Ask Steve: DNF Advice

>> Wednesday, August 11, 2010

If you’re out of the loop, “DNF” means “Did Not Finish.” It’s worse than DFL (“Dead F*cking Last”), but better than DNS (“Did Not Start”) - or at least in my mind.

Someone left a comment on Monday’s post just as “Melanie,” and she said this:

Hi Steve,
I love your blog and know that you have had your own DNF experience, but I was hoping that you and your readers could help me out. I had to DNF my first half ironman yesterday (my hands went totally numb on the bike and I had the worst headache of my life). I am dealing with the disappointment, but the worst part about yesterday was after I had made the decision to quit and was feeling so terrible, the spectators and race staff (even other racers) were so great, yelling "looking strong" or "keep it up", etc. I felt awkward knowing that I was quitting but didn't want to be rude. Hopefully this won't happen again, but maybe it could help other readers if you could solicit suggestions about this. Also, any advice about how to deal with post-DNF blues would be appreciated. Sorry for the long post and thanks!

I knew of an official 70.3 on Sunday, so I went to their site and searched the results. I found 2 Melanie’s, and 1 of them was a DNF. I found this person on Facebook, and we sent a few messages back-and-forth. (Man, this “social network” age can be a little freaky, huh? And I think I freaked out Melanie when I first sent her a FB message asking if she was the Melanie who had just commented on my blog 5 minutes earlier!)

If you’re a newer follower of my blog, you maybe don’t know about my marathon DNF from 2 years ago. Melanie had apparently found those posts on my blog. I went through similar things as she described. In fact, here’s a really zoomed in shot that Borsch took of me walking past spectators trying to hold back emotion as they were “yelling ‘looking strong’ or ‘keep it up’, etc” as Melaine had stated:

One of my notes back to her looked like this:

[....] That really stinks. I'm sorry your day was shot to hell. When I DNFed my first (and only) marathon, I was completely fine with it when it happened. I was hurting, I had thrown up, and things were going grey now-and-then (my eyesight was fading or I was getting close to fainting or something...).

It sounds cheesy and stupid, but I KNOW I learned something from it. I learned my limits. I learned how far my body can go. I learned I hadn't done the training that I THOUGHT I had.


After a few weeks, I started thinking "well, I could have FINISHED the race..." and I started beating myself up a little more. That was 2 years ago, and I still haven't tried another marathon. It still nags at me a little.

[....] I don't know if you saw my 2 posts (and comments) from my marathon DNF, but one person commented that they dropped out of an Ironman that same day I dropped out of my marathon. She said this: "When I did my first half iron, I met a guy in transition. He had done 15 ironman races and finished 9 of those. I've never forgotten the advice he gave me. #1 Ain't no shame in walking. #2 Sometimes a finish just isn't in the cards."

I hope you're feeling OK today. All my best,

Generic answers. I didn’t feel like I could help her much. I told her I’d post her story and her questions for my readers if she’d like that, and she sent me this final note:


Wow! Thanks so much for taking the time to write. I am feeling better today but like you I am questioning my decision and feel like maybe I could have stuck it out and tried to finish, but ultimately I know that I made the right decision by stopping and not digging myself into a deeper hole. I would be more than happy to share my story about what happened yesterday. As an FYI, his was my first attempt at the half iron distance after two sprints, two half marathons, and half a dozen 50+ mile training rides.

