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What Happens after DNF?

I received this email this morning.  I was actually dreading writing the Wine and Dine Disney half marathon report, so I decided to take a few minutes and respond to this email via a blog post, especially since Ironman Florida just happened on Saturday. I will eventually write about Disney. 🙂

Also, I also wanted to evoke some of YOUR thoughts, as readers and fellow athletes, and get some of your insights.  Please freely comment and respond to this post with your experiences.

The email was this:

I have read and followed you during my training for IM Florida. Your blog and insights and just real life truthful perspective has been inspiring. I was a DNF at the race and devastated. So much sacrifice, financially, time from kids , mentally… Just crushing.  Any stories or words from some of your followers that might experienced this? 

For those of you who might be wondering what a DNF is… it’s tri-lingo for “Did Not Finish” a race.  So if you missed the official time cutoffs (even if you crossed the finish-line), walked off the course, were pulled for whatever reason by race officials, this is considered a “DNF.”

The perplexing thing emotionally, sometimes, is that you can cross the finish line of a longer distance race (half Ironman / 70.3 or Ironman / 140.6) and still be an official DNF.  This happens especially with time-trial swim starts or rolling starts.  More about the rolling start in the Louisville race report, and an explanation of the time-cutoffs in Ironman particularly are in this report.

Disclaimer: I have not DNF’d a race (yet).  But I have been very close in two of the biggest races of my life – and I had a really “bad” experience in one of them (Lake Placid). So I am going to come at this post from that experience and angle, as well as my coaching experience, and then for those of you who have things to add or correct me on – please do!

I would love for this to very much be a collaborative post, full of heart and wisdom and experiences from our tri community.

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.  But these are the few things that I say and remind my athletes experiencing the aftermath of a DNF.  I am going to approach this from an long course perspective (half Ironman and Ironman… the brand or the non-brand. It’s easier to call it “Ironman” for simplicity sake).

But the same principles in this post apply for ALL distances.

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Distinguish Between a DNF… and a DNS

First of all, you showed up to the race.

You were NOT a DNS (“Did Not Start”).  That alone is a huge accomplishment. Think of all the training and dedication and hours that you put into showing up and putting yourself in the game on race day.  Take one small moment and pat yourself on the back for the following:

  • Dreaming big
  • Settling a goal
  • Training for that goal
  • Believing in yourself
  • Showing up on race day

You should be proud of the fact that you put on that stretchy suit, goggles and a swim cap and you showed up.

I do not mean to say that DNF is better than DNS. There are circumstances where racers should absolutely NOT race, should NOT start, and should NOT show up—but I AM staying that if you put in the training and you are able to start in a healthy and trained body, in a race that you have every right to show up and race… THAT is something good.

Something like 3,300 people register for Ironman. And on race day, approximately 2,500 show up.  That means that EIGHT HUNDRED PEOPLE did not make it to the start.  However, you were one of the ones who made it to the start, well-trained, healthy (or healthy enough) and injury-free (or mostly-injury free).

That alone is a big accomplishment.  Congratulations on that.  Seriously (no sarcasm here).

[Side note: I’m not saying that if you DNS a race that you failed … I’m just saying that if you have the chance to make it to the start, you are: a) lucky you made it (some people would give anything to be there!); and b) you should be proud of you for doing so.]

[As another side note: I absolutely, positively do not endorse showing up an “trying” a race. I AM a cheerleader–but you should be trained and ready for the race of your capability and level before you attempt a race on race day. Someone in the comments brought this up and I wanted to revise to be clear.]

Distinguish Between What You Could Control and What You Could Not

In my first Ironman, I had an acquaintance who was super fast. And he finished in 14 hours and some change. (To me, that IS super fast… but he was more like a 12 hour guy).  What happened?  Well, he had not one… not two… but FOUR flat tires on the course. He changed his tubes FOUR times.  It cost him over two hours on the course.  He had three tubes on him (kudos for being that prepared), but he had to wait for Ironman mechanical for the fourth, which took a massive chunk of time.

Guess what? If I had had ONE flat tire in my first event, that would have likely been a DNF for me.  I finished my first Ironman with only 16 minutes to spare.  I’m a pretty quick tube-changer, but I don’t know if I could have done it perfectly in 16 minutes and not have a pinched flat later, etc.

So that would have been something out of my control.  I mean, sure I could train harder and get faster and lose weight and be like my friend–so I have a cushion of HOURS. (We can always get better, I know).

But you get my drift.

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If you showed up on race day in 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.  If the weather was tumultuous and caused you to have all sorts of physical issues–you couldn’t control the weather.

Focus on what you could control on race day.

If an unforeseen event knocked you out, then breathe.  What could you have done about that?  Nothing.  You can’t beat yourself up about what you can’t control.

Grieve.

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…  this is like a complete loss. Acknowledge it as one.

I wrote a post a long time ago about the stages of triathlon injury.  That there are three stages: grief, madness, and coping. I think the same can apply for DNF.

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.

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The next stage is what I like to call “madness”.

The Madness is the in-between stage. The no man’s land. The What-In-The-Hell-Am-I-Going-To-Do-Now question. The loony bin. The wringing of the hands. The belief that you hate all things triathlon. Or trying to give your bike away to the kid down the street who is seven and has no use for your P2.  Sometimes there are cold sweats, and lots of talking to oneself, and recurring “What ifs”.

This is also natural.  Let it flow. And take a little while to take comfort.

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I hate when, I am in the middle of a personal or triathlon crisis that “It could be worse.”  I think that is an insensitive comment akin to “Everything happens for a reason” after you lose a loved one.

Of course it can always be worse!

That doesn’t mean that you aren’t in the middle of a pig pile of shit.  So.  I am NOT going to say, “It’s JUST a race and it could be worse”.  Because I don’t think that is true.

Right now, your truth and your reality HURTS.  And it SUCKS.  And right now, it can’t possibly feel worse.

