This Runner's Trials

What would it take for you to drop out of a race?

Show of hands: How many of you have been in a race and it started going so badly that you wanted to quit?

Since I can't see through the internet, I'm guessing most of you raised your hands.

Another show of hands: How many of you actually stopped and got a D(id) N(ot) F(inish) in said crappy race?

I'm guessing not very many of you. We all know I raised my hand though (see my infamous marathon DNF story.)


Why is this? Why do we keep on trucking when a race isn't going well?

For one, we dedicate a lot of time, energy, and money to prep for- and travel to- a race. So we don't want to give up. Many of us equate quitting with failure. I disagree, but I know some people view it that way.

Second, the why matters. As in the reason why you determined that your race is going poorly. I believe most whys fall into 3 categories:

1. You won't PR or meet your goal. Often, our minds get set that we're having a bad race once we realize we're not going to PR or meet our race goals. Our legs may feel heavy, the course may be hilly, the weather may suck, or it just might not be our day. I'm guessing you're going to power through and finish even though your time is not what you desired. Correct? Pro athletes may drop out to save their legs for another upcoming race. Though non-pros sometimes think this way too; one of the reasons I was cool with my DNF was because I knew I could run another marathon 2 weeks later.


Yay, a finish line!

2. You panic. This may be more of a triathlon thing, though I'm sure nerves and fear have gotten the best of many runners. During my first Olympic tri, I cried on the bike because I was terrified. The ridiculously hilly course, the trucks flying by me at 60 mph, and the fact that I was alone made me fear for my life. I wanted to get off my bike and sob on the side of the road, but I also wanted to finish so, so badly to show my fear who was boss. When I finally finished the bike course, I was elated. I was never so happy to run, and despite being exhausted, I ran a 48:48 minute 10k. Not too shabby. Many triathletes have stories like this and are always glad they finished and conquered their fear.


Delighted to be heading into T2 post scary bike ride.

3. You're hurt or sick. Now this is the gray area. Most of us would run through stomach problems, leg cramps, blisters and other "minor" issues. But when do problems become "major"?

I DNF'd the marathon because I couldn't eat or drink anything, so I knew it was the smart decision.

But I'm not always so wise. Last year, I collapsed at a finish line. Luckily, after downing 4 bottles of Gatorade I was as good as new. More than 5 years ago, I had knee pain the two weeks leading up to my first half marathon. I had an MRI Friday, foolishly ran and finished the half in tons of pain on Saturday, and found out on Monday I had a torn meniscus. I couldn't walk for a month and I couldn't run for three months. I wish I didn't finish- or even start- that race. You live, you learn.

This issue is fresh on my mind because my husband did a half Ironman yesterday. The race should have taken him about 5 hours. It should have been no big deal. He should finished without looking like death.


Perhaps I should have seen this coming since he looked like this pre-race.

However, that's not what happened. When he crossed the finish line, his face was a color I had never seen before (I don't even have a finish line picture because I was shocked by his appearance). He was pretty sick and had been the entire second half of the race. But the thought of not finishing never crossed his mind…


Dear baby boy in my belly, it's not always best to be like daddy.

He is disappointed by his performance, yet he doesn't regret finishing the race. I wish he DNF'd. He made it to the medical tent before he went from vertical to horizontal, but that could have easily happened out on the course. He is fine now, though I definitely woke up a few times last night to check his pulse.

Sometimes finishing a race is dangerous or downright stupid. But how do we know when to stop? How hurt or sick would you have to be to drop out of a race?

Comments (20) Trackbacks (1)
  1. I’ve never been in a race where I felt like I couldn’t finish but I have had races where I knew it would be better to go at a slower pace, take more walking breaks or bathroom breaks, whatever the situation was. I would hope that if I ever felt really sick or injured that I would step out and not finish. I do think so many people associate it with quitting or failure but to me, you are failing yourself more if you are putting yourself at risk for worse things than not finishing a race. Great post! :)

  2. My fiancée did the Rev 3 in Anderson as well yesterday. He said the bike was much harder than he was anticipating and the wind didn’t help either. It was definitely his most challenging half distance! Glad to see your husband was able to finish and made it to the medical tent safely!