The week before the race had been stressful as I had ordered a rental wetsuit from Xterra wetsuits six weeks prior to the race. As the week went on I got more and more nervous but was hopeful the wetsuit would arrive. By Friday evening it hadn't arrived and I basically began freaking out. I know I'm not the fastest swimmer and was hoping for the time advantage of a wetsuit if nothing else. The wetsuit never did arrive (looking back now I'm thinking I should have taken this as a bad omen). However, I had done a swim at the reservoir a week before and knew the water temperature wasn't too cold. Nonetheless, standing at the beach before the start of the race I felt like literally the only person without a wetsuit and seriously began to question myself. As we headed down to the water the announcer said over the speakers "I know I will see each and every one of you at the finish line". In my head I was thinking, "I sure hope so". The start of the swim wasn't as bad as I thought it would be- I didn't get kicked or shoved, etc. The water actually felt refreshing and I just tried to enjoy the experience (being surrounded by the Rocky Mountains didn't hurt either). It felt like the swim took forever but around the turns I could see that I wasn't the last person in my wave, so that was a confidence booster. Coming out of the water I felt great and ready to tackle the bike. I ran into transition and was in and out. After getting on my bike, though, I knew something felt "off". My legs felt like lead, my helmet inexplicably felt like it was choking me, and my head was pounding. I tried to shake it off and just try to have fun. After only a mile or so, though, I was struggling. For some reason both of my hands went completely numb soon after getting on the bike (after logging hundreds of training miles leading up to the race and having never had this problem before, I have no idea what may have caused this). It seemed like the next 10 miles were a slow steady grind. I was constantly getting passed. The few racers who took the time to say "great job" or "keep it up Melanie" really were the highlight of my day. I was hoping that the pounding in my head would go away, but it started getting worse and worse. It got to the point that I was wincing at every crack and bump in the road. Every vibration felt like my head was going to explode. My hands were so numb that I was taking turns having one hand on the handlebars at a time, trying to shake the other one out to try and regain some sensation. As it was I was having a hard time keeping hold of the handlebars at all. At this point I knew I was done. It was both a blessing and curse that the course was two loops- it gave me an easy "out" after the first loop, but I knew that if it hadn't been looped I would have tried to hold on for the whole 56 and ended off in even worse shape. As I got to the end of the first loop I could either go straight or turn right to the finish. As I neared the turn a police officer was waving me through to go straight, and it was so hard to make that right turn and have to say "no, I'm done, I'm quitting". I was stopped by a race official who took my chip and called in my number on his walkie talkie. As I headed down the road back to transition, it was demoralizing to pass all the spectators cheering for me, knowing that I was quitting. I headed back to transition and went up to a volunteer to tell her I had quit the race and ask when I could take my bike out. She said "Eh, shit happens. Go on over to the beer garden, it'll be a while". I took some Advil I had in my transition bag and sat on the side of the road for an hour before I could get my bike out and go home. Of course as soon as I sat down my hands and head started to feel better and I was questioning my decision to pull out of the race. Ultimately I know it was a good decision to stop when I did. Had I decided to keep going on the second loop, I probably would have had to stop eventually and call for help.

Needless to say, I am feeling dejected. I hate having to say "I quit". I am wondering how other people got back on the horse, so to speak, after a DNF. I don't know why I was feeling so badly, and am gunshy now about doing another race lest this sort of situation repeat itself. I would love suggestions on how other people have conquered the feeling of "I'm a failure" after a DNF and stories of going back to conquer a race, distance, etc. My biggest concern is that since I have no idea why this happened, how do I sign up for another race and be confident it won't happen again?

Thanks again for your support,

[Bold added by me for emphasis.]

Looking at her note again, maybe Melanie was COMPLETELY ready for the race, but she just worked a little too hard in the swim. And maybe the water was just too cold, and that chilled her body (and head) too much to really recover. Those 2 things combined might have ended her day. But who knows...

Who has a DNF story / experience to share with Melanie? I know a lot of us have one, and I think we can help out Melanie by sharing our experiences and how we responded to them. Please, leave a note here for her! Good luck Melanie!

(Oh, and if you want to read about my DNF at the 2008 Grandmas Marathon, click here for the first part, and click here for the final part.)

p.s. If you have a question or an issue that you’d like me to help you with OR you’d like my readers to help you with, leave a comment or shoot me an e-mail. I might post it under the “Ask Steve” tag. I’m always glad to help!


Sarah 1:41 PM, August 11, 2010  

Just posted a whole series for my CdA race this past June. I DNFd the Ironman at mile 134, and everything turned out ok. She might be interested in checking it out!



Ryan 1:46 PM, August 11, 2010  

I DNF'd my second 1/2 ironman in June. It wasn't due to a physical problem but a flat tire and not enough spares. I killed last years swim time by 9 minutes and I was looking to better the previous year by 20 to 30 minutes by better nutrition on the bike... didn't make it out of T1. Ticked off doesn't cover it. It took everything I had not to break my ZIPP 404 wheel on the pavement or chuck my aero helmet. Luckily I didn't and what more of a waste it would have been to destroy equipment. Moral o the story, I now carry lots of tubes, valave extenders, etc. Just learn from your mistakes and focus on the next race. Story on my blog :

My wife pointed out my restraint and it was hard walking past T2 to the car and driving out of the park passing all the incoming bikes. But, I'm over it now and life moved on... and I'm actually more mature for it. =)

PipTook 2:07 PM, August 11, 2010  

Just DNFed my first HIM in June. I had a nasty asthma attack during the swim that I just couldn't shake, even with breaststroking, backstroking, holding onto a kayak, etc. They finally pulled me out onto one of the powerboats and EMTs told them to bring me in. VERY frustrating.

