Posted On:
Tuesday, August 30, 2022
Updated On:
Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Coach Tip Tuesday: How to Handle a DNF

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A person holding a book in front of their face with the quote "Fail, Fail again, Fail better" by Samuel Beckett in white letters on red pages.

Most people shudder at the idea of failing at something.  (You might be shuddering just reading that sentence.)  For many people, a failure at something makes them feel like they themselves are a complete failure.  That feeling isn’t pleasant - to say the least.

However, it’s important to note that failing at something doesn’t mean that you are a failure as a person or as a human being. It just means that something didn’t manifest in the way you thought it might.

This is true for all things in life, and it’s especially true in endurance sports.  While races do measure athletes using a time standard (hello, finish line clock), failing to meet a particular time standard and/or failing to achieve the fastest time you’ve ever had at a particular sport or distance does not mean that you are a failure.

We talked earlier this summer about how our brains and nervous systems are wired to keep us safe, and this includes keeping us safe from emotional experiences that we perceive to be negative. Potential for failure usually falls into this bucket for most humans. Rather than embrace that failure can be an incredible teacher, most people will turn away from or avoid experiences that open the door for a potential for failure.


You Cannot Hide from Failure

If you are alive and live longer than two minutes, you will fail at something.  It is a certainty.  No one - and I mean NO ONE - is perfect.  Newborn infants fail to latch and feed properly.  Toddlers fail to keep their balance when learning to walk.  Teenagers fail to brake properly when learning how to drive.  Adults fail to communicate effectively.

This holds true in sport.  No one is perfect and all athletes fail sometimes.  Somewhat ironically, the longer you participate in endurance sports, the greater the possibility of failure is.  Truly, it’s a numbers game.  The more races and workouts you do over time, the greater the chance that one (or more!) of them will not go the way you want or expect it to.  When it comes to racing, it may take several years to come to fruition, but it’s honestly not a matter of if a DNF (Did Not Finish) will happen for an athlete who spends more than a couple of months in endurance sports; it’s a matter of when.

However, we can learn something from the aforementioned life failures.  Babies don’t stop trying to figure out how to eat.  Toddlers don’t sit like bumps on a log and never learn to walk.  Teenagers learn how to brake effectively and become better drivers.  Adults learn how to say things more effectively.  Each of these scenarios teaches us, and thus shows us a path to success.  Like so many things, learning what doesn’t work is sometimes more insightful than seeing what does.


What Does DNF Actually Stand For?

Enter DNFs.  A DNF stands for “Did Not Finish”, and is the result that is given to someone who doesn’t complete a race within the time limits or to someone who doesn’t complete the race at all - for whatever reason that may be.  Ask almost any endurance athlete and they will tell you that a DNF is the result that they fear most from a race.  I’m here to encourage you not to fear a DNF, and I’m also here to share some tips on how to handle one when it happens.

In 2017, I was coaching my friend Yvonne Brown. She had the goal of completing IRONMAN 70.3 Lake Placid. Along the path to race day, we knew that this goal was a BIG one for her, and we knew that it would take a LOT of work for her to be successful at reaching this goal. Yvonne - more than almost anyone who I have ever coached - put in the work. Day in and day out, she gave each and every workout her very best effort.

As race day approached, we had an honest conversation about where she was in relation to this goal.  Despite all of her hard work, the odds were likely that she would not get an official finish at the race due to where her paces were in training.  Yvonne started the race knowing that a DNF was very possible, and while she completed all 70.3 miles of IRONMAN 70.3 Lake Placid, she did exceed the time limits, so her official result was a DNF.

However, after the race, Yvonne told me that DNF actually stood for “Did Not Fail.”  Even after all of my years of coaching and being an athlete, I hadn’t ever heard that.  Yvonne viewed this as a “Did Not Fail” because she pushed herself, learned things about herself, reached numerous personal milestones along her training journey, and enjoyed the experience she had at IRONMAN 70.3 Lake Placid.  Yvonne did not judge her training experience or even her race day experience by what the number on the finish line clock said.  She judged it based on what she felt along the way and by comparing where she was to where she had started from.  In other words, she defined her own success.  She did not hand over those reigns of control to someone else.

Five years later, Yvonne still views this experience as a positive one.  Imagine that.  Something that “officially” indicates a failure by a lot of people’s standards, and yet Yvonne chooses not to see it that way.

Fearing failure can make it turn into a self-fulfilled prophecy. Believe me; I’ve seen that manifest as true several times over the years. (And you probably have in your own training and racing, too.) But embracing failure as a teacher and as part of the athlete/human experience can be exceptionally liberating. No matter what, you know you’ll be coming away with something learned and an experience you can use in your future adventures. Put like that, failure doesn’t sound so terrible, does it?


Decreasing the Probability of a DNF

While we cannot ever truly eliminate the possibility of a DNF (to think otherwise is honestly a lie, because there are always at least a couple of things that are outside of our control), there are definitely things we can do to decrease the probability of one occurring.

Most athletes I know are pretty stubborn people. This means that even if they haven’t trained as they should or if they have indicators that withdrawing (aka opting for a DNF) would actually be in their best interests, they will try to “gut it out” and finish a race.  They will do this even if it means that they will be risking injury or other adverse impacts to themselves in doing so.  If you resemble this statement, pay attention.  

If you are going to be stubborn enough to start and/or to try to finish a race, be stubborn enough to do what you need to do along the way to give yourself a high probability of success.  Don’t become stubborn all of a sudden at the end (i.e. on race day or as race day approaches) when it has the potential to be most harmful to you.  And don’t make the mistake of thinking that you are the exception to the rule and that you don’t need to do the specific, frequent, consistent work that it takes to be successful.  If you don’t do the work, your chances of successfully reaching your goal will go down.  Plain and simple.

The probability of a DNF does go up if you have been micro-quitting en route to race day. Identifying if you are someone who does micro-quit is really useful, as you can use that information to formulate a solid plan that actually works for you.

Finally, working on your mental “game” is extremely useful.  As I’ve mentioned over the years, you will never have more conversations with any other human than you have with yourself.  Training how you speak to yourself is an immensely powerful tool.  It can change a negative prophecy into a positive one, and it can have you operate from a position of strength rather than a (weaker) position of fear.


When a DNF Happens for You

A DNF will likely happen for you at some point in your endurance sports career. And when it does, don’t fear it. Don’t try to hide from it or hide it from others. Don’t think that it means that you’re a failure as a person. Instead, choose to see it as Yvonne did - as a “Did Not Fail”. Choosing to see a DNF for what it is - a learning experience at the very least - is an expression that is the exact opposite of failure. It is a win - a win that counters the narrative that the only thing that matters is numbers on a clock. Your attitude is what matters - always.

“Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”

Denis Waitley

About

Coach Laura Henry

Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.

She can be reached at laura@fullcircleendurance.com.

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