Runners have a “never surrender” attitude, but sometimes it’s best to save yourself (and your body) for another day.
Faith Braut was thrilled when she gained entry to the 2019 NYC Half. An avid runner and three-time marathoner, Braut, 45, of Suffern, New York, expected the race to be a bright spot in what had been a difficult year for her. She posted pictures of new running shoes on Instagram and updates on her training, and even posted a picture of the finisher’s medal she expected to earn. But two days before the race, she had another, less happy, update—one telling friends and family that due to an injury she’d sustained two weeks earlier, she had decided not to run.
“When I run this race I want to show up, enjoy it, and finish with confidence,” she wrote on Facebook.
As runners, many of us spend lots of time preparing ourselves, physically and mentally, for big races. As athletes, we pride ourselves on a “never quit” mentality. But what if sometimes the best, healthiest, and smartest decision is to step away from a race? What if lining up at the start—or pushing through to the finish—isn’t the right move?
Of course, you should always follow your gut (not to mention any professional medical advice), when deciding whether to start or finish a race, but here are five specific situations that are worth considering for any runner.
You haven’t put in the miles.
Running a marathon or another new-to-you distance? Be honest about your training. “Respect the distance,” says Daphne Matalene, a New York–based running coach and Boston qualifier. “You can’t phone it in, you can’t cram for the exam. You’ve gotta do the work before you show up for the starting line.”
What does “the work” entail, exactly? Coaching philosophies differ, but Matalene says, “I wouldn’t want to start a marathon unless I had had at least two—ideally three—weeks where I ran at least 35 miles. And you don’t need to do a million 20-mile runs, but a first-time marathoner really ought to run 20 miles once before stepping onto the line.”
It’s important to assess your body, as well as the race distance and course, when making the decision to start or finish a race. If you’re unsure if what you’re feeling is an injury, be sure to consult a medical professional to find out. Starting a race in pain may exacerbate a small problem into something much more serious.
“A big rule of thumb is, if it feels better as you get warmed up, it’s probably less of a concern than if it gets bad,” Matalene says. (An easy, pre-race warm-up mile or even an easy shakeout jog the day before should help you determine which category you fall into.)
Distance and terrain count here, too—running a hard 5K or a race with lots of downhill sections could be more damaging to an already aching hamstring or quad, for example, than a slower, easier half marathon or a flat race course.
And keep in mind that if you’re running a long distance, it’s easier to decide not to start a race than to have to drop out in the middle of a course because an injury is getting progressively worse.
Braut’s left calf muscle was painful enough that, even with two weeks of physical therapy, she says, “I just knew it wasn’t going to happen. I wanted to start it and finish it and not have to bow out, and I knew I was never going to finish it—my leg would have cramped up.”
It could derail your long-term goals.
For Matalene, qualifying for the Boston Marathon had long been a goal—and one she thought she’d achieved in 2014, until she learned she’d missed the cut-off by 32 seconds. Fast forward to the 2017 Hamptons Marathon: an event close to her home, with a flat course that runners rave about it. She set her sights on a Boston qualifying time once more.
“I did all the work, all the 20-mile runs. I was ready to go,” she says. “Then on race day it was 87 degrees.”
It was clear to Matalene that she wasn’t hitting her goal paces, and if she ran another loop of the course she’d only get slower. So she made the bold decision to drop out just past the 14-mile mark and save her body for another day, that offered better conditions.
“I knew that it was the smart thing to do,” she says. “I know that I can finish a marathon, and I didn’t need to prove that to anybody. I hadn’t crossed an ocean to run the race, it wasn’t the Olympics. And in order to hit my goal it was smarter to save my legs and save my fitness.”
The strategy paid off: Three weeks later, she entered a marathon in Hartford, Connecticut, and on an overcast day with temps in the 50s, ran a PR by 14 seconds and comfortably qualified for Boston.
The weather turns nasty.
More than 1,000 runners dropped out of the 2018 Boston Marathon—and it’s not a stretch to say that weather probably played a role in most of those DNFs. While serious conditions, like lightning, will likely result in a race being called off, every runner needs to use her own best judgement—and listen to her body’s cues—to determine if starting or finishing a race is the right decision.
Ruth Rickey, 56, of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, was running the Williams Route 66 Half a couple years ago when the temperature—she estimates it was in the 20s with a wind chill that put it into the teens—began to affect her performance. Rickey, a cancer survivor, didn’t realize it at the time, but a reaction to a leukemia medication had also made it difficult for her to get air properly, and one mile from the finish line, her hands were so cold she decided to stop.
“At mile 12, I could turn left and go to the parking garage or turn right and finish with my friends,” she says. “They went right and I went left. I got to the car and my hands were so frozen, I had no feeling. I literally could not bend my fingers or make my hands work.”
In a case like this, it’s appropriate to call it quits.
“In an extreme cold situation, if you’re shaking uncontrollably, or your fingers go blue, go inside and get dry,” Matalene says.
And if it’s really, really hot? Know (and heed) the signs of heat exhaustion. Seek assistance from the race medical staff, if necessary.
Your racing schedule is too aggressive.
If you’re scheduling races too closely together, finishing at all might be the feat.
Carolyn Montrose Dub, 40, of Haworth, New Jersey, can attest. Montrose Dub ran the NYC Half in March of 2017 and was scheduled to run the Rock ‘n’ Roll Nashville Half—with airfare and hotel booked—when she decided to attempt to PR at a local 10K. At the three-mile mark, her IT band froze and yanked on her knee, and she barely finished the race.
“In the weeks that followed, I [tried] every quick fix I could find: ART therapy, laser treatment, massage, foam rolling, compression straps, topical numbing creams, stretches, ice baths, saunas…you name it, I paid for it, because I wanted to run Nashville,” she says.
Nothing helped, but Montrose Dub flew to Nashville and attempted to run/walk the race anyway. She finished, but admits, “it was disastrous. My hip flexors were on fire, IT band frozen and my body felt broken. And after Nashville, I was sidelined for six months.”
In retrospect, she says, “I would never recommend my Nashville strategy to anyone. Having patience with your body and taking actions recommended by a professional are the best strategies. There will always be another race.”
Indeed, the promise of the next race can be the silver lining of not starting or finishing this one—especially when you’re confident in your decision.
“To this day,” Rickey says, “I have no regrets about turning left.”