So, I get that.

I spent the last 2.2 MILES of the 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 my Garmin had died so I wasn’t sure what time it was, or what kind of 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.  Take the time. I repeat. Take the time.

And after you have sufficiently done these things, only THEN is it time to figure out how to cope and move on.

Well… Now What?

The final phase is figuring out how to cope with the situation. Really evaluate what happened on race.  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 they don’t have a blog or a public place to post it. I want them to write a summary of the day–immediately–only a day or two MAX after a big race.  The emotions, the facts, and everything in between. Really analyze what went wrong and what went right–where they could change things if they could. Where seconds could have been saved, or what not.

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. Or pure and simple (the hard question and hard-to-swallow reality)… it could be that, on that day, we 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 be Frozen and let it go.

Somehow, let it go.

Be kind to yourself.

It won’t be instant. But it’s part of the process.

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Because here’s the ultimate truth:

Regardless of the why behind the DNF, the DNF does not define YOU.

As a person, it’s an event in your life.  The race sucked–YOU do NOT suck.  The race was incomplete–YOU are NOT incomplete. The race was a failure–YOU are not a failure.  The race was amazing event and a worthy accomplishment–YOU are also AMAZING and WORTHY–as you are, without the race, without the finish, without the sport of triathlon.

A finish line is NOT WHO YOU ARE.

Many of us, especially the card-carrying Ironman diehards, have so much of the triathlete world as part of our identity.  I mean, I am the guiltiest one in the bunch:  Wife. Mom. Ironman. Coach.  I am a label-nut.  It’s part of my personality flaw: I put  things in boxes.

I have to pause many days and breathe–and remember that I do triathlon. But I am not triathlon.  I am a triathlete–a person who does the sport.

I have to remind myself that triathlon, while it is a HUGE part of what I do, it is not all I am. 

I have to remind myself WHY I do the sport.

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I’m a mom. A lawyer. A wife. A friend. A coach. A grocery shopper. A laundry folder. A type-A introverted high-strug people-pleaser who gets her feelings easily hurt  …I’m many, many things.  Triathlete is just a sliver of it all.

And you are many wonderful things too.

The Pep Talk

If the wounds are new, then just grieve and come back to this post or these thoughts later.

But you will survive and move on, and figure out what you want. Just if it’s fresh–now is not the time to think about that. 

When it’s time to think, then think about this:

There is always another race–there is only one life.  YOU missed out on the finish of a single, yet important race. Just remember, though, that the finish line does not define you or your life or your purpose. It was one day that ended in a way you didn’t want.

But YOU, the perfectly imperfect and strong and fantastic YOU, are still here, still fighting and still here to dream another dream, and live another day.  You can pick your goals and you can try again.  You can return with a vengeance. Or you can sell your bike and take up another adventure entirely.

In closing, after giving yourself some time (could be a lot of time), then ask yourself: what does this sport add to my life?

Make a list and really study and evaluate. Then set your goals for the future. Figure out what’s important going forward–triathlon or not–and draw strength and hope and focus from what is important to you.

Either way, with or without triathlon, YOU are amazing.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

#JustKeepMovingForward

(Please feel free to share your experiences and anecdotes in the comments below).

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54 Comments

  • Nicole T.

    November 9, 2015 at 2:36 pm

    I just had my first DNF at Ironman Maryland. Your post is timely and kind. You do need to grieve. Then you need to let go of the guilt, anger, embarrassment, etc. that you may have. My incredible Sherpa husband and wonderful daughters reminded me that I can’t control the weather, that I can always try again next year (although they would like me to not race in near-freezing wind chills), and that there was a lesson to be learned from being pulled from the course. It gave my oldest the courage to want to try her first Sprint (she will 13 next race season). She knows that the training and showing up are the hard part. The rest of the day is what it will be. Some days you conquer the course, some days the course conquers you. Giving it your all is all you can do. Hold your head high, embrace the DNF for what it gives you, and know that you are more than those three letters!

    Reply
  • sandi

    November 9, 2015 at 2:36 pm

    I’ve never DNFed a race but from what I see (a lot) is that people go into these long things unprepared.
    Run a couple of full marathons first. Do some supported century perimeter rides, or multi-day rides.
    And for god’s sake (and for your life’s sake and for the RD) learn how to swim.
    So many go into IMs thinking that their head is going to get them through. It doesn’t.

    Reply
  • Jenn Hronkin

    November 9, 2015 at 2:47 pm

    Thanks so much for this. I’m now in tears at work 🙂 I DNF Lake Stevens this year due to immersion pulmonary edema / SIPE and for that reason it was probably my last tri. Haven’t really allowed myself to mourn yet! It’s changed my self image… ex lifeguard who now cannot even be counted on to keep herself safe swimming. I needed to hear this today. ♡

    Reply
    • Sara

      November 9, 2015 at 3:50 pm

      Jenn – you were amazing regardless of the outcome. You put in the time and I cannot imagine how disappointing that was/is. I was so sad for you! But as Meredith said – you are not a failure. I don’t even think the day was a failure. Thank goodness you were swimming in a lake with help near by; this situation with different circumstances could have had a much different outcome. I am sure you will make an amazing member of a tri-relay team any day!

      Reply
    • sandi

      November 9, 2015 at 6:39 pm

      Yes glad you are ok! There’s always a chance you can get back in the h20 and/or be active again. Modern medicine is amazing! Good luck!

      Reply
    • Allison

      May 1, 2018 at 5:33 pm

      You can overcome SIPE. A person on my tri team did when they worked with my cardiologist Dr Aaron Baggish at Mass General Hospital in Boston, MA. He runs the cardiovascular performance program. I successfully completed my first IM (Lake Placid) after getting the nod of approval to race from the program 7 years after I had a heart attack the day after a half ironman I won my age group in. Look them up and don’t give up!