My solution was to sign up for another HIM, which is coming up in 2.5 weeks.

megarunr 2:12 PM, August 11, 2010  

I DNF'd my first marathon because I went out too fast on a tough, too-hot-for-me day. (

After I quit moping, I sucked it up and went after a marathon in February. Lovely, cold February. It was supposed to be in Myrtle Beach, and it was CANCELED due to the first snow "storm" in 10 years. (

Sometimes, recovering from a DNF is just about being too stubborn to quit. Sure, I learned some lessons from the first one. I was sufficiently pissed off from the second to sign up for another marathon a few weeks later just to make the most of my training. That one, I finally finished. (

And Melanie, YOU CAN TOO!

P 3:06 PM, August 11, 2010  

I DNF'd my very first marathon due to nutrition issues (lots o' vomiting, med tent at Mile 20) and it took at least a week to even think about it without crying. What finally helped me put things in perspective was something my friend said to me a few days afterward: "Sometimes it's your day and sometimes it's not."
I think about those words at the beginning of every race now and hope that today is my day. But the simple fact is, even if today is NOT my day, I will live to race again.
Btw, I've gone on to complete two other marathons. Don't let fear of failure stop you from trying again!

CoachLiz 3:17 PM, August 11, 2010  

Ok, I have not DNF'ed a race yet but I have coached people that DNF'ed due to crazy reasons such as mechanical problems on the bike or mis-counting their loops and coming in too early. I even had an entire team of 42 people who did not get to race because the race was canceled due to weather. They were heart broken. I felt terrible for them. Almost all of them went home and found another race to sign up for that was not too far down the road and we continued to train.

Now in Melanie's case I would highly recommend that she visit a sports chiropractic doctor who is familiar with working with athletes. What she has described sounds very similar to some locked up vertebrae in the cervical and upper thorasic spine. This will cause nerve and muscle impingement in the shoulders and the sensation of numbness in the arms and hands and the headaches. Also, it could be something in her lumbar spine and her sacro-illio joint and the pain is referencing to the upper body.

Anyway, a good Sports Chiro would be able to fix her up fast if that is truly the issue. Last but not least, have Melanie double check the bike set-up. If she had shipped her bike, it may not have had the seat adjusted properly when it was put back together.

She can do this distance. Shit happens. This race was not a failure, it was a huge learning experience. She has learned to call and check up on the wetsuit rental arrival. She has learned to listen to her body. She has learned how to help others when they face the same situation. She has learned that she can do the swim.

Steve, thanks for posting this and I hope that Melanie is feeling better. Oh, a chocolate chip cookie does help.

Coach Liz :0)

Fe-lady 3:41 PM, August 11, 2010  

I DNF'd an Xterra in Utah-the mountain bike course was just too difficult and really beat me up and I didn't want the officials having to wait around. For me, dnf-ing was better than being dfl!
I am and have always been in this sport for the long haul and by looking at the rest of my life. Triathlon/marathoning is the fun part, but the least important .It's play, it's fun and that's all it should be! Keep the big picture of your life in mind and I bet a dnf will be a little easier to take.

Fe-lady 3:43 PM, August 11, 2010  

P.S This is my 27th year in triathlon and 40th year of running. I will be 57 next month. Listen to your elders! :-)

Julie 4:49 PM, August 11, 2010  

There are some races I wish I had DNF'd. It not the worst thing that can happen to you, even if sometimes it feels like it. Sometimes pushing through is just a bad idea and can be much worse. She had reasons to DNF and they sure sounded like good ones to is better to DNF in my mind than to risk permanent or long lasting damage (come from someone who has done exactly that). If my hands were going numb I'd be worried too. There is another race out there waiting for her...

