Wednesday, March 01, 2006

When is it appropriate to DNF?

DNF (did not finish), in case you didn't know, has become both a noun and a verb. In those three letters are encapsulated a whirling vortex of experiences and emotions.

A lot of folks have been talking on their blogs recently about mental toughness. I believe in order to be fully-prepared and demonstrate mental toughness that is appropriate on the race course (and not foolhardy), we need to think through all the possible scenarios. These especially include deciding on the worst-case problems which may cause us to DNF. It's better to decide in advance about what things would make it reasonable for you to drop out, because you may not be thinking very clearly on the day of the event.

What one person considers reasonable for a DNF often is NOT reasonable for another person. For example, some people consider it fairly routine to get an IV after a race; whereas I would consider that a failure in executing my nutrition, pacing, and hydration plan. Pushing myself physically to a point that my long-term health could be damaged is not something that I personally consider sensible or reasonable.

For me (someone who usually has no expectation of placing in the top ten in her age group), an appropriate DNF decision would happen if:

  • I was injured during a race badly enough that severe pain kept me from continuing
  • I aggravated an old injury badly enough that it would be worsened by continuing
  • Severe or ongoing dizziness, disorientation, or severe headache
  • Persistent chills, goose-bumps, cessation of sweating, or severe cramping
  • Persistent vomiting or diarrhea
  • Any type of life-threatening disorder that would be aggravated by continuing
  • I felt totally exhausted to the extent that I simply could not go another step
  • My bike was broken to the extent I couldn't walk it back nor fix it with the assistance of tech help
  • Conditions of the race (surf, rip current, lightning, uncontrolled traffic, etc.) were dangerous to the point of making an accident or severe injury likely
  • A race official told me to stop

For me, I would NOT consider it an appropriate DNF decision if:

  • I was simply tired, angry, frustrated, or demoralized
  • I was hungry
  • I was held up temporarily on course by things beyond my control
  • I felt hot, sweaty, crusty, smelly, and disgusting
  • I felt worn out and defeated
  • I had a minor accident, flat tire, or mechanical problem that was fixable on course
  • I was wet
  • I was last
  • I wasn't going to make some preconceived time goal
  • I wasn't going to make the official time cutoffs but I could still finish safely

For some highly competitive triathletes that have other prospective "A" races within the subsequent six weeks it makes competitive sense if the race is going badly to withdraw and save their energy for another day.

But to me, the ultimate in sportsmanship is shown when someone sets out to complete the course, and DOES it, despite hardships and obstacles and difficulties thrown in the way, and without whining and complaints and excuses.

Sometimes I hear people justify a DNF after the fact because "I might have injured myself". To me, that doesn't make much sense unless there is an imminent and highly probable likelihood of it. To me, that often sounds like a rationale developed to protect one's ego after simply quitting. Bailing out. Giving up.

What other reasons for a DNF would YOU consider reasonable?

In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I can recall having 2 DNFs: One when I was running on a metatarsal stress fracture and didn't know it (pulled out of 2002 Country Music Marathon with a lot of ankle pain at the halfway point, later spent 7 weeks in an aircast), and the other was 12 miles into a 20-mile trail run on a rocky, uneven surface that I thought might be further injuring my bad ankle. I have DNSd a few races that I didn't care much about when it was raining hard.


backofpack said...

Wow. Good post. I think you pretty much covered it. That thing about the IV's is strange - something I would avoid at all costs. I will say though, that there are times when you are out there and just not sure...I can think of twice I probably should have quit, but didn't. Sometimes the stubborn streak in me takes over the common sense in me!

Steph said...

there's no way I'd push it to the point of needing IV fluids. By that time you've probably already did damage to your kidneys that will show up sooner or later. Totally nuts.

I wondered during Hermosa Day at the Beach if I'd DNF -- I twisted my ankle in the surf on the swim ENTRY. (I also thought I may not even be able to get past the break and DO the swim, the waves were so bad, but I persevered.) I told myself if it really started hurting I'd DNF. Luckily (?) the water numbed it. It twinged a little on the bike, did okay on the run, so I finished the tri.

However, it was a good 1-2 mon before it didn't bother me on subsequent training runs.

Keryn said...

Great post! I don't spend enough time thinking about not finishing. I need to work on my mental toughness... This post gives me plenty of food for though.

Comm's said...

