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The True Finish Line: How One Runner Finally Accepted the End of Her Running Career

Dimity McDowell had built her life around running. But to stay pain-free, she had to accept that it was time to put the running shoes away—for good.

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Strava tells my final run happened on January 18, 2020. A lunch run: 2.93 miles, 10:30 average pace. Even though I didn’t realize at the time that was going to be my “Final Run,” I still recall the day. I had downloaded the Hamilton soundtrack—prep for going to see the show that night—and tried to parse the complicated plot from the lyrics as I jogged along the High Line Canal, a wide gravel path. The Colorado sun was high in the sky, sharpening the edges of bare branches overhead and casting my plodding shadow in front of me. Pulling a U-turn at 15 minutes to retrace my steps back to the car, I worried how my hamstring would cope in a cramped theater seat for nearly three hours.

I wasn’t cutting my run short because I needed to be back for a one o’clock meeting. This is what all my runs had looked like for about a year: 15 minutes out, then back on a flat, forgiving surface. Two, maybe three times a week. No hills, no long runs, no pace expectations, no intervals, no pushing. Constantly reminding myself to be grateful to simply run, a fact I’d often taken for granted.

My 20-year running career started its final deceleration in late 2017, when my physical therapist threw up his hands at my left hamstring, angry for 10 months, and ordered an MRI of my lower back. That MRI was met by this gentle diagnosis from my orthopedist: “I think you should consider not running anymore.”

Given that I’d been in chronic pain for nearly a year and that running injuries were more common for me than PRs over the past two decades, I should’ve just wiped my hands clean. But running wasn’t knitting, gardening or another hobby I did to relax. The sport anchored two major parts of my life: It was a critical component to my mental health and my professional identity. I’d been a sports and fitness writer before co-authoring Run Like a Mother, a book, and co-founding Another Mother Runner, a business focused on helping busy women find their running groove.

Weaning myself from running was going to be as excruciating as the final 10K of a marathon, with one major exception: There was no glory waiting for me at the finish line.

I should’ve just wiped my hands clean. But running wasn’t knitting, gardening or another hobby I did to relax. The sport anchored two major parts of my life.

In college, I started running as cross-training for crew. My teammates and I would laugh as we trotted out to the boathouse. When I moved to New York City in my early twenties, lapping Central Park became my morning ritual. (I couldn’t afford a gym on my $21,000 editorial salary.) I lost my voice screaming on the sidelines of the 1996 New York City Marathon, the first time I’d ever seen such a glorious event. I ran it in 1997, then finished enough races that my medals fill two shoe boxes stashed somewhere in a random closet.

While I appreciated the satisfying numbers and steady improvement running provided, the stats were the backdrop to the bigger gifts running offered: a positive perspective, a pleasantly exhausted body, a supportive community, a fulfilling profession. Running by parked minivans in suburban neighborhoods as the sun rose flooded my body with endorphins and my mind with hope. Doing so with other women created friendship so deep, no topic was off limits. During rough patches, concentrating on the rhythm of my feet and the simplicity of the motion helped me hurdle over bouts of depression and anxiety. Standing in the corral of a half marathon was the best party I could imagine, filled with like-minded people ready to challenge themselves and cheer for each other. Nothing—not yoga or meditation, not cycling or swimming, not therapy, a bottle of wine with friends, or an orgasm—brought me to the peaceful, settled, supportive land to which running transported me.

Unfortunately, my body broke frequently. Details of injuries aren’t particularly interesting to anybody except the person experiencing them, so suffice it to say, my running years were more herky-jerky than smooth. Because of stress fractures, hip strains, and a grab bag of other issues, I never had a season or even strung together back-to-back races. I usually resorted to survival mode to cross a finish line, after which I could officially rest and rebuild.

Dimity McDowell (at right) crossing the finish line with a friend. Photo: Courtesy Dimity McDowell

My experience wasn’t that unusual. “Fifty percent of runners get hurt every single year,” says Jay Dicharry, physical therapist and author of Running Rewired. “And 80 percent of all runners will be hurt in their lifetime.” He goes on to add the things we love about running—namely, its approachability and simplicity—can actually be a drawbacks: “You can have bad form and still run fast and often.”

Not sure I can put a check box next to fast, but next to often and less-than-ideal form? Check and check. When I did get hurt, I also fell into a pattern Dicharry sees regularly: frustrated, impatient athletes who might not be willing to make the time to unpack their physical issues and rebuild from the ground up. “Most injuries stem from not properly distributing the load of running,” says Dicharry, who practices in Bend, Oregon. “Most people want to jump on WebMD or Google and find an answer, not break things down before building them up.”

During the 2017 descent, I did have a helpful physical therapist by my side. Did I see him enough and was I doing all the work he asked me to? Um, I could’ve been better. To be fair, I was also weary of comebacks. I feared that even if I got over this hill, a higher one would be waiting just around the bend. The hamstring injury, which stemmed from a bigger spine situation, felt different, more significant than others. Forget running; my day-to-day movement, covered in a patina of chronic pain, was rough. Pushing on the gas pedal was agonizing. I couldn’t empty the dishwasher without virtual knives going into my leg. I don’t want to admit how many ibuprofens I gulped in the hopes of a pain-free sleep.

