A DNF Story From Ironman Wiscosin

Ironman Wisconsin Transition
Ironman Wisconsin Bike Transition

DNF, Did Not Finish. I never liked that acronym/term and still don't. If you found this page, chances are you fear the DNF or DNF'd a race and you are trying to figure out how to pick the pieces up and put your racing self-esteem back together. Having DNF'd twice and really understanding how much it sucks, and how much can be learned, I am sharing my thoughts and perspectives in hopes that someone stumbles across this page and finds a little solace.

First, understand that it happens to everyone sooner or later.... wait... that's actually a lie, it doesn't happen to everyone. Many athletes will go their entire racing lives without a DNF, and that's great, but, others, like me are not so lucky, or then again, maybe a DNF isn't so bad after all and can actually be a great motivator. Maybe we just bit off more than we can chew, overreached, had a bad day and maybe those who never had a DNF just never took a big enough leap of faith to risk failure.

The Tale of 2 DNFs

To date, I have DNFd 2 races. Ironman 70.3 Wisconsin and Ironman Wisconsin. Here are two quick summaries of what happened.

Ironman 70.3 Wisconsin DNF - Prior to this race I had successfully completed Steelhead 70.3, but, it wasn't pretty. Almost quit many times and pretty sure I was somewhat severely dehydrated when I finished. None the less, I was ecstatic with the finish and was motivated to keep going. I hired a coach and set my sights on Wisconsin 70.3 the next Spring. Being an early season race (early June), the training is a bit trickier with not much time outside to prepare for the race. I trained pretty hard (I thought) and was excited to attempt another 70.3.

Race day arrived and the forecast was not ideal. Mid 90's, sunny and a brisk wind all day. Even in the early morning, waiting to get into the water, it was sweltering and I did my best to stay in the shade as long as I could. But, once the wetsuit was on and waiting in line to start, I probably started dehydrating before I even entered the water. The swim was uneventful and super refreshing once I got in. I'm not very fast, so, getting out of the water and entering T1, most of the bikes were gone and out on the road.

Once on my bike I quickly realized that I was pacing way behind getting passed very quickly by the remaining bikes. I was trying to pace based on heart rate, but, the wind and the heat were quickly taking their toll. 20 miles in I heard a motorcycle pull up behind me and keep following me. I was initially pissed that I was struggling to keep up and yet I was being watched like a hawk as if I was going to be drafting. After about half an hour I finally realized why he was there and I turned around and asked the officer, "Am I the last guy?". "Yep, I think so, was the reply.". I spent the next two hours trying desperately to catch up to someone else so I could lose my motorcycle escort. But, every time I made a pass, inevitably I was re-passed and had the sound of the motorcycle rumbling behind me again.

After 4 hours on the bike, I finally made it to the last aid station. And it was decision time. There were half a dozen other riders that threw in the towel and were waiting for the SAG wagon. At this point it was literally impossible to get back to T2 before cutoff. However, the motorcycle cop and volunteers were still encouraging me and more than willing to support me if I wanted to keep going. I was feeling like garbage with the sun high in the sky and the temperature 90+ degrees. I also felt bad having everyone wait on me and decided to call it quits and wait for the SAG (or as I call it SAD) wagon. As soon as I sealed my fate, I immediately learned my first lesson, unless you are literally dying, don't ever take yourself out of a race. It would have done my soul so much benefit to limp it back to T2 and save some dignity. Instead, I waited half an hour to board a van with 6 other athletes and took the saddest ride of my life back to the race venue where my friends were busy finishing their races.

In perfect conditions, I probably would have just made it, but, there were some major errors in my training based on heart rate calculations which added to the conditions of the day created a situation that I was just not ready to handle. But, I came back the next year and handily finished the race on another challenging weather day.

Ironman Wisconsin DNF - Well, if the first DNF did not sting enough, IMWI was the ganddaddy of the DNF and hung with me for a looooong time. So, here's the story on that one...

This race really started unraveling weeks before I had even started. I felt my training was going fairly well until we hit my last month where volumes got real big and we got into some pretty realistic race simulations. In my mind I had one picture of my race readiness, but, when we got into full distance swims, century rides and 17+ mile runs I started to real struggle and realize that I had a hard time keeping up and completing my workouts.