      Reply
  • Colleen

    November 9, 2015 at 2:54 pm

    So well said. It is truly a loss and it needs to be treated as such. But it is only one loss against all the other “wins” or “victories” in life. So mourn and be mad and pissed, and then find a way, whatever is YOUR way, to set it down in the past and move forward. My DNF was a bike malfunction, and only in an Oly distance, so not as heart-wrenching in as far as time spent and level of training committment. But it was my first Oly, and I was so ready. I cried like a blubbering baby when the road crew came to get me. They offered to take me to a liquor store. Then I cried when I called my husband. And I cried when I brought my bike to the bike shop for repairs. There was a voice in my head that said just what Meredith said above: “you are not this race. this is your hobby, its something you love, but it is not YOU. it does not define you.” I hope the person who emailed finds comfort here with this blog, and with all the rest of us who can appreciate and understand the pain. And I can’t wait until you make your move towards whatever is next for you. Meredith is right: You are amazing. Don’t forget that.

    Reply
  • Susan

    November 9, 2015 at 3:06 pm

    I DNF’d at IMLP in 2012. It was very difficult and I cried for months whenever I talked about the race. It took me a while to decide to try again. I raced at IMMD this year and finished!!! It was a very happy day for me and a long journey to get there. You definitely have to give yourself time to grieve, recover, and move on. I wasn’t even sure that I would try again after IMLP but I’m very glad that I did. All words of encouragement are welcome.

    Reply
  • Ana

    November 9, 2015 at 3:07 pm

    While I have yet to DNF, my son — Mr. Cross Country Team Captain, who runs 5-minute miles — did DNF this August at the USAT AG Oly Nationals. He was heartbroken and literally in tears. It took him until just recently to understand that he qualified, he started, and he did the best he could on that given day.

    Reply
  • Christine (Chris) matthews

    November 9, 2015 at 3:09 pm

    Wow…I DNF’d yesterday due to complications of heat exhaustion…6 miles left in a 70.3. The wound is still fresh. Thank you so much for these words today. You are spot on. I’m coming back to this post many times…

    Reply
    • Cassie

      November 11, 2015 at 11:17 am

      I DNF’d with 6 miles left of Tempe 70.3, I KNEW it was going to happen, but when the (very nice, understanding) lady took my timing chip, I just started the ugly cry. I couldn’t help it. So damn close. Just know that I get it.

      Reply
  • Kris

    November 9, 2015 at 3:13 pm

    Having never DNF’d (only done sprint and olympic distances) I can only offer what I would “hope” I would do. Grieve, get mad, cry, DON’T stuff your face with food, take some time off exercising but not too much time or do something completely different for exercise.
    The part or parts of the race that were out of your control and caused the DNF, let it go. Get mad but let it go. It was out of your control plain and simple.
    Was your nutrition on the course off? Nutrition has to be THE hardest aspect because it could take years to perfect your race day nutrition for all types of weather conditions.
    Sometimes I think people overestimate what they are capable of. Yes, we should set our sights high but take a good hard look at those cutoff times. Compare to your current times and be realistic as to what is actually possible. Consider worse case scenarios. Double your transition times, factor in a few flats, factor in walking, factor in the “shit I just need to stop and wonder what the hell I was thinking :)”. Calculate worse case scenario and then decide whether to jump on the half/full ironman distance.
    To the woman who emailed you, I hope she has a fantastic support system at home and is super proud of her for just getting out there.

    Reply
  • Angie

    November 9, 2015 at 3:13 pm

    Great post! I have not DNFed a race (yet), but i gave myself permission to last summer. I had a couple of injuries that kept me from training the way I wanted to for Iron Girl in Columbia, MD; it is a long, challenging sprint course. I decided to go with my BTF (best triathlon friend) and just do the best I could to have fun and be OK with not finishing if that was the end result (part of that permission was that if my injuries started bothering me too much, it was time to stop). I think it was one of the most fun races I’ve ever done! I felt absolutely no pressure to improve because I was even prepared for a DNF. While I would have approached it differently had I felt better trained, I think it was a good lesson to learn. In the future I will try to race with more joy and less pressure on myself. As Meredith said, DNF is something that happened on that particular day, it does not define you as a person.

    Reply
  • Rachel T

    November 9, 2015 at 3:16 pm

    Sometimes, the fear of the DNF makes us do dumb things! A DNF is not the end of the world, for most of us, there is time to work through it and give it another go.

    I pushed through a lot of pain (like, injury pain, not just work pain) to finish a half marathon that wasn’t an A race because I couldn’t’ wrap my head around DNFing. I ended up not being able to run for almost six months and with an extensive course of PT because I put finishing in front of not hurting myself.

    Being able to deal with DNF is a skill set that I think everyone can benefit from developing.

    Reply
  • Janice

    November 9, 2015 at 3:35 pm

    Thank you for this post Meredith. I have not had the pleasure to date but certainly have had my share of races that did not go quite as planned. This includes a 70.3 earlier this year that after months and months of dedicated training, I managed to blow up on the run due to heat exhaustion and nausea. I had so many negative thoughts and was even angry when I crossed the finish line despite actually making it there (wasn’t so sure at about walking mile 10 on the run). It took a while but I am still proud of the finish and the dedication to training.
    To the reader who emailed, do all of the things that have been mentioned. You are entitled to wallow for a bit and be angry/sad/disappointed/etc. because you worked hard to get to the starting line.
    But then take a step back and think about what you did to get there and be proud, so very proud of yourself. As stated, you sacrificed time with your spouse/kids/friends and endured many hours of training. This is to be celebrated and for whatever reason, it just was not your day but hopefully, when the dust settles, you can embark on a new challenge and your day will come. Hopefully you will find the energy to get back on the horse at some point this week, even if it is a teeny tiny workout (provided you are healthy/injury-free). It can serve as your first step back to whatever lies ahead.
    And for the record, you are completely entitled to think about punching anyone who says it could be worse. Think about it but let the feeling pass as I cannot advocate for actually hitting another human. I have been there in other situations but thankfully never followed through. 🙂

