Dealing with a DNF

Those dreaded three letters. DNF. Did Not Finish. All athletes have seen them in the race results, wondering what happened to the powerhouse competitor that did not make it to the finish line. Some of us have seen those little letters printed next to our own names, leaving us in a whirlwind of emotion and negative thought.

There is no secret to finishing every single race that you start. Sometimes, a DNF is inevitable from the start, other times, a sudden unforeseen event causes a drop. What is important is that as athletes we move forward with an attitude of acceptance and self-love.

Let Yourself Grieve

We tend to think that the feeling of grief is purely tied to losing a person, but there are a lot of aspects of life that are best approached with a mindset of grief. When an athlete does not finish a race, they are not only mourning the loss of crossing the finish line, but also dealing with the lost time that went into training. Lifelong Endurance head coach Andrew Simmons explains, “Grieving with Grace and Forgiveness – so many of our biggest critiques and judgments come from between our two ears. Our internal dialogue is what will ultimately allow us to heal and move on. Moving forward requires that you allow yourself room to grow which includes room to fail. If you’re innovating, pushing yourself, and trying to grow – failure is an inherent part of the process. Forgive yourself for what you got wrong and give yourself the grace to give it time to fade. The pain of loss doesn’t dissipate over night. Do yourself a favor and talk about it, with people you trust, shed a few tears, be mad, and then start doing something to change the next result. Tough times don’t last, tough people do.”

Personally, in my own DNF at the Grand Traverse Ski Race, I had the added guilt of causing my race partner, a person I deeply respected, to DNF as well. This took me a long time to mentally recover from, as there was a array of negative emotions that I had to navigate. This took time and acceptance. Often, the athlete who drops from a race feels as though they have to “put on a brave face,” and push pass their emotions in order to seem supportive to their fellow competitors. While it is important to remain gracious and a “good sport,” it is also important to remember that your emotions are valid and deserve recognition.

Take time to let yourself feel ALL of your emotions. Be kind to yourself, treat yourself the same way you would have had you finished the race under your goal time. You were successful in training and made smart decisions during the race. Do not pull away from negative emotions, but rather acknowledge them, put a name and reason to them, and move past them rather than allowing yourself to drown in regret.

Own your Decision

One of the most amazing, and awful, aspects of racing long distance is that there is so much out of the control of the athlete. As a competitor, you can have all of your gear ready to go, put in the appropriate work to finish strong, and have your nutrition dialed in; but when it is all said and done, even the best runners can fall victim to elements out of their control.  When you spend hundreds of hours training while preparing for a race, you start to get a pretty good understanding of your body. Most athletes can tell the difference between what injuries and illnesses are in their head, and what are actual issues; they know what they need in order to be successful and when they are too far gone to finish in a healthy state. Almost every athlete signs up for a race with the intention of doing their best and finishing; but things do not always go according to plan.

You know your body the best, and whatever you decide to do in a race, you have to accept that decision. No one and nothing, including yourself, is at fault for a DNF. But leaving a race with an attitude of regret will only lead to a longer emotional recovery. Coach Andrew explains, “When I’ve dropped from a race – I’ve made the decision and I’m 100% onboard with the decision before choosing to hand over my bib. In the moments afterward, I might be sad or disappointed but I always look back on my effort, and the compounding conditions. Then I start to look forward. I always tell my athletes after bad races or DNF’s – you can only be sad and upset for as long as you raced. Beyond that time you need to focus on how to move on and improve.”

Avoid the Comparison Trap

It is important to not compare your race to anyone else’s. In the age of technology, it is hard to avoid seeing other competitor’s results. From social media to race websites, in the days after a DNF, give yourself a break from seeing how other racers fared. Try to avoid telling yourself that things would have gone better had you trained like another athlete, or worse, that you deserve a finish over someone else. Your experience is unique to you.

Try to give yourself space from other athletes who might try to play armchair coach to your experience. As coach Andrew recounts, “I don’t live on a high enough pedestal to say that social media has had an impact on a DNF or my feelings after one. However, I work with athletes that do – that is one area I see a lot of people spouting expertise. It’s simply unfair to say “you should have consumed more calories, you should have hydrated better, why did you go out so hard?” I can imagine having your running under a microscope and having both your failures and success scrutinized would make it even harder to cope. You’re working through a loss and a failure and having people remind you of that constantly has to throw a little lemon juice in the wound.”

Look For Lessons

Once you are able to look at your race objectively, look for lessons you can learn from the race. If the DNF was brought on by something that you can control, think of what you can do differently in the future. If there was a situation out of your control, how can you grow emotionally? Pain is often the best agent of change, what can this experience teach you to make you a stronger competitor. Avoid doing this if you are still telling yourself that you “failed.” Negativity does not foster growth.

One of the greatest lessons a DNF can teach us is one of humility and vulnerability. A lot can happen during the duration of a race, and no athlete is above mishaps that can end a  race. When you play the racing and training game – you rarely come out unscathed. Whether it’s as simple as how you tie your shoes to prevent your heels slipping, or dialing in your nutrition and avoiding a big heavy meal prior to a race start. You learned what to do and what not to do through trial and error. Some stumbles you recover from, some take you out of the race completely. When you show up to the start line you put yourself out there, vulnerable, and ever finish line you cross you gain knowledge. That doesn’t mean that the finish line validates everything. It’s what you learned in the process of getting to that line that matters – there is no guarantee of the finish line when the gun goes off.”

Do Not Give Up

If you want to start working for next year’s event and “redeem” yourself, then do that. If you want to find a different event with new challenges, go for it. What is most important is that you do not adopt an attitude of failure. Hiding yourself from the world and avoiding putting yourself back out into the racing world will not change the past. One rough race does not discredit you as an athlete. Move forward.

Lexi Miller

Lexi Miller

Running Coach at Lifelong Endurance

Lexi Miller is the Community Manager and Running Coach at Lifelong Endurance. Lexi approaches coaching from a holistic perspective to help athletes grow stronger both mentally and physically through sport.

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