A happy DNF

(In randonneuring, DNF stands for Did Not Finish.)

I’VE WRITTEN BEFORE about the moving stripe:

If you imagine that the starting line is an actual stripe across the road, and you imagine it moving forward through the course at 9.3 miles per hour, that’s the line you have to beat to each controle. You can stop all you want, eat, take pictures, sleep, fix a flat, weld a frame, have an affair—but the stripe keeps moving.

I was just ahead it for most of yesterday’s 200K. Not a lot of time cushion; it was moving at 9.3 miles an hour, and I was averaging around 12, minus stops and what we prefer to call “bonus miles,” which is what happens between going off the route and finding your way back to it. So pretty much, I’d roll through a town, and within half an hour, the stripe would roll through behind me.

Start time was 7am. Finish was 8:30pm. At mile 127, just before 8:20pm, ostensibly a mile from the finish, I came to an intersection that wasn’t what it was supposed to be. I was not, as I’d believed, on Main St.

The question was, where had I left the route, and how could I find that spot again?


Didn’t panic, flicked the Petzl forehead lamp on, looked at the illuminated cue sheet, got out the iPhone, fired up Maps, and let the GPS find me. I know all about the shortcomings of Maps. It’s not accurate. But at


What choice do I have?

It found me—not just the intersection, but which corner I was near. Thank god my 3G got stolen last month, or this would take three minutes. On the 4G it took 20 seconds. I tapped Directions and entered the location where I thought I’d left the route, which would be the turn onto Main, and at


I was giving it everything I had, sprinting. Seven minutes to ride about a mile—I can do that.

But I also know Maps sucks. So at


I stopped and fired it up again to confirm that the little blue dot (me) had progressed in the right direction. 30 seconds wasted in confirmation vs. 5 minutes wasted sprinting in the wrong direction? No contest.

I was sprinting 90° in the wrong direction.


I can still do it, but I need to


Which I did. Every bit of speed I had left. Going even faster than when that idiot dog bolted across the highway and tried to run me down earlier in the afternoon. Stupid dog. It chased me for a good quarter-mile, too. Little dog. Fast!

A sudden asshole-transit-worker blop of very bad pavement in the headlight. Bang—sometimes you just can’t get around them.


Rear tire wobble.


It’s flat. I have a decision to make:

  1. Attempt to change a tube in the dark and ride the last mile in 4 minutes.
  2. Ride a mile on the rim

I’ve ridden a few miles on a rim before, when we moved from Queens to Washington Heights and Kathleen was already at the new place with the moving guys. The bike hadn’t fit in the moving truck and she wasn’t quite comfortable with the movers, so when it popped, I just kept going. And that worked. No damage to the rim, even after cobblestones. So this could too.

The wobble wanted to spill me sideways, and there was a good chance the rim was taking damage, but it was my only shot at a finish, and I was moving—for 50 feet. Then the rear wheel braked all by itself.


No time to analyze. I picked up the bike and ran.

In cleated winter bike shoes, with a 10-pound Carradice Nelson Longflap under the saddle.


Still a mile to go.


Still a mile to go.

The cue sheet has a phone number on it. I called it. Then I kept lugging the bike. Two more calls later, to clarify my location and tell me to stop moving, Laurent picked me up and drove me to the train station, where the


New York train pulled out as we were getting the bike out of his car, and at


I was sitting on a cushioned seat in a lighted train, noticing the inner tube wrapped around the wheel hub and over the brake caliper, and trying not to fall asleep.

THE FIRST REASON I’m happy is that all the failures leading to that moment were the outcomes of gambles I made with full understanding. The first gamble was on a right leg that couldn’t bear my weight without buckling the day before because of lingering effects of a bad sciatica (or piriformis syndrome) episode. The second was on a bike computer sensor I rigged with Velcro when its fork mounting broke because I couldn’t afford to completely replace the whole thing.

I’m happiest about the leg. Really happy, actually, because it feels the same as it did six or seven years ago, when I thought it was an MS exacerbation. (Blog newbies: I have MS.) But this time, it was clearly the result of an injury that had me on the floor for hours last Tuesday.

So—does that mean it wasn’t MS six or seven years ago, either?

Could be!

That doesn’t mean I don’t have multiple sclerosis (lesions on the MRI and bouts of optic neuritis are hard to get around), but it does mean maybe I can worry less about losing my legs to myelin degeneration. Maybe I’ve got a herniated disk or something like that.

Wouldn’t that be awesome?

The sensor mount—that was a decent gamble. It didn’t pay off, but it was still a decent one. I’ve been riding with the sensor Velcroed to the front fork for a month, and it seemed to work. There’s a little magnet attached to one of the spokes on the front wheel, and every time it spins past the sensor, the computer counts one wheel revolution. Worked pretty well. A glitch here and there, but nothing that significant.

The headwinds on this ride were far worse than anything my Velcroed sensor had encountered, though, and I think it was flopping around in the onslaught. My speed would flip from 1.7 mph to 5.1 to zero, back to 1.7, up to 16.9, and back down to zero in the space of a few seconds.

And since a speedometer and an odometer are basically the same thing?

No usable distance readout. I had to navigate based solely on my feel for distance.

Which—you know?—was kind of great. I only got off-route about once per 30-mile leg. Only lost five or ten minutes each time.

It adds up, though, and then it’s 8:19 and you’re trying to figure out how not to DNF.

Oh well. Did my best.