    Reply
  • Reiko Donato

    November 9, 2015 at 3:37 pm

    I’m not sure if you intended to imply that DNF is better than DNS. I do not necessarily agree. Starting no matter how injured you are, how sick you are, how unprepared you are (regardless of the reason) does not necessarily make you a badass, smart, or better. On the other hand, sometimes, no matter how prepared and ready you are, things could happen once you start the race that turn your day upside down. If you DNF because of something you don’t have control over – getting sick, crashing, too hot, too cold, injury, etc. – you should just learn from the experience that sh*t happens sometimes, and hopefully you’d be more prepared for the unexpected (maybe have an extra pair of shoes in the special needs bag, or carry Tums or Bandaid, etc.). If DNF happened because you didn’t execute your plan, then you have nobody but yourself to blame. And the most important thing is how you learn and grow from the experience.

    Reply
    • Swim Bike Mom

      November 9, 2015 at 3:42 pm

      I don’t think I’m implied that DNF is better than DNS… I was saying if you are lucky enough to START, that’s something.

      I wrote: “you were one of the ones who made it to the start, healthy (or healthy enough) and injury-free (or mostly-injury free). That alone is a big accomplishment. Congratulations on that. Seriously (no sarcasm here). [Side note: I’m not saying that if you DNS a race that you failed … I’m just saying that if you have the chance to make it to the start, you are: a) lucky you made it (some people would give anything to be there!); and b) you should be proud of you for doing so.]”

      I don’t not under any circumstances think that you should start a race that you are not prepared for or where you are racing with an injury that is serious. I DO, however, think that THIS is not the post to lecture someone on whether they “should” or “should not” have tackled a race or not. If they did, and they were unprepared, they know it… I don’t think we need to address that and say “I told you so” or “you should have known”. That is not the spirit of this particular post. Signing up for races you are actually capable and qualified to do is another post.

      I will, however, go back and edit to be more clear, in case the DNS v. DNF distinction was lost.

      Reply
  • Darcy

    November 9, 2015 at 3:59 pm

    Here’s part of a Facebook post that I made in September. A little background, LOTOJA is a local bike race that is 206 miles with just under 10,000 ft in elevation gain. I’ve registered for this race 3 times. I have 2 DNF and 1 DNS (bike crash).

    I had hoped to officially finish LOTOJA yesterday. It was a long, hot day and my heart rate was in the 170’s through most of the climbing. I got to Afton just after 4:00 and realized that with a strong headwind a LOTOJA finish just wasn’t in the cards and decided to drop from the race. When I set a challenging goal for myself there’s a real chance of not succeeding. But I like the challenge. I need to have a reason to attend the 5:30 am spin classes in the winter. And I’ve enjoyed riding with friends. And even though I didn’t finish, the journey was great. Don’t feel sorry for me. I’d much rather go after something and fail then not go after it at all (or set an easy goal that I’d get bored with). I have no regrets. I have a great life.

    Reply
      • Kate

        November 10, 2015 at 11:44 am

        I saw this on pinterest recently and I think it’s appropriate: “Someone once told me not to bike off more than I could chew. I said I’d rather choke on greatness than nibble on mediocrity.”

        So if you DNF or DNS but made the effort, you choked on greatness, which trumps nibbling on mediocrity!

        Reply
  • Shuntae

    November 9, 2015 at 4:09 pm

    I DNF’ed at my first tri ever, Iron Girl in 2012…got pulled from the swim. Yes, I was disappointed, angry, embarrassed, all the feels. But after a while (and with lots of support), I really looked back at and figured out that I just wasn’t ready THAT DAY. I set about getting some additional help and coaching with my swim, did more open water training and kept moving forward. I am still not particularly good at this tri thing, but I am so grateful that I didn’t give up on myself or my goals when that day went badly.

    Reply
  • LisaH

    November 9, 2015 at 4:29 pm

    Having a DNF at my first attempt at an Olympic in 2014 I can wholeheartedly concur with every single step of the coping process
    I cried all the way home
    Alone
    I spent a few weeks being furious with myself even though I was well prepared and leading up to my A race in Augusta that same year
    Then I got busy with figuring our what went wrong
    I learned that I should never go to a race out of state on my own.
    Because I also learned that Day that have exercise induced asthma which was triggered by very cold water
    And I did not get through the swim
    Which was my strength
    The medics did not want me driving 4 hours back by myself
    But I did
    There was a whole lot I learned from that experience
    AFTER I got finished grieving and being pissed
    And I used those lessons to successfully complete Augusta 8 weeks later

    I would also tell him/her that the effort and time were not wasted preparing for this event and to use it as a base going forward

    No way any reader here who follows everything you’ve written about the process would just “show up” with no training

    Crap happens that is out of your control

    And then I would give him/her a GINORMOUS virtual hug and tell them to be proud of themselves for daring to dream. And dream big!!

    Reply
  • Jacky

    November 9, 2015 at 4:45 pm

    Great post Meredith! Haven’t DNF’d (yet) but was very very close Sunday last week in NY. It was a bad race and although I did finish I am GRIEVING. I’m still hurt and embarrassed… it was hot. Great up to mile 9 and then I just couldn’t tolerate water or food. Cramps, stomach ache… pulled at medical at mile 21 and held for 20 minutes. Managed to finish “zombie style”. Proud to have finished but hurt and grieving. Need to make peace with NY and with the marathon itself!

