Crap Happens: Dealing With A Terrible Race Finish (Or Non-Finish)

Greetings from Michigan, where we are enjoying the lake and a newly walking 10 month old.  Yikes!

It has been nearly two weeks since I ran (or should I say, “attempted to run”) Grandma’s Marathon.  It was a pretty awful experience all around.  I knew by mile 5 that my race goals were out the door.  By mile 13 I was calling Rock to let him know that I was going to DNF.  At mile 16 I tried to call him and it didn’t go through.  I cursed him for the next three miles as I ran to the next drop bus.  I got to the bus and texted a friend to let her know I was’t going to finish.  The text failed to go through and that was what lead me to decide to finish however I possibly could.

Let me be honest and tell you that there were three other factors that made me want to finish.  I had a drop bag at the end that held one of my favorite pair of running shorts.  I didn’t want to lose them.  Grandma’s doesn’t give you a shirt at the expo, you earn it when you cross the finish.  Finally, I wanted that damn medal.  I trained, I paid a boat load for a hotel room, and I left my baby girl at home for the weekend.  I was getting that damn medal!


So what happens when you have a crappy race?  First of all, it blows.  I called Rock on the course to let him know that I wasn’t going to finish and he had some great advice for me.

You probably know that I am a certified running coach.  But I likely haven’t mentioned that Rock is also an RRCA certified running coach.  Together we run a sports training business. We train young athletes but we also have trained hundreds of runners together over the years.


When I told him what was going on, the first thing he mentioned was that this is humbling.  He has been there himself.  We’ve watched athletes fall apart in races or end up unexpectedly injured during a race.  It is absolutely humbling.  It certainly isn’t the way you foresee a race going.  It isn’t what you train for.  And in fact, it somewhat pisses you off that you trained that hard and that long, only to have this experience.

Next, he reminded me of some sage advice that Dean Karnazes gave a friend of mine after an ultra-marathon gone bad.  DNF=Did Nothing Foolish.  If you are hurting, or if it isn’t meant to be, it is wiser to stop when you need to, than to push on.  Many a runner has been in similar conditions and has pushed themselves to the brink, only to end up with serious injuries including heat stroke.

When I knew that I was going to press on,  I realized it was going to be a tough finish.  But I knew that I wasn’t putting myself in harm’s way.  I could drop out at any moment.  In fact, when they raised the black “Extremely High Risk,” flags I assumed I was going to be informed that the race was closed.


What are your options when a race goes downhill?

Scenario 1:

•If you know that your health isn’t in danger, you can keep going.  Assess your situation.  Are you in danger?  Can you keep moving?

•Slow down, ignore your GPS and just finish the best way that you can.  For me, cramping set in and I had to walk, a lot.  At that point I was okay with it.  My only goal was to finish.  Sometimes we have to let go and forget what our original goals were and be okay with that.

•Stay hydrated and stay fueled.  Try to make the the best of the situation.  Enjoy the crowd support.  (I gave a shout out to a woman with a sign that said “Giving Birth Is Harder Than This” and it was also a great reminder!).  Misery loves company.  Chat with a fellow struggler and work together as a team.

Scenario 2:

•If your health is at risk, you have nothing left to give, or you are just plain over it, go ahead and get on that bus.  There is nothing wrong with calling it a day.   Don’t be a hero.  Know your limits.


•Give your body some time to rest and recover.  And I mean A LOT  of time.  Let your muscles repair.  Let your mind recover from the trauma of a crappy race.  Let your body forget about the training it just went through.  And let your body fall back in love with running.

•Then you can reassess.  Do you want revenge?  Are you over it?  Don’t make any rash decisions.  Figure out what is best for you.

It is important to remember that running is tough.  It takes a toll on both your body and your mind.  Most runners need a break after a race; even a disappointing one.  Take some time and enjoy life and cross training.  Distances like the marathon will never be tamed and it is important to keep that in perspective.  You can train for months in the smartest and most efficient way, but the distance and the sport will always have a leg up on you.

9 thoughts on “Crap Happens: Dealing With A Terrible Race Finish (Or Non-Finish)

  1. This reminds of a quote from my hubby’s favorite movie, “The Legend of Baggar Vance”. The movie has absolutely nothing to do with golf, but is all about life. At the beginning, Baggar says, “golf is game that cannot be won, only played.” I think this absolutely applies here in the context of how a marathon applies to oneself….”a marathon cannot be beaten, only run.”

  2. “DNF=Did Nothing Foolish”

    I had never heard it before but simply LOVE that quote! My wife always tells me ‘don’t do anything stupid’ when it comes to running … and admonishes me when she feels I cross that line 🙂

    I have always said that my primary goal is to be able to run tomorrow … and that there is no race, no pace, no distance, no ANYTHING that is worth compromising that goal. But that said, I remember running the inaugural Grand Canyon PA marathon where they badly mis-communicated the terrain (said a 200ft gain, which was finish-start … but failed to note the other 6500+ ft of ups and downs in between!) and how that wracked up my body because it wasn’t what I prepared for.

    Nobody goes into a race with thoughts of anything bad happening. It is why my goals #1 and #2 are remain healthy and finish – in that order. Everything else is incidental.

    • Rock has definitely given me the, “Don’t do anything stupid line.” many times. It is usually followed by him shrugging because he knows it’s futile to even suggest that. Our health should always be the primary concern. Sometimes it is hard to know when we have crossed the line because the sport asks us to push ourselves to the limit.

  3. Thanks for a wise perspective and for sharing. I have finished 23 marathons, but I felt like a total failure at the 2010 Chicago Marathon, when I had to drop out at mile 13. I felt awful, I was under train, and when I saw my husband at the halfway point I just Burst into tears. I knew I didn’t have it in me to finish, and he gently walked me off the course and brought me home. I found that I had a fever of 101, and it was a good thing that I let myself stop trying to finish. I was still crushed until my next marathon when I felt great and finished strong.

    • Thank you for sharing this. That must have been so hard to give yourself the okay to not finish. But it shows what a smart runner you are. I can imagine there was a lot of dread going into the next one, wondering what might happen. You always amaze me with the number of marathons you have done. I don’t know where you find the time! Looking forward to cheering you on for #24!

  4. Isn’t it amazing how much we can put into training–we can be the most consistent and highest mileage runner–but one day, one bad experience, can make us question everything? I think that is part of the reason that I don’t race that much. Which is also counterintuitive because then it increases my odds of having a bad race…. but whatever.
    As a coach who just had a runner DNF because of a technicality, and not her decision, I think this is a fantastic look at how to deal with the other (and more prevalent) situation!

  5. Catching up a bit here . . .
    This describes my first Boston attempt this year. Dismal failure. I did not DNF but finished and stayed healthy doing so. After some rest and resetting I found another marathon a month later with almost ideal conditions . . . and I’ll be going back to Boston next year to try again!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s