Fast forward to race day, with all of the training misses weighing heavy on my mind, friends and family in town, my nerves were way out of control to the point where I felt physically ill on race day with waves of nausea and feelings of disorientation. I just kept focusing on starting the race and hoping I would calm down once I started racing.

Sure enough, once I got in the water and got a few hundred yards in, I calmed way down and started to feel like things were actually going to be alright. But..... that all changed once I made the turn back into the wind for the longest leg of the swim. I felt the headwind immediately and began to struggle to keep a moderate pace in the chop. After 2:01:24 of swimming, I came out of the water, exhausted and feeling pretty defeated, but, still felt like I could get the race done.

After running up an empty helix and spending way too much time in transition, the volunteer who was helping me prodded that I should probably get moving as I was running out of time. This was the first time I got concerned. I was still feeling all kinds of sick and made a port a potty break before entering a near empty T1 and getting on the bike.

Once on the bike I started to feel better again and was keeping up with most of the back of packers. But, once again, not feeling well, foolishly made another porta potty break that I really didn't need. I figured I still had time and just needed to keep moving slow and steady to get the ride done, but, once I was about 30-40 miles in is when things really started to fall apart. This is when the full on bonk came in. Nausea, rapid breathing, legs did not want to move, speed was at a near crawl.

As I neared the half way point of the ride, I finally started to get it back together mentally and physically. I saw my family and friends which gave me a real boost. I was thinking maybe I would do this after all.... until I turned to go out on the second loop and was stopped by a race official. I had missed the intermediate cutoff by 2 minutes. I was hit with a strange combination of deep sadness but also relief. After a brief conversation and encouraging words, the few riders behind me were also being collected and we were told to board the buses back to transition (16 miles away). Trying to keep my pride intact I asked if it was OK if I rode back instead which he replied sure with no hesitation.

It was on that 16 mile ride back to T2 that I realized why I DNFed. Yes, my fitness level was that of a tail end finisher, but, it was the mental side of the day that ended my race. On that 16 mile ride I felt the best I had all day. I felt relaxed with no sickness or heavy legs and I was actually hungry for the first time all day. For the first time it had really hit home the enormous amount of energy being over stressed can sap from your body. Had I been this relaxed all day I would have slowly moved my way through the race and found my way to the finish line. I'm sure of it.

Unfortunately, it took me about a year of beating myself up and denial before I allowed myself to accept this as truth, which is why I put this page together in hopes someone might stumble across it and save themselves a little grief.

Getting Over Your DNF

Without a doubt, a DNF always sucks and can be absolutely gut wrenching. You trained, weeks, months or maybe years getting ready for your "Big" race. Then, your worst nightmare happens, you don't make it to the finish line for whatever reason. You may even have friends and family hopefully spectating and tracking you online. Yep, it's going to sting and probably sting bad.... and it should. In fact, the more you care the more it's going to hurt when things don't go well.

As with any big disappointment it's going to take some time to get over it, but, be careful not to throw a never ending pity party for yourself. Fact is that you worked hard, attempted something difficult and probably way out of your comfort zone. These are all great things and you should allow yourself to be proud of your accomplishments making it to the start and getting through as much of the race as you could. Most likely, this is how the people around view you, so, stop the negative self talk.

Putting Things Into Perspective

We do this for fun, health, comradery, sanity and so many other reasons. The race does not define you. Yeah, it's a great opportunity to show off all you have accomplished in training, but, in the end, you are your biggest critic and the only one who cares so deeply about how you performed on race day.

As long as nobody was hurt, things could be a lot worse. At the very least you had a nice training day with a few thousand of your closest friends and maybe even some family members. Life is short. Be proud of your accomplishments and have a post race beer or two.

Could a DNF Be a Good Thing?

Absolutely! As long as it is not due to an injury or accident of course. Usually, at the heart of the DNF is that you just weren't ready for what the day had in store for you. You took a big risk and it didn't turn out the way you hoped, and that's OK. You probably learned a lot and will continue on much wiser and maybe more motivated than ever. You learn a lot more from the days that go bad than the ones that went perfectly.