The Dreaded DNF

Did Not Finish.

The three little words that strike fear in the hearts of endurance athletes of all stripes. Whether you’re a runner, a cyclist, a triathlete, or a swimmer, seeing a DNF listed next to your name after an event—particularly one you’ve trained years for and expended a lot of time, money, and energy to undertake—can be about as much fun as being poked in the eye with a stick. I should know; I just added a second DNF to my list of big swims.

Elaine Howley North ChannelIn late July, I traveled to Northern Ireland to attempt a solo swim across the notoriously cold, 21-mile, jellyfish-littered North Channel (sometimes called the Irish Channel). This is the waterway that separates Northern Ireland from Scotland. I’m not sure why I’ve been so taken with the notion of swimming from Northern Ireland to Scotland; it’s one of the Ocean’s Seven, and typically regarded as the hardest of the bunch. The more intense the challenge, the more I’m drawn to it, I guess, but I also wonder if it’s in my genes somehow, to want to traverse that piece of water.

I’ve been told that I’m part “Scotch Irish,” a descendent of protestant dissenters who left Ulster (the local name for Northern Ireland) for America. These folks were originally from Scotland and had settled in Ulster and are called Ulster Scots in the UK. Maybe it’s some primordial yearning for home to want to swim back to Scotland? Whatever it is, I decided back in 2011 that I was going to toss my hat in the ring for this very intimidating swim, so I booked a slot with the fabulous Bangor Boatman, Brian Meharg, one of two boat pilots who currently assist swimmers in their efforts to cross the Channel.

My husband and I arrived in Belfast the evening of Sunday, July 28 and hailed a cab to Bangor, a quintessentially British seaside resort at the edge of Belfast Lough. We quickly connected with Brian and got bad news: the forecast was not looking good for my tide window. As with the English Channel, this waterway is plagued by variable weather, and getting a good day is critical to the success of the swim. Also similar to the English Channel, swimmers book a tidal ‘window’ with a local pilot who monitors the weather and conditions and selects a day when the forecast looks passable. It’s a waiting, guessing, and gambling game. Because the swim is so weather-dependent, it’s not unusual for a swimmer to wait onshore for her whole window without having an opportunity to swim. It’s also not uncommon for several swims to go off on successive days if a spell of good weather settles in over the normally rainy and cool island.

Based on the best forecasts we could find, Brian determined that Wednesday, July 31, was looking like a possibility, as was Saturday. Everything else was looking dreadful. Tuesday evening, as we were headed down to gorgeous Ballyholme Beach for a short training swim, Brian called and told us that Wednesday was shaping up to be OK and might well be our only chance to make the crossing, even though he thought it would probably be less-than-ideal. We decided to roll the dice and take a chance on Wednesday; I’d rather make an attempt and fail than sit on pins and needles the whole tide waiting for another opportunity that might well never materialize.

We arrived at the dock just before sunrise on Wednesday morning, gear packed and full of anxiety for the daunting task ahead. We met up with Brian and an official observer from the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association, Iryna Kennedy, who would be on board to observe and sanction the swim. Her official role was simply to ensure that all rules were followed and the swim was done in accordance with ILDSA guidelines, but she unofficially became a kind and helpful cheerleader, trying to talk me through the difficulty I began encountering within the first hour: the horrid jellyfish.

JellyfishThey grow ‘em big up there in the North Channel. Enormous and venomous Lion’s Mane jellyfish the size of car hubcaps with tentacles stretching off into the murk drifted lazily in the current. I began seeing them in the first 45 minutes, and the longer I was in the water, the thicker and faster they came. What was worse than the whole jellyfish that look like infected scabs from an elephant’s rear, were the millions of invisible, loose stinging cells that had detached from long tentacles and lay suspended on the surface just waiting to make contact with anything that happened to pass by, like my sensitive skin.

The water itself was glassy calm for the first few hours, but cold, ranging from 53 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Colder than it had been the day before by about three or four degrees, enough to make me question whether I had done enough cold water acclimation training and whether the exceptionally hot summer we’d had in Boston before I traveled to the UK had undone all the good cold training I’d done over the fall, winter, and spring. I wasn’t bothered by the cold for the first couple of hours, but as the jellyfish stings increased, so did my perception of the cold.

