DNF – Do Not Fail

Did Not Finish –
“A term used in sports events whereby the participant is unable to complete the event”

We are taught from a young age that failure or not completing a task is negative, and should be avoided. We are pressurised to achieve, whether this is in Key Stages at School, Degrees at Universities or success on the sports field. But aren’t we also told that we must learn from our mistakes?

Consequently, we nurture a fear of failure, rather than taking a risk where the outcome is not set in stone. In order to learn from our mistakes, we must first put ourselves in a position where there is a chance of such an event occurring. For most of us, such a mistake will not hold severe consequences and we make decisions limiting risk where the result could be dangerous; i.e. driving a car, using knifes.

But what about sport? Is there anything silly about entering a race or challenge, that on paper far exceeds your own ability? Now, before I go any further I am not encouraging people to DNF or take on huge challenges with a high probability of doing so. What I am asking/suggesting is to those that have DNFd, look back at what and why you were unable to finish, learn and become a stronger competitor from it.



In 2013 after running the Glencoe Trail Marathon for charity and literally turning up with 3 miles of training in the previous months, I was looking for a new challenge. Having never run a long distance race and pretty much winging it on the day, my head was thinking bigger. Before, the idea of a marathon was nuts. It would take years to be able to run that distance, however I found through other life events that the mind can control you and if the want is there, you can move through almost anything.

Given this and some people throwing ideas around, I entered Ironman Wales, recognised in the top 5 hardest Ironman triathlons in Europe. Now, I hadn’t swam for years, and rarely ran. I had never taken part in a triathlon of any distance. The only thing I was doing regularly (to a point) was road cycling. And so, I set about an unscientific nor organised training schedule. I upped my rides to 80-100 miles and ran up to half marathons. Yet neglected swimming, with only 10 or so sessions logged.

Now, you can probably guess from that short paragraph why I did not cross the finish line. However, through my previous experience my head told itself the following “The swim will be tough, and you will struggle. However, you can finish ok with the bike and run legs. Make it through the swim and it will be ok.” It’s incredible what a naive mind can justify.

Race Day

A nervous start, huge waves, salt water and fogged goggles. Short of a panic attack I was clearly out of my depth. Though giving up was not an option. I persevered, as I witnessed people being rescued around me, others having panic attacks within 300 meters of the start. As I was windmilled by fellow competitors and thrown around like a rag dole by the ragging swell, I took on water. My system didn’t feel right. Given I had almost lost my eye sight months earlier, I wasn’t willing to lift my goggles up, so I blindly swam, zig zagging along the back straight. I was a mess.

On the approach to beach at the end of the first lap of two, I was asked by a lifeguard on a SUP if I wanted to take a brake. I was clearly not going anywhere fast. Within seconds, my system reset itself, as the contents of my stomach were left to dilute in the sea. It was at this point I asked to be withdrawn from the race and taken to land.

I was pleased I was not the only one. Seeing others made me feel better for my inadequacy. But I also witnessed I was taking this a lot better than many others. All around me there were wetsuit clad competitors crying uncontrollably, their emotions running raw. They clearly had invested their entire mind into the event. As for me, I was more worried about the stick I would get at work.

Why was I taking it so light heartedly? Had it not sunk in that all that had lead to this was now wasted?

The Lesson

I had found my limit, and that is not something many people get the opportunity or are willing to push themselves to. Despite getting a feeling pretty much from the outset that this was not going to end well, I had controlled my worries, pushed on and managed to rationalise a fast changing situation. I had not hurt or injured myself, I got no stick or abuse from friends or colleagues as they thought I was nuts for giving it ago.

Moreover I had fore filled what we are taught in are youth; to learn from our mistakes.

As I emerged from the water of Tenby Bay, I came out a stronger person, with a greater appreciation for training, athletic capabilities (get lapped by an elite, swimming like a flying fish and you will see what I mean) and the value of experiencing life.

We could all dismiss challenges, in the work place or socially if we know the outcome isn’t certain. But what would that achieve? We may not meet our partner, discover a new hobby or interest, find a new passion. All we would achieve is limiting our lives to what we know, and in the grand scheme of things we don’t know a lot. The greatest intellectuals of this world know a lot about a specific field of study, but talk to them about an unrelated area and it could be you teaching them.

To experience we must take risks.

You will learn more about yourself in one DNF, than 100 races that go to plan.

*Since my DNF I have completed the following

– Spitfire Scramble

– Born Survivor Marathon Obstacle Course

– Ennerdale Ultra

– Snowdonia Road Marathon

– Hell of a Hill – 5 trail marathons in 5 days


One thought on “DNF – Do Not Fail

  1. You’re right. I DNFd in 2013 at Dusk til Dawn. I was inadequately prepared for it. It was several steps beyond what I was capable of right then. It was almost a blessing when I screwed my ankle and couldn’t continue. I would have withdrawn later anyway.

    So, I learned from that. Prepped hard. Built up mileage and running more organically – without following a specific training plan etc (I don’t do those!) and went back the following year. I finished that time. I felt awesome.

    DNFs are a tough thing to get over. It affected me badly for a couple of months. Then I got back with the plot… and cracked on and got stronger.

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