DNF: Definitely Need Failure


Did Not Finish.

I was supposed to be in Lake Stevens, finishing the second half of the 1.2-mile swim portion of the Aug. 17 half Ironman triathlon. Instead, my head was in my hands as I sat shotgun in a race official’s boat.

I closed my eyes, fighting another wave of nausea, while the official looked at the race number printed on my blue wristband.

"Athlete Oh-8-9-2," he said into the radio. "DNF."

"Am I the first?" I asked, kind of hoping he’d say yes so I could at least tell my friends I finished first.

"Nope," he said. "Sixth or seventh."

More than a year of training, strategizing and learning to swim, and I only covered 0.6 of the race’s 70.3 miles.

Failure is a huge part of sports. A hugely important part, at least for those who want to improve. But this shocked me. I’d just swam this distance in a lake near Eatonville a week earlier and stepped out of the water feeling strong.

The shock dissipated quickly, however. Even as I saw the stunned look on my wife’s face and took the walk of shame past friends and family to the medic tent, I already was coming to grips with this fiasco.

The words of University of Puget Sound volleyball coach Mark Massey were bouncing around in my head: "Maybe you should have failed."

Massey, who’s a dissertation away from a doctorate in sports psychology, wasn’t talking about me specifically when he said this. He was talking generally about athletes giving an honest evaluation of their failures.

I had called him four days before the race to talk about handling failure in individual recreational sports. I was already thinking it was an ideal theme for my post-event column even before I failed to finish because I felt myself steamrolling in that direction.

I was just expecting the failure to be falling short of my sub-six-hour goal. The first time I seriously considered a DNF was the same time I started pondering a more pressing question: What happens if you blow chunks when you’re face down in a lake?

After five failed attempts to restart, I was done.

Sitting outside the medic tent, still in my wetsuit, my wife and parents scolded me when I said, "I deserved to fail." It does sound harsh. And maybe they have a point. I’d spent a small fortune on coaching and gear and worked plenty hard to deserve at least a modicum of success – like a finisher medal.

But if I’m really being honest – and, really, what good comes from lying to yourself: I deserved this failure.

I was dogged by injuries during my training. I fought through them, but at times I also let them become excuses. I got unlucky. My wife backed over my beloved bike three weeks before the race.

I made mistakes I knew weren’t smart even as I made them. Like tinkering with my diet a few days before the race.

And I blundered in other ways, too. A veteran Ironman triathlete told me during an open water swim clinic that Dramamine a few minutes before the swim would help with nausea in choppy water. I never tried it because every open water swim I did was in calm water. Lake Stevens, too, was calm on race morning.

But throw more than 1,400 swimmers and course monitoring vessels in the water and suddenly it’s not so calm. I would have known this if I’d bother to do a triathlon beforehand.

Actually, I planned to do two, but I backed out of both. The first because I thought it was overpriced. The second because I injured my anterior cruciate ligament a few days before. You know what’s overpriced? Paying $225 to swim 1/117 of a half Ironman.

There was plenty to learn here, certainly a better use of energy than feeling sorry for myself.

"There is a lot of truth in that saying that every cloud has a silver lining," said Massey, who hasn’t had a losing record in nearly a decade.

Massey has a few suggestions for successfully coping with failure:

For me, watching my training partners succeed helped me bounce back.

I’d trained (mostly for the swim) with Graham firefighter Thad Richardson and (mostly for the bike) with Puyallup resident Dirk Pettitt.

Entering this race was my idea, so after my failure I desperately wanted to see them succeed. And both did.

Nine months ago, Richardson, like me, ran out of gas just swimming the length of the pool. But he methodically navigated the lake. Then, almost seven hours later and racing against the time cutoff, he made up nearly five minutes over the final 3.5 miles to find success.

And Pettitt, 51, whose training was interrupted by a broken hand, was less than four minutes behind the last male pro and within five minutes of all but three of the female pros when he came out of the water. He finished in 6:37:41.

Watching them finish and celebrate with their families, I’d found the last little bit of closure I needed.

And plenty of inspiration to try again.