To make the swim yet more challenging, the bright, clear sunshine that had greeted us at the start soon dissipated behind a haze of high clouds. This is problematic not just because strong sunlight might have warmed my back and mitigated some of the cold sensations, but it also tends to drive the jellyfish lower in the water, potentially keeping them a bit farther out of reach. Like vampires, jellyfish flee from strong sunlight, preferring to surface at night and during overcast days such as this. Lucky me.

Elaine Howley

After more than three-and-a-half hours, the doubts crept in and grew stronger with each stroke. I did the math and soon realized that on that day and in those conditions, I simply didn’t have another seven to 10 hours of the kind of superhuman tolerance I would need to get to Scotland. I began asking my husband to let me into the boat and to his credit, he refused. He did his job as my crew chief. I know it wasn’t easy for him to see me suffering and all-but begging to get out of the water, but he did not want me to give up on this dream until we were both completely sure I was making the right decision.

Finally after five hours and 15 minutes, as the situation worsened, the decision was made to terminate the swim. I wanted to end the swim under my own power, whether that meant walking up on a beach in Scotland or climbing the ladder back into the boat with minimal help from my crew. I did not want to end up hospitalized because of my “hobby.” I did not want my crew to have to deal with me unconscious or worse. I did not want my husband to have to dive in to save me. Therefore, when I’d depleted nearly all my mental and physical reserves, I climbed into the boat, got wrapped up in blankets, shivered violently, and tried to keep my breakfast down for the hour or so it took us to get back to shore. That’s when I really felt my skin catch fire.

See, while the jellyfish had hurt enormously in the water, it got much worse once I got out of that numbing drink. As my skin warmed, so did the pain of thousands of tiny stings over very inch of my body. From my eyelids, to my palms, my breasts, belly, thighs, and ankles. Between my toes and even my lady bits had taken a few pot shots from stray nematocysts, and for the next 24 hours, my skin stung endlessly, vibrating like whole-body tinnitus after a rock concert, painfully accompanied by muscle spasms and “gentle” convulsions. I felt like I was being dogged by thousands of tiny, angry bees. Eventually the agony eased, and I felt human again by midday on Thursday, just in time for the quiet drumbeat of recriminations to begin. I’ve been pretty good at holding them at bay, but now and again, if I’m not being vigilant, a stray inner voice will shout, “Quitter! Weakling! Wannabe!” or some other mental venom. I’m no better than those damn jellyfish sometimes, when it comes to toxicity.

As it turned out, Saturday was hot, sunny, and still. It may well have been the better day. But we couldn’t know that on Wednesday when I gave it my all. Still, it’s hard for me to declare that my best was simply not good enough to meet my goal on Wednesday, and I was unable to cross the whole channel under my own power. I managed to get to roughly halfway across in the five hours and 15 minutes I was in that piercingly painful water.

I shouldn’t be surprised that I couldn’t finish this swim on my first attempt. Better swimmers than I have required multiple attempts to finally make it all the way across. I knew going into this swim that it was likely to be the toughest challenge I’d ever undertake. And it would be arrogant to think I’d just waltz across like it was a 10-mile lake swim in 70-degree water. One can hope, but it’s unrealistic to expect such an outcome. Although I understand this, I feel it’s OK to be disappointed that things worked out such as they did.

Elaine and her friend Cecelia

Every time I decide to chase a big swim like this, I know there’s a distinct possibility that I will “fail,” that is, have to terminate the swim before I reach the intended finish point. In 2011, I pulled out of an attempted 50-mile swim in Narragansett Bay, also due to jellyfish (do you think they’re stalking me?), at the 26-mile mark after nearly 15 hours in the water. It’s part and parcel of marathon swimming that not every swim goes according to plan. Because, let’s be honest, if we were guaranteed to finish, what would be the challenge and the enticement to attempt these swims in the first place?