    • Congrats to your hubby! I heard it is a tough course! My husband rode it a couple weekends ago and told me never to do this race- or I’d cry on the bike yet again.

  3. Scary! Glad your hubby is OK now. I’ve never DNF’d, though I have definitely thought about dropping out of races. Last year, Chicago got the best of me mentally and there were several times when I thought about quitting (I had stopped sweating by mile 18). Luckily, I finished and never collapsed, but I’m afraid I would probably let myself get to that point sometime. Just a reminder to listen to your body!

  4. I have never DNF’d a race – although there have been a couple times when I was tempted too. I am too stubborn!!!

  5. So glad your hubby is ok!!!!! I’ve never DNF’d but I’ve definitely slowed down or walked when it was too hot out. I don’t want to tempt heatstroke and I have totally skipped races when I wasn’t feeling well. I will also skip if I’ve had a couple of bad nights of sleep and just feel beat down. Sometimes I find it better to not go at all then to try and push myself to finish. Not even tempted then!!!

  6. I am primarily an ultrarunner and DNF’s are quite controversial in our sport. Some people think there is no reason to ever stop that you should drag your body across the finish line at all cost. I am not a believer in that. I have had a few DNF’s at ultras and I have never questioned my decision. My first major DNF was at Western States (which is a big race in our sport). My kidneys started shutting down at that race due to heat, altitude, etc (who knows why) and they actually pulled me out of the race to give me an IV. I heard people after the race say that I should have just walked in the remaining 45 miles, but I knew that it wasn’t worth it to put myself in the hospital.

    I actually just DNF’s a race a month ago. It was pretty heartbreaking because it was the World Championships in the 100k and I was in shape enough to podium. However, I had to pull out at 70k with such bad abdominal cramps that I was doubled over for 20k. It was really hard to stop. But I also know there is always another race, another chance.

    There are many people who say they wouldn’t DNF for any reason, that they are too willful or stubborn or just can’t not. I don’t anyone can say that, because you never know what kind of situation you will find yourself in. I think, ultimately, it is better to stop, take a step back and say “my overall health (whether mental or physical) is more important than this one race”.

    Glad your husband is ok. I think each of us has our own breaking point. It sounds like you have a very good perspective on it.

    • I am so glad you are OK and stopped. I completely agree with you. I had no idea DNFing was so frowned upon in ultras!

      • For being such an accepting community (the ultra running community), it is pretty shocking how strong the opinions are on it. I would say that is my biggest turn off from the entire sport, especially since most races have such a high DNF rate. It is definitely ironic.

  7. Your sweet boy will take the best from both you and your husband and learn his own way :)

  8. Oh, man I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic. The anniversary of my big marathon DNF was last weekend. Boo :( But I know it was the right decision for me. The rest of marathon season was spent with me being injured for 10 weeks . . . having crappy runs . . . and ultimately needing a few months of physical therapy to work through IT band/pelvic issues. For me, I knew I couldn’t go on because I ran through significant pain through another marathon . . . to the point of being almost unable to walk for a month. I vowed I would never do that again. It just felt worse than something I could go through with no lasting ill-effects. Anyway, great post!!! Can’t wait to get another marathon under my belt. Ever since my DNF, I’ve been frustrated because I know very well that I can run a sub-4:00 . . . I just haven’t had the opportunity!

  9. Glad your hubs is okay after that scare. Mine had a similar day in Chicago, and although he didn’t end up in the med tent, he surely did not have a good race.

    This post, along with the stories from Chicago of the firefighter that died and the woman who ran at 39 weeks pregnant, made me consider just how far we go as athletes (in fact, I have a post on deck about it all). I regretted not attempting Chicago yesterday (at 26 weeks) after reading about the 39-week woman, but I also know that not running, staying hydrated, and keeping baby safe were much better options.