Betsy 5:04 PM, August 11, 2010  

I have not DNF'd but I did lay on the side of the road once at the Walt Disney World Triathlon. I had a similar off day. My stomach wasn't feeling well and it was hot and I started to see black spots in the corner of my eyes. I pulled over and another racer that I didn't even know actually stopped with me. She was the one that suggested laying down with my feet up on my wheel. Since we were in BFE Florida I convinced her to go on and send the next race offical back towards me. After laying there a bit and sucking down some acclerade I started to feel better and was worried that if a course offical came they would pull me so I got back on my bike. My last few miles were a very slow ride back but I did finish the race that day.

You know your body and what's right for you but maybe getting off the bike on the side of the road for a few minutes would have helped if you felt better once you were off. I know I gave up some minutes that day and I get a little razzing about napping on the side of the road during a tri but I avoided the DNF and it's really not that different than walking or stopping for a bit during the run! (or at least I try to tell myself that).

Great to read everyone's DNF, near DNF or things just went to hell stories!

Chris Shelley,  5:59 PM, August 11, 2010  

I can't be the only one who gets choked up with I read DNF stories. Every time I read one I think about my Portland Marathon experience. It's been years and it still brings a lump in my throat.

Joe Sherry 9:01 PM, August 11, 2010  

My DNF was the Med City Marathon in 2006. Black Flag weather and they closed the course when I got to mile 18.

Here's the thing, Melanie: I applaud your guts to pull yourself off the course in your race. For someone motivated to do these races, I think that takes a certain kind of courage.

I'm glad that the race directors at Med City closed the course after conferring with folks from the Mayo Clinic. I wasn't doing well and I was "only" 8 miles from the finish. In 97 degree heat. I don't know that I would have had the good sense to pull myself off the course and keep myself safe and healthy.

You did.

You recognized the signs that something was wrong and you made the right call.

That's a good thing, not something to be ashamed of, no matter how much it may gnaw on you.

nicole 2:37 AM, August 12, 2010  

I DNS the RNR San Diego marathon- well I started at mile 3. The logistics of the 30,000+ running event were way too crazy and I almost left the race crying until a TNT volunteer convinced me to at least go out. So I did the race but it was only 23 miles or an "almost marathon", which I'm still not pleased about. I'm not sure if I can offer too much advice to get over it, as I was upset for days. I was pretty busy the week after so that helped and I've been running a 5k summer series for a change of pace. I might attempt another marathon in October but it's up in the air.
I would say see how you feel about it once it's been a week and maybe you'll decide to sign up for another in the near future or take a step back. I would suggest signing up for at least a smaller race in the next month or two just for fun. Sunday wasn't your day but you'll get back on the wagon and be sure to keep us posted!

Anonymous,  4:37 AM, August 12, 2010  

When I start a distance I've never done before there are 2 things I always say to myself:
1) the finish line is your PB today
2) don't quit before you sit down for 15min

I have had to sit down from time to time, and I had to walk. But this approach saved from official DNF's

Because there is still that helluva hill around the corner where I livethat I just can not get up with my tri bike ... year after year after year ... that is my own secret DNF, to which I return every year at least once ... and it is very frustrating and humbling. But one sweet day, it will give away, and I'll be able to say, I did it my way!

As the greatest duathlete ever (Benny Vansteelant) said: "Die hard, get back in your hole, lick your wounds, reflect about it ... Come back stronger !"

You can do it Melanie! You will come back stronger !

Nicole 4:42 AM, August 12, 2010  

In my opinion the bottom line is...some times doing the right thing is harder than gutting it out. Racers who don't start or don't finish for whatever reason choose the right thing for themselves at the time. There's absolutely nothing to be ashamed of and your disappointment while understandable should be short lived...sign up for another race in close proximity and utilize all of that training if you can. We all only live once, and some times it's not worth risking our own health and well being to continue in a race. As for DFL I would say that the is also absolutely nothing wrong with finishing still finished, it just took you a little longer!
So Melanie, learn from your experience...have someone check your bike your nutrition and don't let a little set back like the wetsuit not showing up ruin your race...every race should always have several different plans and you should always be willing to change the plan without notice! Adapt and overcome even if it's not what you originally hoped for.

YNWAsteve,  9:33 AM, August 12, 2010  

I'm curious. She mentioned being surrounded by the rocky mountains. Is it possible that it was an elevation problem?

