Picture the scene: after 10 hard years of racing and training, you make a triathlon breakthrough by qualifying for the ITU World Championships. You're one of the finest triathletes in the country, winning the right to join Team GB.
So you fine-tune your training and ensure your performance peaks perfectly for the championships. You're as ready as you can be. And then the unimaginable happens - you become sick. After all the preparation, the sacrifice and the anticipation, you can't race.
That was the nightmare in which navy triathlete Charlie Pennington found himself in 2009. His main aim had been to make it to Australia's Gold Coast for the World Championships and he decided to take his wife and eight-month-old son on the 12,000-mile trip. It was a big deal on a personal level and a massive moment in his triathlon career: the opportunity of a lifetime on the trip of a lifetime.
But on the Thursday before the race Pennington was awake all night with stomach problems - food poisoning, perhaps, or a virus he'd picked up. The sick feeling was accompanied by dread.
He realised he might not be able to race, but kept hydrated in the hope of a fast recovery. He racked his bike on the Friday and, although he still felt unwell on the morning of race day, prepared his kit and set it up in the transition area.
"I knew I wasn't up for it but felt that having travelled all that way it would be crazy not to try," says Pennington. "So I took my stuff to transition but when I got there I realised I didn't have my trainers with me. I'm usually meticulous about preparing my kit but this time I obviously wasn't in the right mindset. So that was it. Decision made. I wasn't going to race."
How do you get over this kind of crushing disappointment? Whether on a World Championship scale, or a more local, amateur level, a did-not-start (DNS) or did-not-finish (DNF) result can leave you feeling frustrated, furious, deflated and depressed. What you need at such grim moments is a recovery strategy.
Give yourself time
Mental performance coach Midgie Thompson says it's OK to feel disappointed, for a while: "After all the preparation, the natural response is to feel gutted and, for some people, it could be an excuse to beat themselves up and feel bad," she explains. "You have a choice: either wallow in self pity or let it go. The healthiest response is to let it go and to focus on your next goal."
Many triathletes who DNF talk about the 'walk of shame' back to transition, the embarrassment of being seen not to finish adding to their personal sense of failure. Most pack up and head straight home, definitely not in the mood to stay to cheer on their fellow competitors.
Mark, a triathlete from East Sussex, DNFed at the Beaulieu Middle Distance Triathlon having seen the competitor in front of him hit a car and badly crash out. He stayed on the scene until police and medical staff arrived but when he pushed on with his own race he suffered two punctures. "At that point, I really had no will to continue," he says. "I felt no real disappointment as the DNF wasn't linked to my performance but when I got home
I went hard on the bike for four hours."
Psychologically this wasn't a good strategy: "When some people are upset with their performance, or in an acute emotional state, they look to release that emotional stress physically, which can be dangerous," says Thompson. "Diverting the emotional pain into a tangible physical pain is sometimes easier to deal with, yet it can be risky and potentially cause injury."
Incidentally, Mark does not want his full name revealed because he does not want others to think he is bragging about his decision to put the rider before the race.
It happens to the best
Experienced pros can allow themselves to wallow in defeat, too. Bella Bayliss registered a DNF at the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii last year when she became dehydrated in the 40˚C+ heat and had to call it a day.
"When I pulled out, I knew it was the right decision for me," she says. "But later in the day the disappointment came back to haunt me. I allowed myself to feel sad for one night but the next day it was time to move on."
Finding the inner strength to move on is the key to overcoming a DNS or DNF setback. And to do that, you need to find something constructive in the situation. Pinpointing something to be pleased about amid your disappointment will enable you to turn the negative into a positive.
If injury or illness caused you to stop racing or not race at all, think of the physical damage you could have done by continuing rather than how much of a wimp you are. While you may feel a DNS or DNF is your worst possible outcome, think how much more catastrophic a major health issue or longer term injury would be for you and your career.
Accentuate the positive
Your achievements up to the point of the ill-fated race should also be seen as a positive. Acknowledge all you've done in training and preparation, the perseverance and dedication you've displayed over the months. "Give yourself a pat on the back for that, then set new targets based on the hard work you've done already. Identify the next race, the next goal and go for it," says Thompson.
If the reason you failed to start or finish was owing to something you did or did not do, make sure you learn from your mistake so you can improve next time. "Part of a 'post-event review' is to deconstruct what worked well and what didn't, and to use those observations to get better next time," says Thompson. Find whatever positive you can in your own particular situation. Mark may not have completed his race but he ought to have focused on feeling pleased and proud that he was able to put his own performance to one side to help an injured competitor.
For Dan Parkman from London, a happy family occasion caused him to DNS: his wife gave birth to their first child on the weekend of his main race of the year, a World Championship qualifier. "I felt pretty conflicted - I had this race I was keen to run, but I really wanted to be there for the birth, being a good husband and father," he says. "Some people might not like my honesty, but the race meant a lot to me and I wasn't surprised at feeling frustrated."
When you've been focusing on one big race, it's often hard to see how it fits into life's bigger picture. Was not competing really the end of the world for Parkman? The positives of his DNS situation are clear to see.
"Remember, it's only a race and you need to ask yourself where it lies in your life," says Thompson. "Find something else to aim for and move on."
Parkman simply put his back-up plan into action: he took his family to New York for Halloween, which coincided with the New York City Marathon. "It helped knowing that I had something different to aim for and to immerse myself in - and that it involved my new daughter," he says.
In Australia, Pennington put things into perspective, too. "In the bigger scheme of things, it was just a race. It would have been more frustrating to have started and then not been able to perform to the level I wanted or knew that I could," he says. "I can't deny I was frustrated, but there was nothing I could do. It wasn't worth getting upset about. You just have to accept it, forget about it and move on."
And, having made the long trip to the Gold Coast, he was able to identify a new, post-race goal. "My focus became what was left of our holiday, and making sure my tummy bug shifted so we could all enjoy it together," he says.
Always have a plan
You can avoid the kind of situation in which Pennington found himself by following Thompson's advice. "It's a cliché, but proper preparation prevents poor performance," she says. She recommends formulating a pre-event routine, including a written checklist of all the kit and equipment you'll need on race day and a countdown checklist of what you'll need to do and when, counting back from the time the gun will go off. With a foolproof plan, you won't have to think, you'll just do it.
Mentally rehearse the race. Visualise every moment of it from start to finish and see yourself encountering problems but overcoming them. If you imagine yourself completing the race and dealing with problems competently, you're more likely to do that in reality.
Life gets in the way
If you've failed to start or finish a race, put it out of your mind. By focusing on one defeat, you potentially pre-programme another.
If you're struggling before or partway through the race, avoid using negative language. If you say to yourself, "Don't stop," your unconscious brain just hears "Stop." Change the language of your internal dialogue - strong, powerful and positive commands work better, like "Keep on going." Similarly, don't start a race with negative thoughts. If you do, you're pre-programming your unconscious mind and setting yourself up for a fall. Change your mindset and always just do the best you can on the day.
If all that fails, you should accept that sometimes luck and circumstances won't be on your side. From beginners to world champions, DNS and DNF situations happen to everyone. They're a part of being a triathlete and are nothing to be ashamed of. Even with the best planning and preparation, the unexpected happens. Accept it and move on. You'll feel better.
This article is taking from our May 2010 issue, available on the newsstand now. Also in this issue: how a high-carb diet could be slowing you down, strengthen your muscles with plyometric drills, nine foods to help you beat injury and a round-up of the best wetsuits, helmets and aerobars.