If you think about it, racing is a strange thing to do for fun. Hang by the infield trash cans at a youth track meet, find a spot deep into a hilly cross-country course, or stand near the finish chute of a marathon, and the disconnect will be hard to miss. What other avocation regularly causes its enthusiasts to redline, collapse, vomit, or worse?
For many of us, the suffering is part of the appeal. We spend so much of our lives chasing comfort and convenience that doing something contrary to that is uniquely satisfying and sometimes addicting.
It’s hard to blame those who don’t want in. As much as I love it, my guess is that many people see racing like I see winter camping: peculiar, respectable even, but ultimately more miserable than it’s worth. I also can’t fault runners who choose not to race. Competing isn’t for everyone, and when the pressure of a race sucks the joy from the pursuit—as I saw it do for my older sister in middle school—it’s probably best not to force it.
Harder for me to reconcile are the runners who commit to races and start them, knowing exactly what they’re signing up for, yet bow out before the finish line.
Stages of Quitting
Here’s how it often plays out: A runner prepares well for a race, maybe hyping their fitness levels and race goals on social media, and approaches the starting line with big ambitions (such as running a personal record, winning their age group, or qualifying for the Boston Marathon or Olympic Trials). The gun fires, the runner goes out hard, and, inevitably, things start to get tough.
Maybe the splits are slowing and the goal is slipping away, or a move is made and missed, or a competitor who’s slower on paper is ahead, or it’s just an inexplicable bad day at the office. Or maybe the race is actually going well, but the runner thinks too far down the road, lets doubt creep in, and feels crushed by the toil still ahead. Whatever the cause, it suddenly becomes too much to bear, and the runner steps off the track or course, netting a DNF (“did not finish”) in the results.
Allie Kieffer, a 2:28 marathoner and coach based in Austin, Texas, offers a candid perspective on that process. While she’s turned in some world-class performances in the last several years, including two top-10 finishes at the New York City Marathon, she’s also been open about several DNFs on her résumé. “Originally I started dropping out because I had an ego,” Kieffer says. “In 2019, I dropped out of a race because someone passed me who I thought I was better than,” and she wasn’t prepared to handle it.
Soon, that mentality trickled into workouts. When Kieffer stopped hitting the times she wanted or that her coach had assigned, she stopped early, deeming the day a failure. It happened in more races, too. The thoughts that hijacked her mind would go from, “Oh, this is hard. This shouldn’t be hard.” to “If this is hard and I’m running X pace, I’ll never run my goal time.” to “This is just a waste. I’m not even good enough to hit the goal I’m thinking of.” to “I should just stop.”
And even though quitting can feel like the only good option in the moment, whenever she surrenders to those negative thoughts, it usually strikes her later as a big mistake.
Stopping early, in short, is a slippery slope. Do it once, Kieffer warns, and “it makes it easier to drop out again… It’s just in the back of your mind.” The more you do it, the less you’ll trust yourself to stick it out—a phenomenon I’ve seen play out countless times.
I remember American half marathon record holder Ryan Hall sharing that sentiment when his DNS (did not start) and DNF tally started to grow toward the end of his career. In fact, I saw him peel off a course for the final time in the 2015 Los Angeles Marathon (in which women were given a head start). That moment, and the events that precipitated it, left an indelible impression on me and the way I think about finish lines.
The Urge to Quit
The temptation to quit is one that I—like any runner who’s being honest—know well. Rarely does a race come and go without the thought of dropping out crossing my mind at least once. It’s comforting to know that even the great Meb Keflezighi thought about quitting during every marathon he ran, including the three he won. So did Des Linden, in the early stages of the 2018 Boston Marathon, which she ultimately won in epic fashion.
Although I can list plenty of races in which I would have avoided significant pain and shame by stopping early—most of all, the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials, where I went in seeded 11th but crawled home in 85th—so far, I’ve not reached that point. It’s not that I’m tougher or wired differently than anyone else out there; deep down, I’m afraid that if I quit once, I won’t be strong enough to not do it again.
Don’t get me wrong—there are situations in which dropping out is probably a good idea. We all draw our own lines, but here’s how I see it: If continuing on will exacerbate a suspected injury or health issue, or legitimately diminish a runner’s shot at, say, making an Olympic team, quitting can be justifiable. (Some athletes have even higher thresholds. Need I remind you of the Abbey (D’Agostino) Cooper/Nikki Hamblin collision in the 2016 Olympic 5,000 meters?)
“FAILURE IS A REAL AND NECESSARY PART OF SPORT AND NOT SOMETHING TO OPT OUT OF SIMPLY BECAUSE IT’S PAINFUL.”
It’s important to note that a DNF next to a runner’s name never tells the full story. It’s easy to jump to conclusions, but unless you’re privy to the backdrop, best to give others the benefit of the doubt. I also try to withhold judgement from runners, often from developing nations, whose livelihoods ride on their performances. When a race turns south, the decision to save themselves for a better day (and payday) may have less to do with pride than the need to keep their family afloat.
But if the catalyst for throwing in the towel is a missed goal, bruised ego, poor outcome, or something of that nature, my take is that any result is better than no result. Failure is a real and necessary part of sport and not something to opt out of simply because it’s painful.
Quitting is also a dangerous message to send to fans, fellow racers, and young, impressionable athletes, who I fear will internalise the idea that a race is only worth finishing when it’s a slam dunk. Lastly, stopping early is one of the surest ways to sell yourself short. Just ask Meb, Des, and every other athlete who’s managed to make magic out of a near-DNF.
How to Make Finishing Your Default
Here’s advice from Kieffer and other elites on making finishing a habit:
- Avoid an all-or-nothing mentality by setting multiple goals and considering all outcomes. Kieffer says, “When I only think about the best possible scenario happening, my expectations get in the way of finishing the race.”
- Run for reasons other than yourself. Thoughts of his family and supporters keep Olympic marathoner Jared Ward going when rough patches challenge his will to continue. Many runners draw extra motivation by running for a cause.
- See a sports psychologist, who can help you overcome mental blocks and replace ill-serving habits.
- Have a sense of humor about the inevitable bad days, as pro marathoner Lindsay Flanagan demonstrated just a few weeks before finishing second at the U.S. 15K Championships.
- Train with runners who challenge you and expose you to difficult scenarios you may encounter in future races. Referring to her training partners in Flagstaff, Kieffer says, “We’re a little bit competing every day.”
- Take a note from Jordan Hasay’s perspective on her 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials heartbreak, when she entered with the fastest PR in the field but finished 26th: “Finished will always be better than did not finish, which always triumphs did not start.”
- Recognize when you’re putting too much emphasis on results, and go back to why you started running in the first place.
- Think of the strength you gain every time you persevere through something hard, as Deena Kastor did after the 2019 Tokyo Marathon, her “most difficult marathon to date” and the one she’s proudest to have finished.