The Big DNF (Did Not Finish)

All ready to race before the start of IM Canada. Photo courtesy of Diego T.

Diego T recounts his DNF at IMCa in July.

Back in July I DNFed Ironman Canada. There. I wrote it (even writing about it still makes my heart hurt). There is no way to sugar-coat it: it sucks.

Still now, my self-esteem is kind of bruised. I don’t even want to wear anything that says Ironman which seriously limits my training gear choices because most all my crap has some Ironman stuff on it. I am not quite sure what to do with the cool backpack with “Ironman Canada 2015” in big letters they give you when you check in. I feel so sorry for myself that I forget that I’ve completed four Ironmans as well as trained for and started two more – an accomplishment on its own.

When I think back at the two times I’ve withdrawn from an Ironman race (the second one being Ironman Wisconsin 2012) I always ask myself: What if I had pushed through? Couldn’t have I put myself together? Should have I taken more carbs? Did I give up to those negative thoughts too easily? The second-guessing just never ends.

What’s hard about the decision to withdraw from a race is that it is far from obvious. And at the same time it is irreversible (the moment you tell the volunteers you want to quit, they unceremoniously take your timing chip and send you your not-so-merry way). Making things worse, you feel physically awful; cold, sick, and in pain. Your thinking is impaired by exhaustion. Even the most basic math (to calculate things like how many miles you have left, or whether or not you are going to make the cut off time, or if you have been taking enough grams of carbs per hour) feels like you are doing orbital dynamics calculations in your head. Your Garmin doesn’t track your losses. And the thought of a nice warm bath and an inviting bed is just soooo tempting. Under those conditions, it is just too darn hard to distinguish whether you are going thru a bad moment that you can Zen away with some positive thinking voodoo, or that it is indeed the end of the line for you. Making things worse, you look around and think you see that everyone else is cruising happily through it. Even that little older lady you passed two hours ago is cranking along (“in your face!”, you imagine her saying while sticking out her middle finger).

But there is not much use in trying to figure out what went wrong or second-guessing my decision. I don’t think I will ever know whether it was the right decision or not, but I do know that it is pointless to dwell on it. I will never finish those two races – that’s irreversible – but I can certainly learn from them and sign up for others (thankfully, I am healthy enough and have a supportive family and coach to do so). I can reflect on my training, my nutrition, my hydration, my mental attitude before and during the race, and my reasons for doing this crazy thing in the first place.

The way I see it, if you do enough Ironmans (or any type of race that is challenging to you, for that matter) it is just a matter of time before you don’t finish one. An Ironman is a grueling thing, and one day your body or your mind will say “nope, not today”.

There will be inevitably a moment (or ten) during a race when you will seriously consider quitting. When you will tell yourself “I cannot do this”. The wisdom lies in distinguishing – in that precise moment and place – when the crappy feeling is temporary and will pass with a little pushing and self-talk and positive attitude stuff, or when continuing would actually be dangerous to your health and not worth the risk.

We triathletes are an over-achieving and obsessive-compulsive bunch, and as such we don’t do failure very well. The evening of the failed race I was already thinking about ways to “make it up”. Was there a race in the next couple of months I could still register for? (To prove myself that this was a fluke and that I can do this stuff). I don’t want to wait until next year to try again! No, hold on, next year I am going to do two Ironmans! You get quite irrational and impulsive. After a few deep breadths and counting to ten a couple of times I decided to wait until I was a little less emotional. I talked to my family and my coach and planned for my next adventures on a cooler head.  So I will be attempting Ironman Coeur d’Alene next year (I say attempting and not “doing” an Ironman because I’ve come to learn to respect the race), and I know that this setback will only motivate me to train harder and smarter and become a better athlete. Wish me luck.

Note from the coach: Diego, first and foremost I am very very proud of you.

Thank you for your brutally honest account of DNF-ing a goal race where you’ve invested your time, money and soul for months.

It is inevitable that at some point as an athlete it will not be your day and you will drop out of a race for the big DNF. The key is moving on and treating the DNF as an opportunity to learn and grow as an athlete.

You may never know if stopping was the right decision and nobody can ever make that call for you but, as a coach I look to see what the thought process was behind the DNF. I try to teach you to emotionally and physically be strong but also I try to teach you that being the best athlete you can be sometimes is about being the smartest athlete you can be. Sometimes that means overriding the emotion and doing what you physically need to do to stay safe and healthy for that race day.

First it helps to look at why you DNF’d IF you can pinpoint a reason. Sometimes you cannot. Maybe you had a hint of an injury which flared during the race, maybe you had too much stress going into the race which took too much of a toll or maybe it was something out of your control like weather or mechanical issues. Ultimately it does not matter. The next race, you’ll have rehabbed the injury, understood the role stress can play, practiced fueling or hydration issues.  You’ll be ready for that next race.

When should that next race be? Don’t jump immediately onto a race calendar trying to bring redemption to a tough situation. Take the recovery needed after a training cycle and the stress of race day.  Maybe it does make sense to aim for another race but maybe it makes more sense to move on from that DNF.

Dream on and aim for those big goals. Sometimes you’ll have that DNF but without taking a chance, you’ll never achieve those finishes. Whatever happens on one race day does not define who you are.  Letting go of the disappointment is part of process and looking forward to the next challenges makes us better athletes. We can’t wait to see where you’ll go next Diego.


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