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You’ve spent the better part of a year training for a multi-sport event – maybe your first sprint triathlon, perhaps a three-day adventure race. No matter the distance, this is a big race and you expect nothing short of a successful finish. But then something happens out on the course: Another cyclist clips your tire and you crash; the extreme heat brings on dehydration; or a bee sting causes an allergic reaction. And there you have it: the agony of defeat.

Whether race day gets the best of you for reasons beyond your control – illness, injury, accident – or you simply can’t make yourself go on, that agony spells “DNF,” which is short for “Did Not Finish.” No one ever starts a race expecting to fail, but even if you don’t go the distance, there are still ways to salvage something valuable from a DNF experience.

Race Away From Doubt

Sometimes a DNF is an inescapable conclusion. Such was the case during the 2003 Hawaii Ironman, when former champion Tim De Boom, seeking his third straight victory in the event, was loaded into the back of an ambulance while trying to pass a kidney stone.

Obviously, under those circumstances, De Boom couldn’t continue the race. Other times, however, the source of one’s pain is less clear-cut. The mind becomes convinced that the body can’t go on, and the possibility of quitting starts to seem like the only way out – or, at least, a really appealing idea.

According to U.S. Olympic Committee sports psychologist Peter Haberl, EdD, it’s not uncommon for athletes to think about bagging a race, and not always because something is physically wrong. “That’s a dangerous thought,” says Haberl, who has worked with the Olympic triathlon team. Dangerous, too, he says, is a pattern of not finishing in general. “Unless it’s for a medical reason,” Haberl asserts, “not finishing indicates excessively high, unrealistic goals.” And there’s no such thing as a perfect race.

Former pro triathlete Wes Hobson, now a Boulder, Colo.–based coach, says far too many athletes quit in the middle of an event simply because they’re mentally beat. “The problem with dropping out under these circumstances,” he explains, “is that you develop the tendency to drop out more and more.”

Conditions for a mental meltdown can emerge whenever high expectations are coupled with such unexpected hurdles as a faster-than-normal heart rate or a road-rash-causing crash. “If we can’t accomplish or exceed our expectations, we consider it a bad event,” says Jenny Hadfield, a multisport coach and co-owner of Chicago Endurance Sports, a company that trains triathletes. But that’s exactly the kind of attitude that leads people to accumulate numerous DNFs when they needn’t. Hadfield encourages athletes to enter races without expectations. At the very least, she says, allow for flexibility under various conditions.

For Hobson, confronting counterproductive thoughts is a better approach. “These thoughts are created through a negative environment and exhaustion,” he notes. Knowing that such circumstances are likely to arise on the racecourse, you have to train your thinking beforehand.

“We tend not to use our mental strength enough during races. Once we develop the mental talent to expand our mental-pain threshold, it becomes a matter of exploring what our bodies can actually do,” he says. Using visualization techniques during training can provide you with a mental picture of your ideal performance, which you can then conjure up during the difficult portions of a race. Repeating a special phrase or mantra can keep your focus positive, or a photo or charm might help to remind you where you get your strength.

Hobson regularly battled negative thoughts during his competitive days. But he found he could banish the storm clouds with a single word: “Stop!” He’d yell it out loud to squelch his internal critic. It worked – out of some 220 competitive events, Hobson dropped out only twice; neither time, he says, for mental reasons.

Making the Call

So how do you determine whether a DNF is justified? How can you know whether persisting would be physically damaging or you’re just being a weenie?

First, you need to know the difference between considerable discomfort, which warrants perseverance, and real pain, which may necessitate stopping. Everyone’s pain threshold is different, so it’s important to be in tune with your body and realistic about the signals it sends you. According to Haberl, making the decision whether to go on in pain or call it quits is a judgment shaped by the athlete’s goals and the race’s overall importance.

Hobson admits to staying in races he shouldn’t have. “There can be a downside to not ‘DNFing,'” he says, recalling a race when he pulled a muscle during the bike segment and then had difficulty running. “I was determined to finish, and I did, but that injury affected me for the next three months. Had I quit, I wouldn’t have aggravated it. I would have recovered in two weeks.”

Hadfield concurs that when you have an accident or suffer injury on the course, you may not know the extent of the damage right away. Sometimes your problems aren’t readily apparent, as with dehydration or heatstroke. Physical symptoms that should never be ignored include becoming disoriented, having chills, lack of sweating, dizziness or double vision.

DNF Decision Tree

There’s inevitably real anguish in making the decision to DNF. Pro triathlete Joanna Zeiger found herself weighing the pros and cons of not finishing during the Hawaii Ironman in 2002. “It was a complete fiasco from the first step,” she says, remembering the back pain that had been plaguing her on and off for a year. “I’m a stubborn person, so I kept going, but I was in a lot of pain.”

Near mile 11, she saw friend and former-pro-turned-triathlon-coach Dave Scott and asked him what she should do. “I needed someone to tell me, because I couldn’t make the decision on my own,” she recalls. “He was someone totally objective – not my family, not my coach – and someone I respected to give me advice.”

