The DNF Factor

In our small town in western Maine, high school sports were limited. Basketball was king; the weather dictated much of our choices. Indoor sports were available, but when it could snow any month of the year, well…. choices narrowed. With just under one hundred students, fielding teams for some sports just didn’t work, football was one. Now, baseball and track, we managed, although the baseball field was muddy much of the spring season. I participated in basketball and baseball all four years. Running cross-country was tough; I participated for the exercise, but the two mile runs often produced genuine pain that eventually lead me to give it up. Before that time came, however, there was one practice session, I really remember. Like other singular events in our lives, this one time would hang around throughout my life.

Not much unusual, just another afternoon after school, I dressed out, stretched a bit, and about seven or eight of us took off running for the two mile and a half practice. The route was along a paved road northeast of town, out about a mile and a quarter, turn around and back to the school. I made the turn ok, but on the way back, that pain in my side wouldn’t quit. About two hundred yards from school, I couldn’t straighten up, and I stopped, bending over, needing that pain to go away. As I was getting a little relief, the coach came by. He got out of his car, walked over to me and inquired why I had quit. I told him about the pain in my side. Not impressed, he started writing in his clipboard. When he finished he pushed the board under my nose and said, “you know what that means?” On the board by my name were the letters, “DNF.”   I had no idea, and I just shook my head. He said, “that’s Did Not Finish.” Without another word, he got back in his car and drove back to the school. Those little words burned in my head like the flame of some acetylene torch. No reason was asked; no encouragement given; just “Did Not Finish.” As I slowly walked back to school, the pain in my side subsided. I participated in one more race later that year, and I finished way back in the pack, but even with the pain, I finished.

Four years later, in the fall of 1961, I was in my sophomore year at the University of Maine; it was December. Snow was falling, it was a dark, windy and cold evening. As I studied in my dorm room, that awful pain in my side suddenly doubled me over. I broke out in a sweat, became very nauseated, ran to the bathroom down the hall, and finally put on my coat and stumbled down the mall to the college infirmary. Just my luck, some female sorority filled the place with a food poisoning crisis. I filled out the form and told the nurse I was in really bad pain and I had been vomiting. She pointed to the gagging girls across the room, and said, “You’ll have to wait your turn.” Two hours or so later, she finally got me to a room, took my temperature, and asked some questions. By then the pain was so bad I couldn’t stand up straight, and she left rather abruptly. The doctor came in, examined my abdomen and took me out to his car, and drove me in the snowstorm about fifteen miles to the Eastern Maine General Hospital where later about 3:00 A.M., an emergency appendectomy solved my side problem permanently.

Now, after my surgery, the mystery of my running pain became quite clear. I wasn’t a bad runner; my status as youngest in my class wasn’t the issue; I was sick, appendicitis attacks! So that was it. Well, I suppose the story should have ended right there; I felt better and never thought about it again. Wrong! That DNF has always stayed in my head. I have used that incident to get me through countless challenges. At first, the thought would come to me as I struggled with preliminary and final exams at college. Getting down to those last few questions, my head could swim, my eyes would get blurry, and somehow, in those moments, that ol’ coach’s snarling words, “look here by your name, DNF, you know what that means; did not finish!”   And with that jolt, I would grit my teeth and get after my task. Playing in golf tournaments, sales, much of my life, I finish strong!

In our lives, starting stuff can provide some rough, harsh, embarrassing, sad, discouraging moments. Beginnings, new procedures, new classwork, new relationships, mercy, some of us can mess up in lots of ways. Those experiences can and, for some of us, often does lead to choices we could summarize as “giving up.” Not going there again, don’t need that pain; don’t need that grief; what a jerk, I don’t need this job that badly….and the list goes on…. Thankfully, sometimes our minds take time to reflect more soberly on the offending issue, and after a while, we approach the task, get beyond, and overcome.   Someone I love dearly once told me, “Daddy, tough times don’t last; tough people do.”   Most of us can look in our hearts and find memories of precious people that finished their course in helping you and me. The DNF factor, for me, in time, a great blessing, that when the road seems tougher, I don’t quit. My new book, Heartbursts reflects some of my early challenges; life is tough, but God’s love is tougher…you, too, can do this!   From my heart to yours….See ya next time!

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