Did… Not… Finish…
There’s nothing more humiliating than seeing a DNF next to your name on a results sheet. There’s no space for excuses there… Just three letters, staring back at you – and everyone else, for that matter.
Sure, if you taco your wheel, shred your derailleur, or snap your femur, it’s pretty legit. But what about that feeling of complete helplessness mid-race… When you’re out of breath, miserable, aching… Isn’t that what cross is all about?
Sure you could tough it out to the finish, “but why?” asks the little voice inside your head… Or at least that’s what it said to me.
STAGE 1 – Birth
A DNF does not simply come into existence, like anything else it is born. Either from one single event, or from a small series of events building upon each other. In my case, it was a crash… Not devastating by any means, but certainly sincere. Overmedicated and a little foggy, I grabbed a fistful of front brake on a wet, off-camber downhill corner. Needless to say, my bike quickly disappeared underneath me, tumbling down the hill in one direction, while I gruffly slammed into the ground in another.
My only thoughts at this point were finding my bike and catching my breath.
STAGE 2 – Contemplation
Unless the ‘event’ is so severe that you really can’t get up, this step tends to creep up on you. My initial reaction after any crash is to get back on the bike as quickly as possible, and do an injury/systems check as I get rolling. Usually things will normalize quickly, but in cases that may lead to a DNF there’s often something niggling that just doesn’t disappear. This is when the doubts first begin to creep into the back of your mind.
After remounting my chain and jumping back in the mix I found myself quickly drifting back… It felt like I was pedalling backwards. My body ached from the crash and I just couldn’t seem to catch my breath. I grunted through the bumpy straightaway with nothing but mashed potatoes in my legs. Nothing was fundamentally wrong, I just couldn’t put anything together. As I commiserated I found myself rolling past the finish tent.
This is where I briefly stopped to consider my fate.
After a heavy sigh, I rode to the tent and let the officials know I was pulling the chute – They didn’t seem too concerned by the esoteric internal struggle with which I grappled.
I rolled off the course in despair.
STAGE 3 – Embarrassment & Humiliation
As is the nature of these things, the instant you’re no longer racing you start feeling considerably better and start to wonder what the hell your problem was. Why on earth had I wussed out so grievously?! Were things really that bad?! Why didn’t I just suck it up and finish what I had started?!
The guilt and sense of failure are too much to bear.
Of course it’s been shown that similar sentiments exist in those who undergo VO2 Max testing… They hook you up, tell you to go until you can go no more, and without fail, people always think they could have gone even harder after the fact.
Now, to be clear, I had excuses in spades… Head cold, overmedicated to the gills (Tylenol, Benylin, Vicks VapoRub & RedBull), generally unfit, bald tires, up early, kids were acting up, crashed hard, etc… All within the boundaries of legitimacy, no doubt. But there’s just something tough to swallow about those three letters… DNF.
Even worse is talking to your fellow competitors after the race… Explaining your feebleness over and over, while your friends and competitors judge you with disdain. It’s the worst.
In hindsight, I may have preferred a snapped femur ;-)
STAGE 4 – Acceptance
Slowly however, time passes and you’re able to come to terms with your new reality. You understand that despite your temporary embarrassment and open humiliation, you will live to ride another day. This too shall pass.
As with any set back in life, after you’re able to process your catastrophic failure, it’s important to look forward, bringing us to Step 5.
STAGE 5 – Retribution
I’d like to say that after a disappointing DNF, I rallied the next day, crushed my competition and stood high upon the podium basking in glory… And although this wasn’t quite the case, I would classify my return as a success.
I started strong, mixed it up with some other fine gentlemen in the middle of the pack, tried my best to race smart and rallied when I needed to, stronger today than I was yesterday because of what I had overcome. More steeled and resilient because of my DNF.
I wouldn’t say it completely redeemed my weekend, but it felt good to hold things together.
It’s possible, that these 5 stages are a tad melodramatic. But it’s cross. It’s blood, sweat and tears. It’s just too bad all I was able to show up for was the tears ;-)