Scott, one of the world’s foremost experts on athletic endurance, told her she should bow out. She knew what it was like to feel healthy, he reminded her, and she knew this wasn’t it. “I had to cut my losses. I just wish I had made that decision 10 miles sooner,” Zeiger says.

Not all of us have the good fortune to meet up with a triathlon legend on the racecourse, so you should decide in advance what circumstances may warrant a DNF.

Haberl says sorting out your goals beforehand may make a DNF decision easier. A good DNF plan involves two types of goals: an outcome goal and a process goal. An outcome goal is picking how you want to finish – whether it’s to win, compete within a certain time or just cross the line. But a process goal is how you want to compete, which can be more subjective. It might be about improving transition times or maintaining a certain pace.

“If you crash, your outcome goal might be out of reach, but you might still be able to compete within your process goals,” Haberl says. A flat tire might make it impossible for you to catch your nearest competitors, but if you know you want to run a certain 10K time, it allows you to redirect your focus.

“Process goals allow you to find meaning in the race even if you finish last,” Haberl says. This way, he adds, you can find a reason to finish – the race hasn’t been a waste of time. “It’s also an opportunity to test your mental toughness and see how you handle it when things don’t go well,” he says. “You can draw satisfaction from working through an obstacle.”

The Morning After

When a race doesn’t go as planned, some athletes have a tendency to be excessively tough on themselves. But no matter why you quit, Haberl says you gain nothing by stewing. “You have to ask yourself: ‘Will beating myself up help me race better next time?’ If the answer is no,” he suggests, “give yourself permission to move on.”

Hobson says he used to allow himself one day to sulk about a bad race. After that, he analyzed what went wrong and went about correcting problems. Did you experience anxiety during the transitions? Set up an area to practice them in. Did you have difficulty tolerating a certain threshold of discomfort? Train more at that intensity. Do you always run out of gas faster than you’d like? You may need to hire a nutritionist or a coach to help you.

In April 2004, triathlete Zeiger was faced with yet another DNF at the Olympic trials qualifying race. “It was the lowest point in my career,” Zeiger says, who had finished fourth at the 2000 Olympics. “I had spent almost two years dealing with the same injury and felt like I had exhausted all of my resources to get healthy. I thought my career was over.”

But instead of retiring, Zeiger found a new physical therapist and spent six weeks at the USA Triathlon National Training Center in Clermont, Fla. The combination of a new strength-training program to correct muscle imbalances, daily physical therapy to increase mobility in her spine, and a better bike fit helped her turn the corner: That summer she placed third in the Escape From Alcatraz triathlon, and in the fall, she finished second at the International Triathlon Union World Cup. “It was a huge breakthrough for me,” says Zeiger, who went from not finishing the Olympic trials in April to delivering standout performances later that year. “I didn’t think it could happen,” she says.

And it wouldn’t have happened, she says, if that DNF hadn’t forced her to seek out new treatment and make changes in her training. “Now I’m in the gym three days a week. I used to be notorious for overtraining, but now I incorporate more rest into my schedule. I stretch a lot and get massages. I also stay more aware of how I’m feeling. If I hurt, I take care of it.”

While Zeiger made adaptations on a large scale, sometimes the changes can be simple. Coach Hadfield once worked with a first-time triathlete who had to make adjustments after dropping out of a large sprint-distance event before the race even got started. “Her biggest challenge was swimming,” Hadfield recalls. “She had worked hard at it but was fearful of open water and crowds.” On race day she took one look at the water and the thousands of athletes and just couldn’t do it. But she stayed and watched, Hadfield notes: “She learned what to expect at a triathlon and walked away knowing she still wanted to do one – just not that one.” The next year the woman finished a smaller, women-only race that was less intimidating and more appropriate for her skills.

“Mistakes are our best teacher,” Haberl says. They teach us what books and coaches often cannot. And a DNF, no matter how miserable, always contains one fact that should be celebrated: Even if you didn’t have a breathtaking finish, you did have the courage to start.

How to Prevent a DNF

Most race-day blunders occur because participants aren’t prepared. To maximize your readiness, and minimize the chances of a DNF you don’t need, consider the following tips:

Train the way you race. “Prepare so well that on race day you’re like a robot,” says Boulder, Colo.–based triathlon coach Wes Hobson. “You shouldn’t do anything new in a race that you haven’t done in training.”

Mend mechanical mishaps. Learn how your equipment works and how to fix it. Take a bike-repair class or, at a minimum, be able to fix a flat tire. Pack spare goggles, bike tubes and tools.

Avoid fueling foibles. Make sure you’ve eaten and hydrated properly before your event. During training, experiment with energy gels, bars or fluids so you know what is easiest for you to digest while racing. Figure out how many calories and quarts you need to consume at various intervals.

Mind Mother Nature. Be prepared for anything: wind gusts, rain, extreme heat and the like. But remember, while you curse the conditions that hold you back, the other competitors are being slowed by the same conditions. “Be sure to adjust your pace according to what the day brings you,” advises Jenny Hadfield, a Chicago-based multisport coach.

This article originally appeared as “Not Going the Distance.”

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