Regardless, it sucks to DNF. But your health is far more important than a euphoria from finishing. And there is always, next month or next year!

Anonymous,  9:44 AM, August 12, 2010  

About the specators cheering - I'd say just smile at them and don't worry about the fact that you are going to have to DNF. It's the intent behind the cheers to think about. They are trying to help you - so there is nothing you can do other than thank them. About the DNF blues...I think a DNF will happen to everyone who races long enough. I DNF'd at my second half iron distance. The way I got over it was to focus on the next goal - in this case it was a 70.3 race several months out. It seemed to help me - maybe picking a next race would help you too?

Thomas 10:08 AM, August 12, 2010  

Endurance sports pose their unique challenges - those we can prepare for - nutrition, intervals, sleep, training and more training, bricks, equipment, shoes and it goes on. But part of the challenge is what we face on race day trying to get to the finish - our bodies, the weather, nerves, environment or just plain luck cropping up and posing additional obstacles. It is the endurance breed that understands your pain of not reaching the finish; the anguish that far exceeds the physical pain. It hurts to see fellow athletes struggling, especially on The Day - weather 10k, 1/2 Iron, marathon, etc. It's the pain of missed opportunities and literally hours of preparation being thrown a wrench.
Absorb it, embrace it and your next finish will be sweeter. We have entered a sport that can toss so many variables into mix that some days are just not meant to be. Go get the next one.

Stephanie 3:40 PM, August 12, 2010  

I think it's great what you're doing. Keep up the good work, and thanks for the post.

Steve Stenzel 4:20 PM, August 12, 2010  

Thanks for all your advice, everyone!! A lot of you made REALLY good points. Thank you SOO much!

I want to update you with Melanie's thoughts. She sent me this message last night:

"Thanks Steve! I am relieved that already a few people have said that they signed up for another race right away...I *may* have signed up for another half iron distance race in September. I am treating last week as more of a stepdown week and just extending my training a couple more weeks. Hopefully the combination of wetsuit/cooler weather/not being in triathlon mecca/super hilly Boulder will be just what I need to make this one stick! Thanks again."

She's getting right back on the horse! GO MELANIE!! Best of luck!!

SwimBekiSwim 10:43 PM, August 12, 2010  

Melanie, your story was heart-breaking. I honestly cried reading that.

I think having the courage to even START is amazing! I've been telling myself for the last three years "This is my year for an Oly!" And every time I convince myself I'm not ready... Even though I'm currently training for another half marathon and a 5k swim. Yeah. I could probably do an Oly. But I just haven't worked up the courage to try. The fact that you had the courage to try speaks for itself. There have been times that I barely dragged myself across the finish line, and I'm only talking about a sprint distance.

I've volunteered for races where people have left by ambulance. I've heard horror stories of people collapsing and earning themselves an Intensive Care stay. I think THOSE are worse than any DNF's! Not knowing your own body and not knowing when to say when is worse (imho) than understanding your body, understanding when it's just not your day!

Take the time to mourn your loss, and be prepared to come back stronger than ever!!

Iron Amanda 7:34 AM, August 13, 2010  

I've personally never had a DNF...but whenever I have a bad race or workout I just read over this and think about what the words mean...

Go hard, today
The past is the past you know
Can’t worry ´bout the past cause that was yesterday
It’s a new day and
I'm gonna put it on the line
cause it’s my time
My day, gotta do it now
cause its my time

I'm personally not a big fan of rap but these words mean a lot to me

Jim Smith II 5:52 PM, August 14, 2010  

I had a DNF on the Seattle To Portland ride at mile 186 of 206. It started a long career of bike racing. Melanie - Hang in there, DNF's happen, it's all about getting back at it.

Best of luck in the future, see you at the races.

Joel 12:07 AM, August 16, 2010  

I DNF'd at IMKY last year at mile 134. Initially, I was OK with it. By the time I got back to the start/finish line, I felt like I had let friends, family, my wife and myself down. The best feeling ever was talking to my wife on the phone (she didn't make the trip), and having her tell me how insanely proud of me she was and that it was OK that I DNF'd. Then, the crazy woman told me that she had already signed me up to race IMFL just 6 weeks later! As crazy as it felt then, getting right back "on the horse" was perfect for me.

