The Dreaded DNF

By Susan DuPont

We’ve all heard it, that quiet murmuring that gets whispered at triathlon races whenever an athlete, for whatever reason, doesn’t finish a race:  D.N.F.  Did Not Finish.  Just three simple letters, but what an impact they can have on an athlete’s psyche.  Entering my ninth season of triathlons, I have been fortunate to confess that I have never DNF’d a race.  I say this with mild trepidation because odds are, if you are active in triathlons, you are going to have a DNF at some point, the question simply becomes when.  There have been a few close calls for me over the past few years.  There was my second Ironman in Florida where not only did my tube get punctured, but my tire was sliced open as well.  After sitting on the side of the road waiting for the IM support crew for an hour, I decided that finishing the race was more important than my botched time.  Then there was my Ironman in Austria, where severe thunder and lightning the last twenty plus miles on the bike coupled with strong winds and rain left me a crying, nervous wreck, but by the time I got back to transition the storm had abated as had my thoughts about quitting.  So when is it every okay to DNF, if at all?  Should you DNF if a race isn’t going your way, or should you force yourself to cross the finish line even if it means jeopardizing your health?  Consider the following before you decide to call it quits.

  • ·         Your health                                                                                                                               

Ultimately the most important factor in any race is your health.  Likewise, you know your body better than anyone else, so don’t ignore warning signs that it might be telling you.  Are you throwing up repeatedly?  Feel lightheaded or dizzy?  Have severe cramping and/or diarrhea every couple hundred feet?  If so, do NOT take these symptoms lightly.  While these may go away, if they continue, you should definitely consider bagging the race.  Your body is you know that something major is wrong and that continuing may only exacerbate your condition.  Similarly, do not ignore chest pains and numbness as these could be a sign of heart problems.  Often, slowing down or walking and taking on fluid or nutrition will do wonders for alleviating many of these ailments, but sometimes if they persist, it could be an indicator of a bigger problem.  At many races, particularly the longer distance ones, medical staff is always available, so don’t be embarrassed to ask for assistance.  Also, if medical staff advises you against continuing in the race, please heed their advice.  There is no race that is more important than your health and safety. 


  • ·         Time

When it comes to time, your race goal plays a major role in determining whether or not you should call it quits in a race.  Is this your first race ever?  Is it your first Ironman?  Are you trying to beat a particular time?  While these may seem like silly questions, they become incredibly important when evaluating whether or not you should continue.  If your goal is to simply complete or finish a race, then walking or slowing down may seem like an easy fix to keep you from quitting.  If you are racing against a particular time goal, however, the situation becomes a little more complex.  This is where many pro athletes differ drastically from age groupers.  While most age groupers feel that finishing a race is more important than beating a particular time, pros tend to fall on the opposite side of the spectrum.  Since winning or placing means a paycheck as well as recognition with sponsors, most pros tend to bail on a race if their times are not where they should be.  Lots of us regular age groupers find this hard to comprehend, but for pros, the decision is completely logical and justified.  While I understand why pros do drop out of races, I applaud any pro or elite level athlete that makes the decision to finish a race regardless of time and believe that most age groupers feel the same way.  However, if you are an average age grouper, not making your desired time should not be a reason for dropping out.  So if the only reason you can muster for quitting a race is time, then keep chugging along!  You may not get the time you want, but at least you will finish and that says a lot!


  • ·         Injury

This could easily have fallen under the Health category, but injury is different than sickness.  If you are injured, your first question becomes, “is my injury so serious or painful that I cannot go further?”  If the answer is yes, then sadly, you are done.  But if the answer is “I don’t know”, or “I don’t think so”, then you are faced with a tough decision.  It is foolish to continue to race if your injury is going to be more severe by the time you finish.  But it is also understandable for an athlete not to know this at the time.  When injured our bodies produce both endorphins and adrenaline.  Combine this with the amount of endorphins and adrenaline you are already producing while racing and it is easy to see how many athletes finish races while injured.  Some might not even realize the extent of their injuries.  You should also think about the big picture as well.  Is this a B or C race for you?  If it is, then perhaps dropping out due to injury is the wiser decision.  Remember, you have your A race waiting in the wings and you don’t want to injure yourself to the point that this race becomes affected. 


  • ·         Mechanical issues

There are a variety of external factors, such as weather, that may influence an athlete’s decision to drop out of a race, but the biggest external factor is mechanical.  Encountering mechanical difficulties on the bike may also play a role in your race.  If you flat on the bike and are without a tube, then you may be calling it quits whether you want to or not.  These “forced” DNFs are always the hardest to deal with as an athlete.  You feel trained and ready to conquer anything, but were completely unprepared for your bike seat to fall off (yes, that happens), or for your chain to break.  Let us not also forget crashes.  I was hit by a cyclist at IM Louisville at an aid station.  Luckily for me, my bike emerged unscathed.  His bike, on the other hand, suffered a far worse fate and he was forced to leave the race.  Situations like these are inevitable at times and while we may try to prepare for the unimaginable, sometimes our day just doesn’t go as planned.  It is up to you to decide whether this malfunction is going to prevent you from accomplishing your goal.  


There may be a time when we all encounter having to DNF a race.  Emotionally, this can take a pretty big toll on anyone’s mental fortitude and confidence.  DNF means quitting and to many of us Type A personalities, that is the last thing we ever want to do in a race.  While you may hear people say, “I would never DNF a race,” these are simply people who aren’t looking at all sides of the issue.  Being completely rigid in your thinking about DNFs is one way to find yourself backed into a corner.  Having to DNF is okay, at times.  At other times, maybe not so much.  The real trick becomes determining whether your decision is the best for YOU since you are the one running the race.  You are the one who has to be comfortable with your decision and you are the one who has to live with it.   If you are DNFing, then your conscience should be clear.  Ignore what all the haters say and know that at the time, and under the circumstances, your decision was the best one for you.

Susan DuPont

English teacher by day, triathlete by weekend! Currently entering my ninth year of triathlons, I am a five time Ironman finisher living in Greenville, South Carolina. My blog includes race reports, training tips, book reviews, training updates, and various other pieces of advice that I have gleaned from my years of competing in triathlon. You can find out more about me as well as read more of my posts at

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