    Reply
  • Richard Wetmore

    November 9, 2015 at 5:08 pm

    I am an Ironman(Texas 2014)! My heart and soul know this to be true! The bottom line is a DNF is devastating, heart wrenching and for me personally never over it. Yes, I came back from that DNF and completed my quest but the mental stigma from that day is a life long memory. I can analyze and reanalyze that race over and over coming down to the same conclusions of why the DNF occurred. I can equate my DNF to major world events like knowing who you were with, where you were and the feeling you had at that time. My memory will never let me forget each inch of that race that I DNF’ed that day. Missing the time cut off by seven minutes after 2.4 miles and 112 miles completed on a day with weather conditions and altitude contributing. I would like to think someday I will “Let It Go” but for now it is more like “Staying Alive”. The bigger question would be why should I Let It Go? The DNF does most certainly define me as an athlete that gave everything they could on one race day and failed to cross the finish line. “I AM A DNF Lake Tahoe Ironman 2013!”

    Reply
  • Christy

    November 9, 2015 at 5:12 pm

    I DNF’ed my first 70.3 attempt: IM NOLA 70.3 in 2014. I was devastated and demoralized, and essentially took a year and a half off of triathlon-ing. I’m back at it and am determined to redeem myself at IM 70.3 AC next year! I loved this post, and want to applaud all of your efforts! I believe you and I did our first triathlons on the same day: Oct 10, 2010! I’ve been a fan of your blog for years! 🙂

    Reply
  • Ruth

    November 9, 2015 at 5:28 pm

    I DNF Silverman in 2014 – 33 miles into the bike. The paramedics pulled me over because I was swerving on the bike. They pulled me off the course due to dehydration. Couldn’t even cry…didn’t even speak. that night. That said, it has taken me almost a full year to even look at the website for Silverman. However, I’ve finally got it through my thick skull that this DNF did not define me. I completed The Bayshore 70.4 (not a typo that’s what it is) this year and finally am seriously looking at going back and showing Silverman and me that I DON’T GIVE UP EASILY!

    Heal and compete. Bottom line is you are always competing against yourself, go out and make yourself proud. Without sadness there is no joy. Without failure there is not success. Get out of your own way and tri! 🙂

    Reply
  • patrice

    November 9, 2015 at 6:44 pm

    Why tell a soul? Just keep it to yourself and like you say ….move forward. It’s not the end of the world-it’s the beginning of something else!

    Reply
  • Jodi

    November 9, 2015 at 7:09 pm

    Thanks for this post. My first DNF was due to a bike crash. My second one, the worst one, was at IM 70.3 Oceanside this past year. The worst part was I finished the distance and the race but finished over the time limit. I experienced all of these things, some more than others. I picked myself back up and am tackling Oceanside again in 2016. I need to exorcise the demons!

    Reply
  • Anne

    November 9, 2015 at 7:59 pm

    My first IM was Couer d’Alene in 2014. I survived a very choppy and crazy swim, horrible 20-25 mph winds and getting sick at mile 30 on the bike, and the 26.2 mile death march of not keeping food down except chicken broth. Because of the time trial start, I wasn’t aware of how close I was to the cut off time on the run. I finished that IM in 17:00.16. I finished that whole course….. And suffered through the entire thing and NEVER gave up. 16 seconds has me listed as a DNF on the results page. I was devastated until I realized all I over came that day. So today I proudly wear my finishers gear and I have my IM tattoo and I tell the story with pride. Eff the time…. That day wasn’t the best and of course I’ll seek redemption but to me, I’m still an Ironman finisher!!!!

    Reply
  • Amy

    November 9, 2015 at 9:39 pm

    I had a DNF at a half ironman (Barrelman Tri in Canada, Sept. 2014 ) missing the time cut off to run the second loop. This was my lead up HIM in prep for my first full IM at IMAZ, approximately 7 weeks later. I knew going into the half that I was beyond exhausted, the rain and wind conditions were off the charts that day, not knowing the course (was stupid), competing in a foreign country, it all was adding up, but ultimately it didn’t matter because I didn’t get to cross the finishline that day. I knew on that day, I had done the best I could. Mostly this DNF hugely impacted my confidence leading into IMAZ. I remember during the HIM thinking I must be insane to think I could pull off a full IM as I was really dieing out there, just trying to do half the distance! I did a lot of soul searching after the DNF and reviewed the IMAZ cutoffs at nauseam. I did learn the most about myself during the whole DNF, and like others that day will rather forever remain with me and that’s okay, it’s part of my racing story..BTW, I went on to cross my IMAZ finish line and truly one of the best days of my life! I remain grateful to make it to any starting line, whatever happens after that is well, just gravy…

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  • Ed C.

    November 9, 2015 at 11:35 pm

    DNF at IMCDA this year put me into a major funk for a long time. I pr;d the swim and dropped at 68 miles into the bike. 100 plus degree heat did me in. I’ll admit, I cried waiting to be taken back into town. Then was mad, then went back and forth between feeling like a failure and then admitting that I did the right thing of pulling out before medical pulled me, it was that bad. I have finally regrouped, signed up for Vineman 70.3 and will be back for an IM in 2017. Great post. Really hit a raw nerve but its nice to see that others have dealt with this and come back.

    Reply
  • Donna

    November 10, 2015 at 8:46 am

    My name is Donna and I DNFd IMFL in 2014… (waiting for the “Hi, Donna!”) 365 days later I am still somewhat grieving and admit that my “Timehop” photo memories from a year ago had me feeling upset and reliving those feelings of inadequacy this past weekend. My coach tells me that all triathletes are running from something or to something and escape to triathlon. I have to agree and see this as a reason why such a varied bunch of humans subject themselves to this freedom of victory and, unfortunately, the agony of defeat. It may not always be dramatic, but there is always a reason why and always something to prove to themselves. I was prepared for my race, but not for the things that were out of my control (torn tendon and an Achilles on the verge of bursting). I felt like I had something to prove to my self in order to stop the constant replaying of “You can’t do this because….” through my whole life. And on that day it felt like “they” were right. I’ve taken my time to grieve (and heal) and am just starting to warm-up to the thought of beginning again. I know it’s something I will to do, because quite literally I don’t go a day without seeing this dream through. Thanks for this post… the timing couldn’t be more perfect. 🙂

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  • David

    November 10, 2015 at 10:59 am

    I have no idea what is it like to DNF, but I do know what it is like to DNS. I got injured on the 4th of July, my birthday, and made the decision not to do my 2nd Sprint Triathlon one month later. It was a hard decision to make. I bruised my knee and was in no shape to do this. I did grieve and then made the decision to move on and focus on making myself stronger for next years TRI season. I applied some of the things in this post and it really helped me out. I was bound and determined that the DNS was beyond my control and that it does not make me less of a person. I work out in the weight room, the pool, and on the spin bikes to make my knee stronger. In January or February, I will start working on my run and use the Couch to 5K program. I will focus on good form and do everything in my power to slowly ramp up for my second Tri in August of 2016. Here is to a successful Second Sprint Tri for me in 2016. Great Post Meredith!!