TONIGHT WHEN I put the boys to bed, I stayed for a little while and talked with them. I like doing that because they’ve stopped with the nighttime crazies and I’ve stopped with the bedtime impatience. When one of them’s asleep is my favorite time for it, and the one who’s awake always feels the same—Daddy, come talk to me!

But tonight, it was just bedtime kisses and then I hung around in the dark and told them that on this ride, I met a man who also had six-year-old twins! (They loved that.) And guess what. (What!?) I started telling him about the little brevet we did at Rockland Lake, and guess what. (What!?) He already knew about it!


Well, he read my blog about it. Isn’t that cool? He saw the pictures of you guys and everything. So I told him we’re going to do it again this year, and—

That’s when the one who didn’t finish last year started looking worried.

So one thing at a time. First, I think I got it across to him that the entire distance of the event is still shorter than the 14-mile day he had during the summer, when we rode down to River Run Playground and back—and while I was explaining that, it occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t the distance that had turned him into one big black hole of whine. Maybe it was that I hadn’t broken it up into enough smaller pieces for him to deal with cognitively.

What if we did two times around the lake, and then had lunch, and then did two more? Would that be better?

He smiled and looked relieved, but then he looked upset again and said it wouldn’t be fair because if he got a medal this year, he’d only have one medal but his brother would have two.

Well, I said, and then I started explaining fairness, and things earned. I got a few seconds into it—but who needs that? Seriously, did that ever help you when you were a kid? It’s a lesson and everything, but who wants to hear that when you’re tucked into bed and your Daddy’s hanging out?

So instead, I said, Hey guys, know what happened to me yesterday on my brevet? I didn’t finish.


I DNF’d.

You—(I could see them trying to remember the term, because they haven’t heard it since last year. Then they got it.) REALLY?

Yeah. I got all the way almost to the end, and then I went the wrong way and my tire popped and I ran out of time.

You ran out of time? (Both boys engaged now, in their two beds.)


You ran out of time?


You didn’t finish?

Nope. Didn’t finish. And you know what that means? (This last addressed to the one who quit at Rockland Lake.)


It means I’ve DNF’d twice. You’ve only DNF’d once. But you know what? It only feels bad when you know you didn’t do your best. I know I did my best, so I feel okay about it.


Yeah. It always feels better when you know you did your best.

Here’s your music. Night, boys. I love you.

It felt like connection all around. Failure comes in handy.

Now if I only knew why when Mommy got home from choir practice, the other one was sleeping in his doorway.


Filed under Bicycling, Family, Favorite, Randonneuring

14 responses to “A happy DNF

  1. Gordon Atkinson

    Very nice. Almost you persuade me to get a bike. Almost.

  2. Keith, I passed this post along to my husband, a distance road guy (he did RAAM a couple years ago). Not that I’m encouraging him to be a randonneur, but I can picture it.

    As a fellow MSer, I appreciate how you are a person who lives life fully despite the diagnosis. I was diagnosed 6 years ago after a bout of optic neuritis and lesions on the MRI but have had no exacerbations since. I’m a full-time working pastor of a church in Richmond; no question we can live and thrive despite the illness that lurks in the background.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    • RAAM exists so randonneurs can feel less absurd.

      Do you guys listen to Radiolab? They had a RAAM segment as part of their episode on the edge of human limits:


      Although MS does lurk, it’s easy to forget about when there aren’t any symptoms. For me, anyway. A diagnosis isn’t an illness. The illness might stop me at some point, but the diagnosis is just some words. Sticks and stones.

      Nice to meet you.

  3. Yes, we heard the RadioLab piece…nicely done, all in all. We joke that RAAM was his midlife crisis – cheaper than a Ferrari or a mistress, with less downstream bad consequences.

    Good distinction between diagnosis and illness…many thanks!

  4. David "Hirsh" Eisenberg


    I found your blog again. I’m the guy with the twins who rode with you on Sunday for a bit. I am at a loss for words. I thought you were ahead of us for most of the ride and were safely on your way back home while I was pulling into the parking lot at the end. If it wasn’t for the title of this entry, I might be in tears and I’m not the type to show too much emotions.

    Thought you would like to know – one of the highlights of my recounting how the brevet played out for me was telling my family that I had met the man who had riden a mini-brevet with his twins.

    I hope that we meet again on another brevet.


    • Hi, Hirsh! Glad you guys had a successful ride.

      I’m sure we’ll meet up again—I’m aiming for another SR series this year. Assuming I get through the 600K successfully, I’ll pick up the 200K requirement on the other side with the NYC 200, which starts and ends at the GW bus terminal a mile and a half from my apartment. I’m actually thinking of doing it on my folding bike. By that time, I should be in shape for it.

      The April 23 200K out of Princeton would work if it weren’t hilly, which I’m not ready for just yet. Still have five weeks to train for the hilly 300 on May 14, so if I can muster a little discipline in the interim, that’ll work.

  5. No damage to the rim, $4 for a new tube. Life is good.

  6. I didn’t see your name on the results so didn’t actually know if you had come down for the ride. Happy to read you almost made but sorry you don’t get the credit. I felt it was a tougher ride this year and I was 90 minutes down on last year’s time. See you at the 300k.

  7. Nice DNF story, Keith. You found the silver lining.

    I’m still struggling to write my big DNF story, from Paris-Brest-Paris ’07. I’m sure there’s some lessons in there … if I can recall them!

    • I can’t imagine remembering more than a few impressionistic smudges from a PBP.

      Now if I can just pull the silver lining out of having to scale back this year from SR to R-12…

  8. Pingback: Nemesis | Keith Snyder

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