldn’t complete.

At this point as a runner, I’ve never had a DNF.  You can look at that as meaning I’m healthy and determined, since I’ve finished every race I’ve started.  You could look at it as a sign that I’m smart and self-aware, since I’ve signed up for the distance I was capable at the time and never over-reached.

Or you could look at is as meaning I’ve played it safe and never really put myself to a severe test.  One of the reasons running is so compelling is that it allows you to push your limits — of speed, endurance, concentration, physical prowess — but in a way, if you haven’t pushed yourself to the point of failure, have you actually explored your limits at all?  If you can take one more step, could you take two?  Ten?  Another 6 miles worth?

I’m not saying I actively want a DNF — I don’t want to fail at a 50K.  But I want that possibility.  I want to start a race not knowing if I will actually be able to finish.  Because ever since my first 5K back in 2006 (the race I warned my partner I would most likely not finish since I’d never run more than 2 miles before) I’ have never stood at a starting line unsure of whether I’d cross the finish line.  My first marathon was life-changing in terms of the confidence it instilled in me, but that November morning I never doubted I’d finish.

I want to discover something new about myself.

I don’t know I’d fail at a 50K — in fact, I’m pretty confident I will succeed — but I also don’t know that I will finish.  And there’s only one way to find out.


About Chris Van Dyke

I am a 33 year-old high school English teacher and long-distance runner. I live in Brooklyn with my partner, our 3 year-old son and 1 year-old daughter and a growing collection of muppets and trains. Besides running and teaching I like to draw, read, write, cook, and play the harmonica. While I didn't get to run my first ultra-marathon on my birthday, I've got a few more I've set my sights on. You can follow my (seldom updated) twitter feed @aboutrunning. I also blog as part of the Run Smiley Collective.
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4 Responses to Flirting with a DNF (The North Face Endurance Challenge)

  1. This is excellent. You feel exactly the way I do right now, I believe. There’s something about that thrill of the “impossible” feat. I love it. I wish you lived closer and could come to Pineland.

    • Chris Van Dyke says:

      What’s funny is that I looked at Pinelands as my first ultra this time last year, but I couldn’t travel that far with my partner working full-time. I would love someone to run with — a bit of my fear is also that I’ll be running by myself, without the encouragement of a running partner or crew . . .

  2. Josh says:

    Sounds like the perfect race to earn your official ultra runner status. With that attitude, and your running experience, you will succeed. I am learning all the time that I am already capable of more that I thought. Limits are barriers of the mind.

  3. Pingback: A Runner Puts Her (Bare)foot Down « Barefoot Monologues

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