    Reply
  • Isabella

    November 10, 2015 at 1:43 pm

    I DNF’d IMWisconsin ’15. It’s a mass start swim and about 200yds in I was kicked in the chest. I went under, came out sputtering and struggling to breathe. Kayaker came around as did the pick up boat but I refused to quit. I struggled to calm my racing heart and find my breath. A kayaker named Bob stayed with me for the entire course. As I struggle, he kept up constant chatter and finally I found myself swimming. I swam well enough that I was able to do a wide circle around the guy that kicked me. We made eye contact after the kick as he was swimming some sort of butterfly.
    I came out of the water at 2:16 a full 40min later than expected. Got on my bike and road. The rolling hills of Madison are unforgiving. As I struggled through the pain in my chest I realized I couldn’t nutrition as I couldn’t one handed stead and grab things from my pockets. Still I kept going. I thought I’d made the bike cut at the end of the first loop as I’d gone a few miles when the bike sag found me.

    I knew what had happened and I also rationalized that had I made the bike time, the marathon could’ve proved a problem as I’d eaten nothing and am a type 1 diabetic.

    My coach did the same race and she was still out there. I went to the hotel, showered and dressed. Then I lay on the bed and cried. I knew I’d done my best but also berated so much lost. I got up, went to the finish and watched my coach race her best Irinman to date. I cried when I saw her and hugged her achievement as it was her 20th IM as well.

    I’ve thought many a time to my actions before and since. And I’ve thought to my next steps. I’ve registered for three races next year, Galveston 70.3, IMTX and IMWISCONSIN. Time will tell and then I shall see.

    Reply
    • Connie McGarrah

      September 24, 2016 at 2:11 pm

      I just DNF IMWI (first IM) on 9/11 at mile 101 of the bike. I had some issues on the bike and was going to miss the cutoff and got pulled. I would have finished. I feel like I’m dying inside most days. I have moments of remembering the good parts and try to focus on those but then the anxiety comes back. I hope you made it this year and had a good race!

      Reply
  • Liz

    November 10, 2015 at 5:06 pm

    DNF here. I was heartbroken, shocked, embarrassed, angry and was sure the sky was going to fall. What was I going to tell my friends and co-workers? How was I going to get myself past this? I was so pissed off but I also knew that I had to pick myself up and move on. I love triathlon and the tri community more than one race, more than my sadness, more than my anger. I initially thought I was alone in my grief but I was not. As you see from all the posts that it happens, it just does and if you haven’t had it happen to you, it’s just like the ‘I haven’t had a flat’ scenario. You haven’t had a flat – yet. Not everything goes as planned. There are so many variables that you just can’t account for. Be sad, be angry, BE MOTIVATED to move on.

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  • Cynthia

    November 10, 2015 at 7:20 pm

    Thank you for this well written piece.

    I did finish my first IM in Cozumel but I did not make the official cut off. I had until 12:30 a.m. and I came in at 12:52 a.m..

    The odd thing is that for the first few days all of times were posted. Then my run times were erased and the big DNF was posted.

    I still consider myself a finisher. Here is my story: http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-1196375

    My local running community and the National Navy-UDT SEAL Museum honored me for my courage to push on and to finish. They presented me with a beautiful plaque. I was completely overwhelmed and cried like a baby when they read, “Courage is not having the strength to go on. It is going on when you don’t have the strength.”

    Although my local supporters told me I am every bit of an Ironman because I finished……it eats at me that I did not make the cut-off.

    So despite the love and support of my local community….I still identify with the DNF feelings that are outlined.

    I completed my 6th HIM last month and continue to train/increase my skills.

    I signed up for 2016 IM Maryland. I am determined to avenge not making the official cut-off.

    I love how Meredith mentioned that we are many things….and triathlon is a sliver of it. But it is a slice that keeps me whole and allows me to be so much more to my family and my community.

    Reply
  • Michele C

    November 10, 2015 at 10:29 pm

    I have DNF’d twice.
    The first was missing one of the bike cutoffs at IM St. George, by literally 2 minutes. I was really upset with myself. As the riders behind me arrived and learned that they had missed the cutoff, they started to yell and swear at the IM worker collecting timing chips. Instantaneously I knew I did not want to be one of them or even with them. I turned to ride to town. Amazingly, some of these people continued on, and I think did not consider that the aid stations would be gone and this was not a course to be on without water. I borrowed a phone, called my husband, and the next day we drove to Zion NP for vacation.

    My second DNF was at IMAZ. As soon as the swim started, I was struggling to breathe. I kept trying to swim but could not put my face in the water. I earned myself not 1, but 2 support staff- a kayak escort AND a land volunteer walking along the waters edge watching me. Lucky for me, as a health care professional, when I started to cough with frothy sputum, I knew what was wrong. I cried and had a brief temper tantrum before calling for medical. Why I developed Immersion Pulmonary Edema (IPE) is a mystery. I have raced since then without a problem. A medical DNF does not hurt any less than missing a time cut off.

    I was more upset over the medical than the missed time cutoff. Either way, this is my hobby, not my job.

