Why a DNF is Sometimes Your Best Option

Why a DNF is Sometimes Your Best Option

There are many mantras, stories, myths and legends about not giving up; this the material heroes are made of. You get into a difficult situation and you try harder, you suffer, you struggle, you persevere and finally you win! You cross that finish line, you summit that peak, or get the medal, and you become a role model for kids and adults alike, around the world, for generations to come!

However, being a superman or a superwoman does not mean being a slightly desperate optimist. Sometimes being a hero means being brutally honest with yourself, and super realistic about your chances of continuing, finishing, summiting or even surviving. It takes courage to say “I have to stop” and to turn around. 

So what are the benefits of pulling out of a race?

No (Further) Self-Destruction

Racing an ultra-endurance event is an extreme experience, and is always a walk on the edge. That means that when things go wrong (and they do go wrong, despite our best efforts) you can be faced with some tough choices. Sometimes you can push through a low point, but sometimes you need to consider your health, be brave and stop.

Your health and your life are your highest priority. It is great to explore your limits (best done in training) and to define the lines not to cross, but there is a difference between leveraging your mental and emotional strength to overcome low points (see my previous article “How to build your ability to dig deeper in competition) and crossing that line putting your health at risk. By racing smart and listening to your body, you will know the difference and stay healthy.  

Deeper Learning

Your level of depression and number of tears after a DNF might be higher than after a great race, but no matter how much it hurts in the moment, you will come out stronger on the other side. A bad race is a great impetus to explore why this happened to you. You will do deeper thinking about key drivers behind the event and the things you need to change will become clear. 

What About a DNS or DFL?

Now that we’ve tackled our fears of DNFing, what about a DNS (did not start), or finishing DFL (dead f*** last)? This is an on-going debate. Here is my perspective, starting with the latter. 

The fact is, in some races being the last one to cross the finish line is actually celebrated. If you finish an IRONMAN right before the time cut off, you are greeted by the winners and sometimes even get fireworks. In an Olympic marathon, which normally finishes with the lap at the Olympic stadium, the last runner gets standing ovations, and the “lanterne rouge” (the red lantern) at the Tour de France is a historic honor. (There are actually documented cases of cyclists hiding under bridges to come DFL in Paris!) Finishing shows determination—and someone always has to be last. If it turns out to be you on a given day, try to focus on the positive and take what lessons you can learn from the day. 

As for a DNS (did not start), well, they say “the most important things in life is to show up.” I however believe that when it comes to showing up, it’s about quality over quantity; you should always show up prepared, motivated and eager to win. If you are not prepared and not motivated to give your best (or worse, if you are sick or your family needs you) you better stay at home. This call requires sound reasoning, realistic thinking and putting things in perspective. There will be another race and you can buy the bib for it – but you cannot buy health or love. 

To DNF, DNS, or come DFL can hurt, no question about it; but there are benefits too. These are usually not obvious in the moment but they will surface after some time to reflect. Keep your health, your integrity and an open mind and you’ll find most challenges in life ultimately build your character and open up new doors.

Tatjana Ivanova

Tatjana Ivanova has coached endurance athletes for more than 10 years. All her athletes, from first time marathoners to IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship qualifiers, have achieved their personal goals without a single DNF among them. Tatjana has two mantras for training and racing: "Joy in the effort" and "Pain is temporary, glory is forever.”