Did. Not. Finish. Three words, summarised by three letters that no triathlete wants to see next to their name on the results post-race.
An athlete can DNF for a number of reasons. Some common ones include mechanical issues on the bike, injury, illness or sometimes it could be simply giving up when things get extremely challenging.
I don’t think I had even heard of a DNF when it happened to me. My experience really scared me at the time, however, I learnt a lot from it and now look back and laugh at the whole ordeal. The Noosa Triathlon in 2017 was to be my second Olympic distance race. I was excited about the trip and had worked hard in the lead-up. To be honest I don’t remember much of the race and in particular the run leg. I was struggling the whole time but kept telling myself to push through and keep running. With 1.5kms to go, I collapsed on the side of the road. I woke up in the medical tent, apparently thinking I was at St Kilda beach in Melbourne (wrong) and 100% convinced I had brain damage (also wrong). It took a little while and I was pretty distressed, but I came to it and walked away with a bit of a sore head, a couple of scars on my limbs, and a slightly dramatic story to tell my family back home (facepalm).
Hopefully, your name and ‘DNF’ won’t be associated with each other on a results page ever. However, if they are, here is my advice on how to recover from a DNF.
Step 1: You’re allowed to be sad
I am a big believer in the power of positivity; however, it has a time and a place. In this situation it’s NORMAL to feel upset, frustrated, maybe even angry – particularly if the reason you did not finish seemed to be outside of your control. You’re allowed to feel those emotions guilt-free and to be honest, it’s healthy to do so. So take some time to have a cry if you need to, let it out and then you can move and focus on the positives in the situation. In saying that, I do not mean it’s ok to have a tantrum on the side of the course or take your disappointment out on friends who have just crossed the finish line of a great race! Pick your moments, and you might have to put on a brave face until you’re able to get a bit of space.
Step 2: Find out what went wrong
In my opinion, this is the most important step. Understanding why you did not finish the race is critical to ensuring that it does not happen again. Getting to the bottom of the issue is easier in some situations than others but I would recommend always getting a professional opinion. Mechanical issue? Go to the bike shop. Stomach not cooperating? Consult a sports dietitian who lives and breathes triathlon (I recommend Dietitian Approved). Struggling with mental resilience? Talk to your coach about it. Suffering an injury or illness? See a sports doctor or medical professional who understands the sport you love. While it may be slightly off topic, I don’t think I can write this and not mention it – if you’re seeing a GP (general practitioner) who does not have a thorough understanding of triathlon and sport in general, make a change. Doing that would have saved me over 12 months of issues.
Step 3: Develop a plan
Once you have found out the ‘why’ behind your DNF, it’s time to develop an action plan. What are you going to do differently from now on to ensure you do not encounter the same issue in the future? We’ve all heard the saying ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ right? Well, that’s only true if you’re prepared to put in the work to turn things around! It took me a looonnnnggggg time (over 12 months) to finally understand what caused my issue at Noosa, and the whole thing pretty much happened again when I raced the Busselton 70.3 in May 2018. It turned out to be a mix of a chronic sinus infection, very low iron and culprit #1 was a VERY ineffective breathing style.
We’re talking shallow breathing to the point where I was full of CO2 in long distance events, hence the whole ‘collapsing on the side of the road’ thing. My action plan looked a little bit like this:
● Follow my sports doctor’s advice to overcome the sinus infection and low iron (a combination of rest, medication and iron infusion).
● Work with a recommended professional to change my breathing style.
● Practice the breathing style in training and shorter distance races until it became a habit.
● Continue to check in with the sports doc to monitor my progress and make sure I stayed on track.
Everyone’s action plan will look different, but once you’ve got yours in place it will be a big mental tick that will help you feel in control the next time you hit the start line. Only after working on my breathing and seeing a huge improvement, did I finally have the confidence to really push myself in a race environment again. Up until then, I had held back a little out of fear. Now I felt like I had the control back over my performance.
Step 4: Set a new goal
This is the fun part! Choose the race you would like to be your triumphant return to the finish line. It could be the same race the following year, a race of the same distance, or anything that involves some swim, bike and run. Regardless of what you select, get excited! Proving to yourself that the whole ‘DNF’ situation was a one-time thing is definitely a big achievement.
Step 5: Move on
Move on, but keep the experience in your back pocket to draw on in those tough times. Recall it in a race when the idea of quitting seems kind of appealing. Being able to reflect on how it really felt to DNF, should be enough to keep you moving forward. Hopefully, you’ll never experience a DNF. But, if you do, I hope this has armed you with some strategies to overcome it.