    Reply
    • Dave

      November 11, 2015 at 12:33 pm

      Yes I wanted to say that…don’t put so much importance on training for and racing a triathlon. It’s nothing in the scheme of things. And if you ARE making it such a big deal, maybe ask yourself “why”????

      Reply
  • Ally Chisnall

    November 11, 2015 at 5:22 pm

    I had a DNF on my first Triathlon every, 2 flats during a sprint but I was back 4 weeks later to try again. Between those 2 races I decided to do IMMT in 2015. This summer I was at the start line and I barely made it to the finish line, I was the last person to cross the finish line before midnight and the third slowest time. Even though I finished I have gone through these stages in my own way and now I know the training and the years of dedication where the journey, they made me a better person, no medal can equal that. I still have unfinished business with Ironman and one day I may do another…we will see.

    Reply
  • Amie

    November 11, 2015 at 10:40 pm

    My coach sent me this link. It was a great article and very helpful. I did IMFL last weekend and missed the 81 mile bike cutoff by 11 minutes. I had plenty of time to finish the bike and the run. But with time change it made the bike cut off even sooner. It was one of the hottest races they have had at IMFL. I conquered the swim, which is what I was nervous about not meeting the cutoff. I had no idea I was was that close to the bike cutoff. I won’t make excuses as to why I didn’t make the cutoff, instead bottom line I needed to ride faster. I know what I would have done differently. I was most disappointed because of my kids. I have 3 kids, 13,11 and 8. I wanted to show them “Anything is Possible” with hard work. It was not my day and it was very difficult riding back to the race start in the van with the other DNF people. I decided to do the full distance on my own. Another IM is not feasible anytime soon so this Sunday I plan to cover the entire distance. I will start my watch and not stop it until I complete the distance. I need accomplish what I set out to do even if I’m the only one in the race.

    Reply
  • Laurie

    November 12, 2015 at 9:50 am

    I love racing — all types, all distances. While I haven’t counted, I’m sure I have 100+ races under my belt, including 20+ marathons. At some point I learned that I can CHOOSE to DNF, which is totally empowering. I have only chosen DNF three times (and one time a bike crash/fractured vertabrae forced me to DNF). I ask myself two questions when I consider a DNF: a) am I enjoying this activity that I typically love? and b) have I met my goal?. If the answers are NO/YES, then I stop. For example, I did a half-Iron distance last spring because I needed to train on a hilly bike course, under time pressure. Unfortunately, along with the rolling hills came some grass or pollen that caused my eyes to swell and my skin to break out in an itchy rash. The bike ride was miserable, but I finished it (my goal). Then I told the race staff to mark me as DNF … and drove home for two “extra” hours of family time.

    And here’s the kicker. Nobody cares if you DNF. Nobody. I recently quit a marathon at mile 16 to join my family at church (in progress), which was right on the course. As soon as the service ended, the priest gave me a hug and said “I’m so proud of you!” (I was still wearing my bib and running gloves.) I laughed and said “oh, I didn’t finish.” He replied, “Well I don’t even want to drive 16 miles, and you can RUN that far and still have a smile on your face!”

    There’s more joy in the journey of self discovery than there is an any destination.

    Reply
  • Beth

    November 17, 2015 at 11:09 am

    Wow, what amazing replies. So I have yet to complete any longer race than a sprint (first half in 2016), I started out my season this year DQing and ended it DNS. Had two great races in between but still think about the first and last one. The DQ came from me walking out of the water before swim start and still getting on the bike and doing the run. I had been sick for two weeks prior to the race with bronchitis and the water temp was 60 F. I said to myself, there is no way I will make it in that water and walked away. I beat myself up on the bike for a few miles but then got over it and kept going. I actually feel pretty good that I finished. I probably should have never started that one. The DNS was going to be my first Olympic and I made the conscious choice to show up, look at the churning water that was 62 F, had no wetsuit, air temp was 50 F and said F this and left. I had to walk by all the people heading to the swim with all my gear and it felt like the walk of shame. Luckily I had great support from a SBM as we were chatting on messenger and it made me feel better. I went home, got in bed, cried a little and then got my a*& up and said what the heck am I doing, I made the choice to leave. Get over it, and I did. Learning lessons for next year!

    Reply
  • AJ

    December 6, 2015 at 11:26 am

    I look at DNF this way…. One of the best ways to get fit is to set stretch goals and nothing is more stretchy than a triathlon and, outside of the ultra world, doing an iron distance is the stretchiest of all. The very definition of a stretch goal is that a DNF is always possible. But DNF is not a failure (as hard as it may be to feel that is true at the time). A DNF is proof that you had the courage to start and to challenge yourself with something so hard that, even with training and commitment, you may not be able to finish. And DNF doesn’t discriminate. There are pros who don’t finish.

    I started triathlon training when I was over 275 pounds and had just been diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes. My run time (who am I kidding…. My walk time) was so slow that DNF was a very real possibility for the first sprint tri I was training for. I finished that race but experienced my first DNF in the off-season in a trail run – mountain bike duathlon when I told myself that I could power through but the trail and my mountain bike strongly disagreed with me. Now, it wasn’t a big race for me and it wasn’t my main activity so it doesn’t compare to training 6-12 months for iron distance. But the principle holds universally true. If you DNF, it means you had the courage to start and the courage to stretch yourself to your limits. In that respect s DNF is a badge of honor, not of shame. And when you take what you learned and try again, your finish will be that much sweeter.

