DNF: an abbreviation for the three words that can shatter an athlete’s world; Did Not Finish. For the first time in my life I received a DNF for MY event of the year, the Muskoka Half Ironman. For many of you, you may be thinking that a DNF is a sigh of relief to make it so that you don’t have to swim 1.9km, bike 90km and run 21.1 km all back to back, but it’s soul crushing for a triathlete.
Many of you have seen ‘Ben the Sports Dietitian’’ write before but this is the first time you’ll see ‘Ben the Triathlete’ write and that’s because this post so personal. It was an extremely personal experience; it brought me to tears on the bike course. I was cussing my voice dry and desperately trying to figure out how I could finish the race. But when the downward force put down on my pedal going up a steep hill snaps your chain and the bracket for the derailleur at the 13km mark, there’s just no way to recover. I was so desperate to recover that I even started running with my bike in my clip on bike shoes for at least 1.5km, causing a mild injury.
Why was I so upset? Why did I just fold up and start crying up on the side of the road? Well aside from the fact that I love this sport, I had invested 6 full months of 5am runs and swims followed by nighttime runs and bike rides and sacrificed countless social events to maintain a full 6-month training schedule. All those kilometers I racked up in training suddenly didn’t mean anything at all if I couldn’t finish. I was hopeless and helpless as I watched all the other athletes pass me asking “everything ok?” with the best intentions to see if I needed an extra inner tubing or a small wrench to fine tune something. All I saw was my only Triathlon pass me by. The race officials finally got to me an hour after I just decided to sit next to my broken bike crying. There was nothing the race officials or I could do. My triathlon season had ended.
Why did I end up crying? Why did I have this crazy f*cking emotional reaction? Well aside from everything that I wrote in the above paragraph, this was the first time in my life that I couldn’t find the silver lining.
You see, I have the same philosophy as one of my favourite musicians, Maynard James Kennan; “I never lose, I either win or I learn.” But there was nothing to learn here. It’s not like I could have gone “Ok, your running pace started to slow down after the 8km marker so we need to look at carbohydrate timing” Or “I need to focus more on Hill training.” My f*cking derailleur snapped off my bike! There’s no lesson in that. It’s just a shitty thing that happened. And now I’m ashamed that those three letters, DNF, will forever taint my race record.
Why am I feeling this shame? After all, objectively this is not my fault that a part of my bike decided to fail on me. At one point I laughed because I could take it as a compliment that my quads are strong enough to put enough force to break a solid metal bracket. And then I realized that I’m feeling this shame because I expect perfection from myself. I expect myself to be the best version of myself. Each day I need to know that I’m growing and getting better at literally anything in order to sleep at night. Then I felt more shame because this is one of those things that I counsel, unrealistic expectations. You see, many athletes and people walk into my office daily and expect perfection, which is unrealistic. This unrealistic expectation only leads to disappointment and excess stress (which kind of explains why I burned out 3 times this year before the end of March!) As soon as I realized this, I almost had a follow up assessment with myself on the side of the road (If I had a mirror or my phone I actually would have counseled myself and tried to read my own body language!).
This was my turning point. I was happy again because I could spin this now; I could find the silver lining. I’m not going to lose. I’m not letting myself lose. Another one of my heroes, Bruce Lee, had always said “Defeat is a state of mind; No one is ever defeated until defeat has been accepted as reality.” For that brief 45 minutes crying on the side of the road with a broken bike I had temporarily forgotten the words of my heroes and accepted the defeat. But the moment I had that revelation, I was no longer defeated. I quickly shot up and said “F*ck you, I’m not losing. I’m going to learn and find that silver lining” and started cheering on my fellow triathletes to send all my good vibes onto them. After all they had at least 77km left in one of the most difficult bike courses in the Triathlon world followed by a half marathon run, they needed all the love and support they could get. I had learned and at that point I began to smile again and the tears started to go away.
Now knowing that I expect this level of perfection of myself I can head into next season stronger than ever. Being a bit easier on myself for the things that I cannot control is the lesson here. We all want control in our lives but sometimes it just isn’t up to us. Sometimes pure stupid luck happens no matter how we try to gain control. And we still can have control, but that control is over how we react to these unfortunate events rather than the event itself.
Triathlons are less about the physical endurance but more about mental endurance. Only the toughest and strongest willpower out there can survive a Triathlon. And the beauty of this DNF is that it’s lit a fire under my ass to motivate me for the 2018 season. This fire burns, always. As long as the silver lining is found, I’ll never lose, I’ll always win or learn. So watch out next season because I’m coming back with a vengeance!