With all the training and preparation one does for a race, the most painful part of any racing experience is a DNF. Did Not Finish, is one translation.
Did Not Finish means something went wrong. There is perhaps no greater frustration in endurance sports.
I recall seeing swimmers at the Racine Half Ironman emerge from the sixty-degree water shivering and stiff, lucky to have completed even that stage. They wandered off in their wetsuits to get warmed up in the medical tent. One woman’s lips were blue.
These DNFers had to fetch their bikes later. Gingerly they walked out of the transition area alone and with heads down. All their preciously laid-out triathlon stuff was stuffed back into their bag. There would be no riding or running that day. No Half Ironman Kudos For You!
My own experience with a DNF in the marathon came on a cold day in Minneapolis-St.Paul. The weather for the Twin Cities Marathon was thirty degrees with a brisk wind. I wore only a tee shirt in those conditions and at sixteen miles, my tongue swelled with hypothermia and my lips were indeed blue. A college roommate watching the race pulled me off the course. “You’re done,” he told me.
By contrast, I also DNFed in hot conditions at the Prairie State Games, an Olympic-style competition in Illinois. Temps were in the 80s and humidity, 80%. The air inside the University of Illinois stadium was thick. I ran two miles in 9:30 during the 5000 meters and started to weave on the track. I was fit enough for that pace but not in those conditions. Or perhaps I just ingested too much caffeine in the free Cokes in the cafeteria leading up to the race. In any case, a side stitch and dizziness whacked me good. I wound up in a wheelbarrow filled with ice.
Usually, there’s some aspect of preparation or the lack thereof that leads to a DNF. The wrong diet or a gap in training can throw off your competitive efforts.
Athletes long into a competitive season are most at risk for DNFs. When your racing peak begins to thin, the body rebels. One fall I’d raced seven out of eight weekends in a row and had won several of those races. Week after week I hit the streets to compete in 10ks, 5Ks, half marathons and finally a 25K. I was so fit the racing felt great. All the way through October it lasted.
But then came November. And even though I knew my racing should have been through for the fall, I accepted an invite to a top-flight new 10k race in Rosemont, Illinois. There would be world class runners there, including a guy named Mark Nenow, who would go on to set the 10K road race record in the low 27s.
I did not imagine that I could keep up with those types of runners, but the pace was promising to be fast. So I signed up and went through the first mile in sub-5:00 fashion. And then the bottom fell out. Spectacularly, you might say. The next four miles were a frightful slog. It felt like there was jelly in my quads. I kept going and made it to the entrance to the tunnel where the race finished inside a convention center. Then I pulled off the course and walked, sore and exhausted, to my car. I did not want to end the season with a 39:00 10k. There had been too many triumphs to mar the mind with that kind of effort.
I took that lesson to the bank, for sure. You need to know when your racing season is over. In that respect, there is no shame in a DNF. There are simply days and times when it is not your day or your time to keep on going. Live to train and race another day. That’s the motto.
Do you have a DNF to share? Write about it in the comments below. We’ve all been there. Get it off your chest. It’s a catharsis!
TRAIN HARD. COMPETE WELL.