How Bad Should I Feel for Dropping out Mid-Race?

What you can learn from an unfortunate DNF.

Kevin asks: I completed my first marathon about a year ago. This summer I trained or my second marathon with a specific time goal in mind. Training went amazing, but things did not go as planned on race day. Before I was even at the halfway point I was way off my time goal with no chance of making it up, so I decided to pull the plug and bail. Should I have finished the race regardless? What do you do when things aren’t going right?

Many times our race goal is simply to finish, preferably upright. For runners with lofty goals, like running multiple events in one weekend, just crossing the finish line is a huge accomplishment.

But other times, runners train with specific time goals in mind, like going for a personal best or maybe a race-qualifying time. And, when things aren’t going as planned during a race, stopping is certainly an option. If it makes you feel better, even pro runners opt to go this route from time to time.

Stopping early allows you to recover sooner, regroup, and prepare for another attempt at your race goal with less downtime. On the other hand, some runners fear that if they stop and bail on one race, it might become all too easy to bail any time it becomes hard. It’s important to recognise that when a race goal might not be achieved, you can continue and use the race as a supported long training run rather than a race.

Bottom line? It’s your race and your goals, so it’s your decision to make.

Your dilemma is why it’s important to be very clear on your goals for each race and to have a Plan B (or even Plan C) as a backup. If, or when, you are confronted with another situation like this, where a decision needs to be made on whether or not to continue, being clear on your goal for that race will help you make the right decision.

What I really hear in your question is an element of surprise at being off pace in the race since your training went well, so as you recover, assess your training. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to see if that DNF was a fluke, or if something else made it a rough day.

  • Was your time goal realistic? Use a predicted time calculator with a time from a shorter race to predict a marathon time. By incorporating some shorter races during your marathon training, it’s one way to see if you are on pace.
  • Was your training plan appropriate for said time goal? Plans should begin with a general base of mileage and build to more specific details, such as marathon goal pace runs, speed trainingtempo runs, and hill workouts.
  • Did you taper properly? The taper period is difficult for most runners because we fear losing our fitness. It’s easy to get sucked in to doing workouts that are too intense or too long in those last couple of weeks before race day. Cut your volume by 30 per cent from your highest week for each week of taper.
  • Did you pace yourself correctly during the race? It’s easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm of the race start and go out too fast. Be sure to stay on pace during those early kilometres.
  • Did the weather affect you? Weather can wreak havoc with time goals. Warm temperatures, high humidity, wind, rain or other types of inclement weather cause us to slow down. Be ready to readjust your goals when it becomes far from ideal, and just crossing the finish line will be an accomplishment.
  • How was the course? Choosing a race course that is similar to what you train on is ideal. For example, if you live in a flat area, choosing a hilly race will be challenging. Do your homework to see if the course you are about to run on leads to a lot of PBs. If not, have backup goals ready.
  • How was your nutrition and hydration? Planning out the timing for taking in run nutrition and hydration is very helpful to keep you on track so you don’t fall behind in your intake. Practise this routine during training so it becomes familiar and easy to do. (And follow these 7 Tips for Fuelling Your Marathon.)

Examining all the factors that may have impacted your performance and correcting any oversights will be key to your future success with your time goal.


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