What does it mean to DNF?  On the first glance to outsiders (those who have never competed),  a “did not finish”  is hard to comprehend.  They cannot understand why you “wouldn’t finish.”  Asking questions such as “well, you trained for it, right?” or more disturbing, they may ask “why not; what was the matter?”

What was the matter?  That question for anyone who has DNF’d is like a shock wave and immensely hard to swallow.  If you are like me, you have probably heard those very same questions… each one disrupts you to your core. The questions drive your mood into an even further low point.  Anyone who has raced, a DNF is a fully loaded, complex, debilitating, mind numbing, soul-searching experience. It starts minutes, or even hours, prior to when you actually DNF.  

You may feel an old injury pulling you down or possibly your stomach starts to react to electrolyte imbalances.  Then comes the second guessing; everything from your training, you abilities as an athlete, and in some cases, as a person. Or maybe the DNF was totally out of your control: a bike wreck when someone (or a car) gets in front of you or l has their foot stepped on at the exact moment it was lifting off during a marathon. Game over.

Trust me… I know all too well the self-bludgeoning that occurs with a DNF.  I’ve been there after my first attempt at a 100 miler years ago (getting lost in the Canadian Rockies during an early-fall storm) and again after the second attempt thinking that I was invincible, that I could step up to a starting line with a ‘lingering’ tendonitis injury.  Nope. Having my wrist band cut off was traumatic, to say the least…. And those were just a couple examples from my personal DNF locker.

In my earlier “learning” days, I spent many miles racing with electrolyte imbalances, resulting in being on all fours heaving my guts out like some weekend partier….but I had the tenacity (stupidity??) to get up and stager another ½ mile only to do it again. The DNF chasing me, as I would rather crawl and toss up salt-coated melons all the way to the finish, than not finish.

But what really is a DNF?  It is Life.  

A DNF is a lesson in learning. But more important than anything, it is a lesson in learning about yourself.  As a coach, I always told my athletes that you will learn more about yourself and your training from your worst days, than your best days.  But in reality, you can learn from both.  The challenge is, many of us are still not good at analyzing either.  

If a day was great, ask yourself why. Drill down into the experience, not just the “day of”... but include the several days (to possibly weeks) before. You need to consider everything: Sleep, food, stress, coffee, movement, recovery, you name it.  Then, when you have a “bad day,” you need to do the same thing.  The answers are typically there.  

As I write this, you may be saying, “Yes, I know this Melis, this is nothing that I haven’t heard before.” That may be true, so even though this isn’t new information, I think it is important to be reminded of the process. The entire athletic journey is complex, many moving parts that require more than simply moving your body to a finish line.

The journey requires growth, and sometimes it happens with three little haunting letters.