“Everybody has an idea of how they want their life to be,” says Erin Ayala, a licensed psychologist who specializes in health and sport psychology at Premier Sport Psychology in Edina, Minnesota. “The bigger the gap is between the vision and current reality, the more psychological distress they have. If you’re fixed on running Boston and may not ever be able to, they are going to have a rough go.” I didn’t need Boston, but I had run twice in 2017 total—not how I pictured my life to be.

I kept moving with cardio that didn’t hurt too much. I climbed the stairs at Red Rocks and jumped on the StairMaster at the gym. I rode my bike and got back in the pool. I appreciated these workouts like a teenager typically appreciates a parent: not at all. In fact, I categorized all these workouts as “not running”, and mentally discarded the time and effort I put into them.

Eager for a magical solution I hadn’t stumbled upon, I took deep dives into YouTube videos from chiropractors. I splurged on dry needling sessions. I did single-leg squats religiously, hoping something would miraculously just click. By the end of the day, I possessed zero patience for anything or anybody, including my kids, my husband, and myself. I felt deeply embarrassed at my job; if I couldn’t figure out a way to keep running, what right did I have to lead and motivate others?

Dimity McDowell on one of her last trail runs. Photo: Courtesy Dimity McDowell

“Anger, jealousy, sadness: they’re all really normal when you’re going through loss and transition,” says Jamie Shapiro, associate professor and co-director of sport and performance psychology at the University of Denver. While driving to the rec center to swim, I was irritated at runners I saw (and didn’t know), confident they didn’t know how good they had it. My insides roiled when I spotted a group of rosy-cheeked women sipping lattes at Starbucks, their sweaty ear bands and gloves piled on the table. Not surprisingly, my tears flowed like a mountain stream in the spring anytime I thought too hard about running, but they also surprised me when they’d pop up at the dinner table, on the bike, in a conversation about the school auction. And don’t get me started on quitting: If standing at mile 25 six hours into a marathon has taught me anything, it’s that runners don’t quit.

Something clicked when my psychiatrist encouraged me to treat the end of my running like I would treat a losing any important person in my life; after all, a 20-year intimate, complicated relationship doesn’t end crisply. I’d been practicing metta meditation, a style that uses benevolent statements like “May I be safe, peaceful, and free of suffering,” and, through similar sentiments, expands those feelings to encompass the whole world. I decided I would send every runner I saw good tidings; just because I was suffering didn’t mean I wanted others to. “May you run well and be well,” I said internally as I drove carpool and zeroed in a pack of morning runners. “May you run well and be well,” I said out loud as I pedaled my bike in the opposite direction of a runner I whizzed by. At first it felt forced and fake, but I kept showing up and practicing. Over time, my angry glare became a quiet gaze, positive and compassionate for both the giver and receiver.

I came clean around Another Mother Runner, and the responses were full of love and support. “Tears are pouring down my face in sympathy and empathy,” wrote one reader, “Sympathy because I know how much the loss of this dear lifetime companion means to you; empathy because I fear I’m on that path as well.” At expos and retreats, I threw all my energy into cheering and making clever race posters, then drooled on myself on the plane home. I was so tired, I felt like I’d run myself.

On blog posts and in podcasts, I started calling myself an athlete, a more forgiving, encompassing term than runner. That put some salve on my stinging imposter syndrome and helped me shift my perspective on my body. My quads were still defined; my glutes were still powerful, even if they were dead as far as running was concerned; and my mind still craved the satisfaction of training for, then executing a big goal.

In 2018, continuing to step slowly into the transition, I took the focus (mostly) off running. In June, I hiked from South Rim to the North Rim in the Grand Canyon with two pals. The camaraderie of training and the chatter through the long day dulled the fact that I once dreamed of running the same route. Two months later, another friend and I competed in SwimRun Casco Bay, a hybrid which alternates between swimming and running segments. I prepared minimally for the runs, which totaled about 13 miles. On the ferry over to the island start, I traced diamonds around my knees with KT tape—my body felt like a house of cards at that point—and during the race, I gritted and hobbled but still had a blast. Afterward, though, everything ached, and my hamstring swelled bigger than it ever had. Got it, Universe: 13 miles in one day—and likely in one week—was too ambitious.

A mere 18 months after the consider-not-running diagnosis, I was finally at peace and pain-free enough to create my run-forever plan. Two easy runs a week would fill my cup, I thought, without crossing back into dangerous physical territory. Mentally, things were solid. I was metta to all the runners on the High Line Canal, even to cross-country teams that swallowed me up like I was standing still. Lulled by the sound of my feet swiping the gravel, I didn’t daydream about a comeback or even a charity 5K. I paid attention, soaking up details from my nostrils turning cold from crisp air to the pleasure brewing from self-induced effort.

Physically, the situation, while not totally healthy, wasn’t dire. My hamstring typically started groaning around 20 minutes, so I often ran/walked the last 10 minutes. Good enough, I told myself, repeating a mantra I’d often use around Another Mother Runner when we talked about adjusting perfectionist tendencies when life got too chaotic. If the workout has eight intervals, six is good enough. If I really should consider not running anymore, 60 minutes a week is good enough.

Until one day in January of 2020, a good enough run just didn’t hold my interest anymore. As I finished my Final Run, I didn’t have some great epiphany that I was finally calm, content, and confident enough to be done. I just sensed that I was, and I also realized this: I couldn’t have arrived at that spot without running thousands of miles first.

Wondering if it’s time to quit running? Read more about the process, and how to make that decision, here.