Whilst following the live coverage of the Adventure Racing World Champs in Costa Rica late last year, Breathe Magazine’s Peter Dobos posted this insightful article contemplating those three dreaded letters: DNF. Without going into the particular details of its content, the article did give me pause for thought and ultimately altered my perspective on what it means to DNF a race. Certainly adventure racing by its very nature is a sport highly prone to DNF results. Given the arduous nature of most courses and the fact that teams are required to get all members to every check point within a particular time cut off, it’s a wonder that any teams at all make it to the finish line as a whole unit. Indeed, it’s not uncommon to see attrition rates over 30% in many adventure races, with the list of unranked and short coursed teams swelling these numbers to the point that it is frequently only a handful of teams that experience the full course of an adventure race as the race director originally intended it.
This article isn’t intended to ponder the significance of DNFing a race, or the different circumstances that can result in a team pulling out. This is a subject that has been well documented before in other excellent articles such as this one. And the multiple methods that race directors have employed to account for the significant speed differences between the elite teams and the back-of-the-packers who would never otherwise finish a full course in the time allowed (including short course options, bonus legs, time credit check points, optional check points, time cut offs and shuttling) is a whole other article in of itself.
Instead, this article is to highlight the fact that the DNF is so common in adventure racing that even the best of teams are not immune to it. High profile examples include both team Seagate and team Haglofs Silva at the recent AR World Champs in Costa Rica. However other withdrawals of top teams in big races recently include team Thule from GodZone in New Zealand, team Outer Limits from XPD in Australia, team Cyanosis at Raid Bimbache in Spain and team Merrell Adventure Addicts from Expedition Africa, all in 2013 alone. Highlighting these examples is by no means to disparage these team and their efforts – each result arose from a myriad of generally unforeseeable or unavoidable circumstances. These cases are highlighted to draw out the fact that no person or team can truly know their limits until they are pushed beyond them: I’m sure every athlete on each of these elite teams has danced very close to these limits many times before and that’s what it must take to race at the pointy end.
I know I’ve personally learnt just as much, if not more, from races I didn’t finish than from the races I did. I’ve also sat at the finish line of a race I’ve DNF’d after pulling out when things had gotten tough but I still had more to give if I had pushed myself. Watching other teams cross the line in jubilant exhaustion, knowing that I could have done more, is a feeling I’d care never to repeat again: certainly a much worse feeling compared to any hardship on the course. So ultimately one approach to adventure racing is to give as much as you can for the sake of the team until you haven’t got anything left to give, and hope that the finish line comes first.