Still, as endurance athletes, and indeed modern women in a society that places more emphasis on immediate gratification and big, positive results for any investment of time or energy, the DNF represents the antithesis of all we work towards and all we think we know. And on some level, it contradicts the very fabric of our being: endurance athletes finish things. Long, arduous, sometimes dangerous things. Things other people wouldn’t even dream of doing or are just plain afraid to try. We get to the other side.

So when presented with a challenge that just grows too large on the day we are given, pulling out of an event—or indeed ‘giving up’ on any endeavor to which we have committed—can feel like a complete reneging on the soul of who and what we are. With thoughts of all that training, all the preparation, the support crew who’ve sacrificed their time to be with us, not to mention all the money spent in pursuit of a big, bold goal, the heart just wants to break. And for a few days, it’s OK to wallow in the self-pity that inevitably comes before it’s time to pull your big girl pants up, dust yourself off, and look towards the next distant shore.

Allowing a single event to define us has no place in the mind of the endurance athlete. There’s always another mountain, channel, or trail worth tackling. No one is defined by a single adventure, not even the smashing successes. Rather, we are the sum total of the journey that brought us to the starting line, the shoreline, the base of the cliff where we stand peering up and over toward the end goal we strive for. We are the culmination of the experiences and support we’ve garnered along the way to the beginning of the event, which is actually not really a beginning at all, but rather a way-point along the trail of our entire lives.

Failure is a funny word. It doesn’t fit an adventure this size, and it shouldn’t fit an endeavor you’re strong and courageous enough to start. No matter the outcome, the journey and all that happens along the way makes us who we are. And for that, we are better, stronger, fitter, smarter, savvier athletes.

For me, there will be other swims. And who knows, perhaps someday I will travel back to Bangor for redemption against the Lion’s Mane. For now, I’m pleased that my skin isn’t stinging anymore and I’m warm, tucked up on the couch. Dreams of distant shores can wait for the moment. Right now, I’m determined to revel in the great distance I did travel, what I endured, and the accomplishment of simply beginning. Anything worth doing starts with a single stroke or step, and you can’t do that if you’re afraid of failure.

So. Who wants to go for a swim? I know of a great spot with minimal jellyfish if you want to join me.


September 04, 2013 at 4:18 pm

Elaine – you inspire me!!! I can’t tell you the number of times your strength and perseverance helped me get through freezing cold mornings in the pool when I was water running. I had plantar fascitis. I was training for the Paris Marathon. I always believed I would train through the injury (in the pool) and be ready for race day. The training was easy. It was the mental struggle of running back and forth in the pool when it was dark and 30 degrees outside in those predawn hours where I had to dig very deep to understand “why” I was doing it. I ran that race healthy and it felt amazing! Every event is different and we learn lessons that shape us. I’m so proud of you for the training, preparation, determination, self-awareness, and courage. But mostly it’s how you put on your big girl pants and didn’t let this one attempt define you. You are amazing. Never give up your dreams. Those Jellyfish don’t know who they are dealing with! I’ll swim with you any day!


September 04, 2013 at 8:37 pm

Elaine-your story is awesome in the true sense of the word and inspiring. It should be required reading for anyone looking to take on an endurance adventure as it shows what the perfect race looks like-sometimes you don’t cross the finish line but you always cross the line in your mind from “I can’t do this” to a mental place you didn’t know existed! You swam the perfect swim too-your hobby didn’t hospitalize and you certainly gave it 100%, job well done! Fear of failure holds too many of us back-incredible things are waiting just outside the comfort zone!


September 04, 2013 at 8:44 pm

Thank you Elaine. These are words I need to hear as I continue on my journey. I want to be brave enough to DNF while knowing that I trained as best I could. That may be even a greater accomplishment.


September 05, 2013 at 9:45 pm

you’re -bleepin- amazing! simple as that. totally and completely inspiring. thank you!!


September 09, 2013 at 5:22 pm

Thank you all for the kind words and heartfelt encouragement. I can’t possibly express how much it means to me to be part of this supportive community. You guys inspire me! 🙂

Now, to hell with that comfort zone, let’s get out there!

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