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Coaches Blog

The Aftermath of the DNF

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

The DNF happened. For whatever reason. It could have been a planned DNF (read Coach David’s article from last week), in which case, you may have already dealt with the mental and physical issues surrounding the DNF.

The DNF decision (made for you or made by you) can feel like a life-altering decision. There are so many reasons that a DNFs happen - illness, accident, missed time cutoffs, mechanical. But what do you do if you get up on race morning and start the race, only to have SOMETHING happen that causes you to DNF? Strangely, what may run through your head and heart closely aligns with the five stages of grief. While most often associated with the death of a loved one, those same five stages often apply to any significant life event. A DNF can be a significant life event.

Those stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

In Denial, we are in shock – we can’t believe this happened to us. Completely normal, denial is the brain’s way of letting in just enough pain so that we can start to process what happened and start asking questions – it’s as if we’re pacing ourselves. Because once the denial phase is finished, we move into Anger.

Anger is legit – and you should let yourself feel it – as much as you can. You could be angry because two other athletes were drafting off of you and caused a collision between all of you, literally crashing you at 27 mph, knocking you out, smashing your helmet to bits and then leaving you unconscious on the road (personal example). You can be angry at those two athletes or you could be angry at a friend or family member, just because they happen to be around you in the aftermath. Anger suppression isn’t a good idea or possible if you want to move forward.

Oh, then there’s Bargaining. This has so many faces – but mainly this is the land of ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’. What if I had triple and quadruple checked my chain – maybe I could have spotted that it was going to completely break. What if I’d packed four tubes instead of three – then I wouldn’t have DNF’d on that fourth flat. If only I hadn’t had to sit next to a sick passenger on the plane – would I have gotten a stomach virus? We also start to think about what we could possibly have done differently.

Depression follows and while this phase isn’t forever and isn’t indicative of a mental health issue, we are in the phase where we realize that something we so desperately wanted to do isn’t done. Our chance to finish THAT PARTICULAR RACE is gone.

The last phase, Acceptance, doesn’t necessarily mean that something is ‘ok’ or that what happened is ‘all right’. It simply means that we’ve learned to live with what happened. While this particular race is gone, there will be other races.

During this process, you may start to think about repeating the race that you DNF’d. You may start to think about never doing that race again or you may choose a different race. Take some time to yourself to process what has happened. Talk to your coach and talk to those who understand how important the race was. Only then can you really start to move forward, creating a game plan for the remainder of your season or for the next season.

And because my articles always come from something I’ve experienced personally, here goes! I’ve DNF’d twice. The first was IRONMAN 70.3 Boulder in 2010 where I earned a plethora of ‘firsts’ after a nasty bike collision with two other athletes. It was my first DNF, first time being unconscious, first ambulance ride, first broken bones, first concussion, and first smashed helmet. I registered for IRONMAN 70.3 Boulder the next year and finished. I’ve never seen so many friends (and my Coach) so happy to see me just get off the bike and head out on the run.

Helmet ended up in four pieces. Click through to see the helmet and road rash (warning: skin)

My second DNF was at IRONMAN Santa Rosa in 2018. I had a stomach virus and kept no food or fluids down in the hours prior to the race and up to mile 56 on the bike where I pulled over and climbed into the ambulance. This DNF earned me an IV in the middle of a vineyard (the only way to get an IV if you ask me!).

While I can talk about (and joke about) these DNFs now, they were painful at the time and for a while afterwards. I went through all the stages of grief as outlined above. I had many conversations with my Coach and triathlon friends and my family and everyone provided valuable insight. I’ve been able to move forward as a Coach and as an athlete. And you can too.

If a DNF happens to you, I hope you can use the five stages of grief to work your way through and get back on the racecourse!

Happy training and racing!

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