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Crossing the finish line is always better than quitting, Tim DeBoom writes.
This article was originally published in the May/June 2013 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
DNF. Did not finish. No one wants to see that next to his or her name in the results. I wonder, if your actual reason for not finishing an event were listed (rather than “DNF”), would the percentage of finishers increase? How would you like to see “quit,” “event was too hard,” “power numbers were off” or “was not winning” next to your name? The fear of public shaming could be a real motivator when things get tough out there. I was 9 years old the first time I felt that shame.
I grew up a skinny swimmer training in the unheated outdoor pools in the heartland of Iowa. This meant one thing: I froze at every practice. The legend that there was a thin layer of ice covering the surface of the pool kept me awake at night. I was certainly never the first to dive in. My only solace was the sun-heated cement deck that offered our cold, little bodies a short reprieve between sets. We would leap out of the water and flatten ourselves against the glorious warmth of the deck until the next “go!” and the torture started all over.
One particularly cold day I could not find the courage to peel myself from the cozy concrete to start the next set. I could not convince myself that I needed to do another 200 meters in that inhospitable pool. How was skipping that one interval going to hurt me?
The answer came booming across the deck. My coach, Nick Gearhart, whom I considered more of a big brother than a coach, a man I looked up to, called me out. “Nice attitude, Tim!”
The sting was immediate. The inner torment festered instantly, and I was back in the pool within seconds trying to catch my lane mates. Not only was Nick disappointed in me, but more importantly, I was disappointed in myself. I never apologized or tried to explain my actions. It would not happen again.
I can count on one hand the races I did not finish during my 20 years as a triathlete. Only two were “quits.” And I use that word intentionally. I did quit. I gave up. I quit on the biggest stage in our sport. I walked off the course in Kona, twice, thinking I just didn’t have it that day. In the moment, I was fine with the decision. I thought that I didn’t have anything left to prove, left to give, just plain left. I was wrong. “Quit,” “too hard” or “wasn’t winning” would have all been fitting disclaimers next to my name in the results.
On both occasions, by the time I was back in my condo, the torment and guilt had already begun to fester. But I wasn’t just facing myself in the mirror and coach Nick on the pool deck. I had to confront my wife, family, sponsors, friends and fans too. Where had I learned that quitting was OK? I say learned because I watched my baby girl fall and get back up 100 times (literally) in a 30-minute span when she was learning to walk. She did not even think about giving up. What happens along the way that allows us to give ourselves permission to quit when things are tough?
Unfortunately, quitting is all too common in our sport. The percentage of DNF’s at every race is too high. I know there are medical issues and mechanical problems on the course, but I would wager that the majority are quitters. They argue with themselves, make up excuses, and pack it in with the reasoning that they will be better off for the next race. This conduct is rife among the professional ranks. Many think, “Why suffer through a race and finish out of the money when I can go to the next race on the circuit in a week or two?” Or “I can’t let so-and-so beat me. I’ll be better off dropping out.” Is quitting better? I don’t think so. The professionals are the leaders on the course, and they should lead by example. It is also their job, and they need to finish the job every time
I know that dropping out crossed my mind many more times than the few I mentioned above because every race has a low point. I also know that I gained much more from persevering than dropping out. Crossing the finish line should always be your first goal. Just finishing can often be overlooked when other, more ambitious goals emerge, but it is always the most important. I can guarantee that crossing the finish line, no matter how badly the race has gone, will feel better than sitting on the side of the road a quitter.
Tim DeBoom is a two-time winner of the Ironman World Championship and the last American to win in Kona.
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