  10. Glad your husband is OK!
    I’ve been on both sides of the DNF decision… I finished an Olympic tri in which my heart rate on the run course was >200. (Not something I’d advise, or probably do again.) I was dehydrated and had what might have been the early stages of heat exhaustion. But I finished.

    There was also a sprint tri a few years ago where the rip current was stronger than I was. I knew I was in trouble. So I turned around, paddled back in to shore, and had them cut my timing tag off. I waited ’til everyone from my wave exited the water, grabbed my bike, and finished the bike/run (no reason to skip a fun ride, just because it wasn’t going to count, right?)

    And honestly… that DNF tri is one of my best race experiences. I had one of my fastest 5ks ever (even faster than some of my road-race-only 5ks). Plus I learned that while I’m a fan of pushing my boundaries, no one is going to disown me (including myself) for admitting that I wasn’t strong enough at that time to swim against the ripcurrent. Maybe I would have been ok anyway, but I might have been in real trouble if I hadn’t swallowed my pride and turned in my timing chip.

  11. gosh, i’m so sorry to hear that jeff’s race ended up going so poorly. i thought about him a lot this weekend. it’s so hard to accept that you’re not having an “on day” when it comes to big races that require a lot of training and that you’ve set a specific goal for. i do think there is a difference between just hitting the wall and needing to stop for your physical health. i can understand how it might be difficult to difficult to determine what side of that you’re on in the middle of a huge race.

    thinking about y’all. glad he’s okay.

  12. What a very timely post! I ran a half marathon on Sunday with a strained IT band and in an 85 degree heat wave (it’s been in the 60s). It turned out to be the worst race I’ve EVER run. Worst time, worst mental feeling, worst physical pain. Three days ago I could say “I’ve never cried while running”, but not anymore. I think the reason I didn’t stop and DNF were: 1) By the time it really really started to hurt I was past mile 7 so I figured “Heck, I’ve come all this way, I might as well finish this stupid thing.” B) I was the ride for my friends who were ahead of me. C) I’m incredibly stubborn.
    I definitely agree that sometimes it’s better to take the DNF though. Hope your husband’s feeling better!

  13. I’m glad your hubby is ok!

    I dropped out of a 5K one time which is totally not like me. I had run a marathon the weekend before and had hurt my foot in the shower afterwards. I could barely walk on it during the week, but I thought it was only bruised. I was in so much pain I knew something was up. I went to the doctor Monday and my first metatarsal was cracked. That’s how I roll…I run a marathon injury free and break my foot stretching in the shower afterwards.

    It’s such a tough decision especially for a long race when you’ve put so much time and effort into training.

  14. I am sorry to hear about your husband’s race not going as planned. I am glad he is OK, though. It’s tough to know when to stop and really listen to your body.

  15. silly boys. I am still mad at bobby for pushing so hard sunday that he made himself sick.
    It’s a good question. I think if I was truly injured I would def. stop, and if I had to walk and not run b/c I felt so sick, I would most likely figure, what’s the point in racing if I have to walk the thing!

  16. That’s so scary about your husband. I’m glad he’s okay, but still.

    My husband and I often say that we’ll do anything as long as we don’t end up in the medical tent. I’ve thrown up during races before, so I know I’m willing to stick it out even if I feel crummy. But then I was also at the Chicago Marathon that was canceled due to heat and I saw a lot of people being wheeled out and put into ambulances, so I’m pretty cognizant of the fact that you can only push yourself so hard before your body says “no way, I’m out.”

  17. I would have to be pretty sick and or injured to DNF. The first two do not apply. If I could let go and race again very soon, mayyybe number 1 would work. But that’s just not relevant to my lifestyle. I don’t have the kind of money to let go of a race fee I paid for that easily let alone another fee for redemption.

    I probably have the kind of stick toitiveness that is actually bordering on bad for me… but we’ll see. I hope that if it comes to it I’ll DNF over serious injury/etc.

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