As many of the other posters have said, getting through a DNF is a matter of balancing perspective and taking another stab at it.

Melanie - don't hang your head. You've accomplished a lot, and will continue to do so! Keep it up!

road2beautiful 8:30 PM, August 17, 2010  

In April I ran my first half marathon ever (while still at 300lbs). I did great! I finished. 2 weeks later, I decided I had it in me to do a 25K in Grand Rapids. THe half was in Nashville, so I figured I could certainly do another couple miles if it was on MI flatness!

I was wrong. I started out sooo slow, each aid station was packing up as I reached it. I made it 9 miles and had to call it as I would be on an unsupported course, no more hydration available and because my body was still recovering from teh half, things were really hurting so I was walking more. It was an unseasonably cold day and I was at risk for hypothermia since I was now wet from sweat and rain...I had to call it. I felt awful. But like you, I learned the limits of my body. I question my decision even now, and every time, I still come to the same conclusion. Sure I may have been able to finish, but at what cost? The cost, was not worth it. I am still quite heavy to be doing this stuff and I refuse to risk severe injury to my knees such that I cannot continue these kinds of activities into my old age.

DNF's while disappointing and frustrating...are sometimes the wisest choice.

Oh, I don't think I ran for a month or mor after that. I began to get scared that the 25K ruined me for running forever. That was more sad and scary to me than the DNF. It was then I realized that I had come to love running.

Amber 8:00 AM, September 10, 2010  

I know I'm really late commenting here (really behind in my blog reading!) but I just have to say something about your heirarchy of DFL better than DNF better than DNS.

Sometimes shit happens and a DNS is still the right decision.

I DNS'd 3 races this season. I've never DNF'd or DFL'd, and this was my first experience with the DNS. I'd like to tell you what happened:

I had a whole season of winter half marathons planned. I was really excited about it. I signed up for everything months in advance hoping to save money. I have no history of injury. My hope was to get faster through better experience at the distance. I was fully trained, coming off a 10 mile PR, and ready to go when I hurt my right knee on an 11 mile training run. I started and finished my next 3 races on the hurt knee over a period of 3 months with the knee never getting better (arguably getting worse every time I raced), despite the appointment with the orthopedic doc, the PT, and the meds he prescribed.

Then I found out I was pregnant.

Maybe I would have gone ahead and started those last 3 races if that hadn't happened. I'm not sure we'll ever know the answer to that. But I do know that once I was no longer just stubbornly hurting my own body, but potentially impacting someone else's, it just seemed like I was being an idiot.

This ended up being a blessing in disguise. I read one of your posts about ART, and I found a doc in my area that practices it. Under his guidance, I have been able to run/walk through week 34 of pregnancy pain free, and will probably be able to come back from the injury completely post-partum. But would that be the case if I hadn't made the decision to DNS?

Don't get me wrong. DNSing sucks. Big time. I beat myself up mentally for it. But sometimes shit happens, and sometimes it happens for the better, even if you can't see it right then.

I know that the reason you say DNSing is worse than DNF or DFL is because the DNSer didn't even get out there - didn't even try. But there is a place for the DNS too, and it is worth noting that probably most people who DNS aren't doing it lightly, and deserve the support of the community as much as the others who didn't make it to the finish line.

Thanks for listening!

Neeraj Rohilla 8:29 AM, September 10, 2010  

Hi Steve,
I stumbled across your blog accidentally and thought about leaving a note. I am a runner and have never DNF in any race. But, I have an analogy which you can probably relate to.

I train for fun and almost always run a race for racing alone. Which means giving it whatever I have got. I have hard time believing when people tell that they are gonna treat the race as a training run.

So, here comes the conundrum. Many times I believe that I didn't give 100% on the race course. That is a very bad feeling. When your legs are burning & breathing is hard, slowing down seems obvious choice. And, if you do slow down it makes the pain little less during the race but with it comes the guilt, disappointment and shame (in your eyes, other probably never detect it)

The closest I have come to DNF is during a 25k when I broke down mentally and walked half a mile because it was feeling hard to maintain the pace. On another occasion I took it easy and blew overall third in a 5k just because didn't feel like pushing.

I can recall only 4 occasions in racing when I really pushed and demanded 110% from my body. It was hurting like hell but at the end of it you know that the result (time) doesn't matter because you gave it everything you had.

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