    Reply
  • Darin Luman

    June 14, 2017 at 4:06 pm

    Hello. I don’t know if this thread is still open but I searched “Dealing with an IRONMAN DNF” and it brought me to your site. Full disclosure, I’m a husband and a father :). I am dealing with a DNF right at this moment. I DNF IM Boulder on Sunday. Everything was on time for a PR until 3 miles into the run, then my body started rejecting everything, even plain water. Medical pulled me with 13 miles to go. As with the other commenters, I’m dealing with the anger, frustration and embarrassment, etc. I’ve had a lot of support in the aftermath, but the emotional pain is real. I do have a silver lining which is I am an IRONMAN finisher from IMTX in 2014 so I am grateful (even more now) for that. Unfortunately what makes this moment a little unusual is that I had already made up my mind that this was my last full IM. It’s a commitment I made to myself and my wife and I have to stick with that. It actually made the training a little more special, but now I am left with this feeling. I feel like I got more marathons in my future and maybe a couple century rides (Hotter ‘n Hell in Wichita Falls, TX each August), but I’ll have to navigate my “smaller triathlon” future. Right now I am angry at the Triathlon God’s.

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  • Ramya

    June 17, 2017 at 7:13 pm

    Thanks for your post. I hope this post still goin on. I DNF last week on IM Cairns due to my cycling capability. Try to continue the run just to pass the finish line but they stop eventually 10km just before the finish line.
    I’m thinking to take another IM, what’s the best thing to do: get the easier one or repeat the same one while you already know the course?
    Thanks.

    Reply
  • Jenn Kiper

    September 29, 2017 at 9:43 am

    Thank you for the post- I just DNF’ed Chattanooga. This would have been my second IM. So at least I can say I am still an Ironman. I fought sickness and injury all training season long but was feeling good till race week when again I got sick. I PR’d in my swim and first loop of the bike but then pulled myself due to vomiting and having no nutrition left in me and the heat probably played a factor. Where I am having trouble is I trained and raced with friends this race and two of them were first timers and I really did not want to be deb downer- I am so proud of them and what they achieved I just wanted to be super supportive of all my friends racing that day. I just feel like I haven’t been able to grieve over this because I don’t want to bring anyone else down. I keep saying that its no big deal but it is a big deal. My probably no is I have so much self doubt that I can finish any race, even though I basically did a half ironman that day. I am going to take some of your writing and really take it to heart. I need a good cry and to get mad and try to move on. But because my world is so full of triathletes all I hear to about everyone to finished this race. ughhhh

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  • Stacy McGehee

    April 11, 2018 at 4:21 pm

    I needed to read this as I just DNF my first HIM Galveston 70.3. It was a tough race with the cold, wind and mist. I did great until the run when my back cramped up and would not let go. With support of my partner and my coach decided to pull off the course. I had just over 6 miles left to finish. It does feel so much like a grieving process. This article has given me much to think about but mostly to be kind to myself and allow myself to process what happened..

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  • Joanne Share

    May 3, 2018 at 6:31 pm

    Thank you Meredith. I’ve done 2 full ironman and many halfs and have always feared a DNF. I got one in a local tri last year. I think its everyones fear though and makes you realise there is always something beyond your control. We appraise whats happened and secondary appraise to learn from it and move on. For women in particular DNF’s are a bigger challenge. I’m currently doing a research project looking into changing cut off times for women. We are the ones who also can’t train as much as the guys especially when there is family around. We are physiologically different: lower VO2 max, less haemoglobin, less muscle mass, naturally have more body fat (but psychologically mentally stronger!)
    We’ve got this ladies, we can keep moving forward xx

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  • Mya

    August 15, 2018 at 1:27 pm

    Thank you for this post and all who have commented! I recently DNF’d at Steelhead 70.3 2018 due to a crazy rough swim. I pulled myself knowing I wasn’t going to make the cut off and was exhausted physically and mentally before I was even half way. Part of me still wonders “what if”, if I had finished the swim. Mostlikely I would’ve been pulled at the end of the swim anyway (I was at the end of the swim wave b/c it wasn’t wetsuit legal and looking backwards, there weren’t many people behind me…)… Two days later I signed up for HIM Wisconsin 2019… While I know that the race doesn’t define me, I am still struggling mentally. For training, I had completed Chisago Lakes Aquabike (1.2 swim, 56 bike) two weeks earlier and was super confident in finishing Steelhead in under 7 hrs. I’m moving on and thankfully have a few run events coming up. But starting November, it’s all tri training again. When in doubt, try again!

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  • Mandi

    September 18, 2018 at 7:33 am

    Thanks for this post and all the responses- it helps. I just DNF’d Nice 70.3, I missed the cutt-off by 2 mins 40km into the bike after climbing 1300m.
    The bike is my weakness and I knew it was a tough course but I had trained well, both climbing and descending and knew I could make the swim/bike cut off.
    What I had not anticipated was:
    1) the swim course being 2200m (not 1900m) (the data from my watch shows 2240m and not off course, my time correlated exactly to this distance having done Pescara 70.3 3 months prior and a 3.8km OW “race” 3 weeks prior and I OWS daily…I know my pace! even on bad days)!
    2) that the cut-off 40km into the bike was time based not chip based (11:30am as opposed to 4hrs after your start time). It took me 30 mins to get over the start line for the swim! And the time I lost climbing the mountain I made up for descending (bringing my average pace within the cut off time).
    It’s so frustrating because I would have finished well within race cut off time. All of the above makes me furious but I accept that every other racer dealt with this also but they made the cut offs. I don’t care about a DNF official result. I don’t feel like a failure because I know I could have finished. I do care that I could not even access my sneakers for 30 mins to go for a 21km independent run! I do care that even though the run course is a pedestrian area (promenade) so course closure is not a safety issue, I was not allowed on there.
    I am devastated that I have all this pent up energy, I am not tired, I don’t have the post race euphoria and exhaustion. Having done 2 70.3’s in 3 months I had demanded that I rest for 2 weeks – how can you rest when you feel like a race horse raging to go, unfinished business, undeserved rest 😫 I am on day 2 of rest and I am going crazy (usually I am able to take my rest days to a whole new level 😂). And in the airport with my bike everyone was congratulating me – I felt like a fraud….but don’t speak enough French to explain that I didn’t do an Ironman 70.3!

    Reply

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