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Beginner’s Luck: The Definitive 4-Step Plan for Surviving the DNF

DNF (“did not finish”) is perhaps the ickiest phrase in triathlon.

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DNF (“did not finish”) is perhaps the ickiest phrase in triathlon. The DNF is the dreaded end result where something goes wrong and you’re forced to drop out, whether you wanted to (think: uncooperative stomach, injury) or not (missed a time cutoff). One perplexing element in longer course racing is that you can cross the finish line of a half-iron or iron-distance race and still be an official DNF. This happens especially with time-trial or rolling swim starts, when everyone starts at different times or in different waves. The course may officially close at midnight, as in the case of an Ironman; however, if you start at 6:40 a.m., and the time limit is 17 hours to finish, then “your” midnight is 11:40 p.m., not midnight. So for the sake of simplicity, the race allows you to cross the finish up to midnight, but you can still be a DNF, depending on where you started in the swim.

At Ironman Lake Placid last year, my husband was cheering me on the run course, shouting, “You have until midnight! You have four more hours!” And I remember thinking, “Yay!” and then realizing he didn’t know when I went into the water, and I only had 3 hours and 45 minutes left. So my midnight was actually 11:45 p.m. (And I made it by the skin of my teeth around 11:29 p.m.) I have not DNFed a race (yet), but I have been very close in two of the biggest races of my life. I had a bad experience in one of them, where I wasn’t sure if I would make it, and my Garmin was dead, so I had no idea where I was, timing-wise. As a triathlon coach, I have had a few athletes DNF, and I know the heartbreak and devastation associated with it. First of all, it just sucks, and it’s OK to be sad about it. But after wallowing for a day or two, realize that a DNF is simply a gift in disguise—a chance to improve your physical and mental game. Here’s how to turn the crusty nugget of a DNF into gold.

Step 1: Realize you should be proud for starting. You showed up to the race—that alone is a huge accomplishment. Think of all the training and dedication and hours that you put into getting there and putting yourself in the game on race day healthy and injury-free (or mostly injury-free). That’s a victory in itself.

Step 2: Distinguish between what you could control on race day, and what you could not. In my first Ironman, I had an acquaintance who was a fast racer, and he finished in 14 hours and some change. (Of course, to me that is super fast, but he was more like an 11- or 12-hour guy.) What happened? He had not one, not two, but four flat tires on the course, which cost him more than two hours. He had three tubes on him (kudos for being that prepared), but he had to wait for assistance for the fourth, which took a massive chunk of time. So that would have been something out of my control. I mean, sure I could train harder and get faster and be like my friend so that I have a cushion of hours. But you get my drift—if you showed up on race day as the best version of yourself and were “ready” to race, and then you have a mechanical, or a crash, or the weather was out of control and unforeseeably crazy, or something worse—you can’t beat yourself up over that. Focus on what you could control on race day. If an unexpected event knocked you out, then breathe. What could you have done about that? Nothing.

Step 3: Grieve your loss. I believe wholeheartedly in taking time to go through the emotions of what just happened. Give yourself time to be mad, cry, throw things, toss your bike down a mountain—a DNF is a complete loss. Acknowledge it as one. Missing out on hearing the words “You are an Ironman” or receiving your finisher’s medal at your first race, while your whole family was there to support you—that is a loss, and you have the right to be sad and mourn it. Give yourself some time to do that. I hate when I am in the middle of a personal or triathlon crisis hearing the phrase, “It could be worse.” Of course it can always be worse! That doesn’t mean that you aren’t in the middle of pain. Right now, the truth and reality after a DNF hurts and stings. I spent the last 2.2 miles of the 2015 Ironman Lake Placid course walking and literally weeping because I really didn’t think I was going to make the race cutoff—it was so close, I was in so much pain, and I didn’t know how much time I had left. I cannot imagine the sadness and madness I would have felt missing that cutoff after working so hard in my training and on race day. Grieve. Have your time of madness, and after you have sufficiently done these things, only then can you figure out how to move on.

Step 4: Evaluate what actually happened on race day. What story is your story of the DNF? What are the lessons to be learned? What do you want next, if anything?

I encourage my athletes to always write a race report, even if just for themselves. The emotions, the facts and everything in between should be included so that they can really analyze what went wrong and what went right—where they could change things if they had the chance. Race day may have included curve balls that caused or contributed to your DNF. Race day may have presented challenges that you weren’t prepared to handle—physically or emotionally or gear-wise. It could be that you just weren’t prepared for that particular type or distance race on that day, in that particular time in your life. (Note: It doesn’t mean that you won’t ever be.) Accept the truth of the race—whatever that may be—and then forgive whatever may have happened (the weather, your bicycle, yourself) and prepare to, in the words of Frozen, let it go. Be kind to yourself. It won’t be instant. But it’s part of the process.

Meredith Atwood is a wife, mom, attorney, Ironman, coach and author of Triathlon for the Every Woman. She lives in Atlanta and blogs at SwimBikeMom.com.