I have seen a lot of pro's who DNF on a dime if they get out of contention, obstensibly they say because they have another race coming up and why torture yourself if you can't win. I agree with all your points except I don't have a problem with getting an IV.

I got heat stroke a while back while exercising and while drinking a gallon of water an hour for 3 straight hours. I didn't know until I got done what was going on. Since then my body is on a razors edge for dehydration and no matter how I feel, I think an IV, if offered, makes good sense.

Much like I will not turn down a extra ten minutes in T2 during IMFL to get my legs rubbed out, its not a failure on my bike conditioning, its part of the plan.

nancytoby said...

I think that position on IVs is entirely sensible for someone who has a history of heat stroke and may have some existing damage that may compromise heat regulation.

It's just not for me, if I can help it.

angie's pink fuzzy said...

Hmm, quite thought-provoking! I've never thought about why or when I would DNF. I don't know that I've had enough experience to really know (only four races, one of which was an ultra).

I saved Johnny from a DNF at Zane Grey 50m last year - he wanted to quite because he was demoralized and hadn't fueled properly. After sitting at the last aid station (mile 44) for 20 minutes, eating all the potato chips I kept throwing on his lap, he got up and began running. He ended up passing 10 people on the last six miles.

I had bad pain and my left leg just sort of shut down (later to learn it was itb issues) at Pemberton, but it never occurred to me to stop. I tied for last place, and was proud of it! So that wouldn't cause a DNF :)

I guess if I felt my life was in danger I would stop. I think you had a great outline.

Flatman said...

Great post, Nancy. Lot's of truth in your reasons for DNF'ing and not DNF'ing. I'd say they were about right on with mine.

tarheeltri said...

Good post. It's all part of what the visualization process should be. Too often we visualize only the split-second it takes to cross the finish and not the hours prior leading up to it. What could go wrong and how would I handle it ar essential questions!

Bridget said...

I think your lists is farely close to mine. For Wildflower, I am super worried about DNFing. However, the only time I imagine a DNF there it is because I didn't make the bike cutoff and was pulled off the course. Although I know nutrition could also lead to failure, I just don't consider that possibility very often. I know this is going to sound totally nuts, but if I finish an Ironman and need an IV, well I am kind of okay with that. I don't want to do permanent damage or anything and will avoid it at all cost, but if at mile 20 on the run, I know I can finish and need an IV or just stop and be okay, then I will probably finish.

nancytoby said...

Well, I would certainly accept an IV if I needed one. But I really, really don't like the thought of pushing myself to that level of dehydration. It's flirting not only with the possibility of heat stroke, but also nasty stuff like kidney damage, hypothalamus damage, and partial small intestine removal. NOT fun consequences. I think too many triathletes take those possibilities a little too casually. Not worth it to me!!!

nancytoby said...

Here's one article about heat stroke consequences:

Steph said...

To clarify: I think if I ever thought I was getting so dehydrated that I would soon need IV fluids, then I would DNF. If it turned out I didn't realize it and did need IV fluids, there's no way I'd turn them down. The damage is potentially already done and the IV fluids are necessary to prevent further damage.

runr53 said...

Last year at Grandma's I thought about DNF when I found myself spinning in circles due to a severe cramp in my left calf, kinda hard to run another two miles on one leg! IV fluids, hmmm, guess I don't know why anyone would let themselves get to that point, unless of course they were leading the race and had a speedy racer on their tail? An old saying comes to mind, Don't take yourself to seriously, no one else does! Congrats on your PR!

Bolder said...

Great post! I think about this eh LOT!! (some canada humour for you there -- you can take the man out of Canada, but you can't...)

As a matter of fact, I think about this going into my workouts too... especially dreadmill ones.

For ANY race, I will DNF if I will injure myself permanently, or, am endangering myself for an extended period of time. It's just a race. There will be others.

For Ironman, realistically, I will only stop if a race official pulls me off the course, or I just drop, because if I'm in that much trouble, I probably won't be thinking rationally at that point anyway.

But, for you and I Nancy, that have the goal of finishing, I don't think that we will mess up on nutrition, pace, or are ill-prepared. Our only reason for not finishing will be events beyond our control.

Let's agree to do the work ahead of time to ensure we finish. And, if fate intervenes, then we will have hit our objective of an elite level of fitness preparation, and will only submit to events beyond our control (ie. hit by a car, bit by a shark, Angelina Jolie invites me to play tongue tag).