Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Quitting is always an option. But so is going forward.
Those words changed my life. They saved me when my brother died. And again when I started running. And this past weekend, they helped me keep fighting when I almost walked off the course during the London Marathon.
The London Marathon. It was the race where after a year of blood, sweat, tears, sacrifices, doubts and early morning wake-up calls, I was finally going to make impossible possible. I was ready to run my Boston Marathon qualifying time of 3 hours and 35 minutes.
I’d already fallen short once during the Chicago Marathon. But a year prior to this second attempt, I didn’t even think that training for a BQ was possible. I was convinced that I’d throw in the towel the moment the doubts set in but after months of devastating setbacks and harrowing breakthroughs, I was ready to toe the line. I finished six minutes short of my 3 hour 35-minute goal time, but even though I failed to BQ, I felt like a winner.
If there’s one thing chasing impossible goals will teach you, it’s that you’re unstoppable when you tap into your own grit, determination and perseverance. Failure is inevitable when you shoot for moon. It’s having the wherewithal to see your failures as learning experiences instead of indicators that you’re not good enough to keep going that can make or break a dream.
I truly believe that the only way you’ll fail is if you fail to try, but right now, just hours after surviving the most humbling and painful marathon of my life where I didn’t just fall short of my goal but blew up in the most spectacular way possible, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I feel a little bit like a failure.
I stood at the starting line of the London Marathon ready to race. I felt strong, confident and just really, really grateful to be there. I looked down at my left hand that read, “Smile Kelly. You can do this.”, and then to my right that read, “No regrets. No excuses.” I touched the ring my grandparents got me when my younger brother Scott passed away; it had sapphires to remind me of his happy blue eyes. And then I looked at my pacing strategy. I quickly snapped a selfie to post to Instagram and captioned it, “Kind of terrified. Super excited. It’s still surreal that I’m strong enough to run a marathon. No regrets, no excuses. Nothing is impossible. Head up, wings out. Like my mom told me last night, just be a badass.” Reading that caption now, it’s almost like I knew what would happen after the gun went off.
We crossed the starting line and as we approached the 5K mark, I smiled. I was running paces that six months earlier scared the crap out of me. I felt confident and proud that I hadn’t taken off too quickly. I approached 10K and again looked down at my watch, perfect splits.
And then it happened.
One month before the race, my piriformis muscle and TFL went rogue and left me in panic mode. Instead of putting in the work for my final week of training before the dreaded taper, I was sidelined. I knew the work was there. I knew one week couldn’t undo the months of hard work I’d put in. But it still threw me into a downward fear driven spiral.
I delusionally convinced myself that come race day, all would be well. Miracles happen and I’d talked to enough people in the three weeks leading into the marathon to know that sometimes adrenaline can sing louder than pain. So when my left leg started screaming, I took a deep breath and told myself to keep pushing. I looked down at my hand and forced a smile on my face. Then I looked up and saw cameras with giant lenses on the right side of the street.
I followed the cameras to the other side of the street and my forced smile became a real one. Right there on the sidelines was Prince Harry, Prince William and Duchess Kate. All three of them, just 20 feet away from me, cheering on the runners. I knew they would be on the course because this year, their incredible charity, Heads Together, was a sponsor.
I didn’t care if I lost a minute or if that minute would lose me my BQ, I couldn’t not stop. I’d joked all weekend that I was going to meet Prince Harry and here was my chance. I ran over and immediately Prince Harry goes, “Don’t stop. You’ll ruin your time.” I laughed and told him that he had no idea.
The whole interaction was over in 20 seconds. And I took off again riding a wave of adrenaline. I rounded a turn and then another—and then my heart dropped. My left leg started screaming and I knew my race was done. I checked my heart rate and just about eight miles in, I was at 190.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played this exact moment in my head the weeks before the race. I knew race day was going to hurt. I wanted to be ready for the moment when I could embrace the pain. “How badly do you want it?” was a battle I was ready to win, but I wasn’t ready to combat pain from an injury this early on in the race.
I thought about stopping and taking a DNF, saving my fitness and running a marathon a few weeks later. I pulled out my phone and started making long distance calls, desperate to find someone to give me permission to quit. I was hurt, this was different…right?
Yes, I’m hurt. But a tight TFL muscle that was maybe a 3 out of 10 on the pain scale wasn’t enough of a reason to DNF. I’m not good at asking for help and I really thought that my sports psychologist, Dr. Bob, would tell me what I wanted to hear. But he didn’t give me permission to quit. He told me that I knew that it was going to happen. I tried to explain that this pain was different. He told me that it wasn’t. I told him that I was limping and he told me that I had to keep running until I couldn’t run anymore.
I’ve never wanted to quit a race so badly in my life. I was dripping in embarrassment. I felt like I disappointed everyone who believed in me and who invested in my journey to BQ. I’d only trained for a perfect race day and when the time came to thrive in a worst case scenario, I broke my own heart.
But here’s the worst part: I know better. I wish I could sit here and write about how I learned so much from my painful day. But I already knew that regardless of my finishing time, if I give my best effort, there’s no way I can fail. Or that I run my personal best when I run with joy and gratitude, or when I don’t take myself too seriously. If I had a dollar for every person who warned me about getting consumed in a time goal, this trip to London would have been free. But instead of shaking off the fact that my BQ wasn’t going to happen, I chose to spend the rest of my race feeling like a failure.
I kept looking down at my left hand and I tried to smile my way out of my terrible attitude. I tried giving out high fives or smiling at all the people cheering me on. I tried doing the YMCA when we passed through cheer zones. Nothing was working. Fun is the only thing I’m good at and yet there I was, struggling to find a way to enjoy myself despite the fact that I knew I that it was the only way I could salvage the day.
Then around mile 17, everything changed. I came up beside a woman who was walking in front of me. I asked her if she was struggling and with a sigh of defeat, she nodded. I told her that I was struggling as well but more importantly, that I couldn’t figure out how to shake it off and enjoy myself. I asked her if we could run together and it’s because of Sarah that I will forever remember the London Marathon with a smile.
We spent the next two miles complaining and sharing our grief and frustration. She had just run a marathon two weeks earlier and had had a tough race there as well. I told her my sob story and we bonded over how seriously we were taking ourselves. We laughed at the fact that we had put so much pressure on ourselves to run fast. I screamed some F words. She told me when to walk and when to run and I made jokes at our expense. We spent the next few miles encouraging runners who were struggling as well and inviting them to join us. By mile 20, I was smiling again. And at mile 23, I gave Sarah a hug goodbye, and took off to try to finish as strong as I could.
I don’t regret for a second setting a goal to try to qualify for the Boston Marathon or sharing my struggles and breakthroughs along the way. Last year, running a 3 hour, 35-minute marathon felt impossible. Even though I didn’t finish remotely close to my goal during London, there’s not a doubt in my mind that I can do it today.
But I will never, ever forget the hours I spent fighting the urge to quit the London Marathon solely because I was so embarrassed that I wouldn’t hit my goal time. And as hard and disgusting as that is to admit, it’s the truth.
And that’s why I’m disappointed. If you think for a second I’m disappointed that I crossed the finish line in 4 hours and 1 minute, think again. I’ve never fought harder for a finish in my entire life. And that’s a finishing time that one year ago, I ran my heart out to make happen!
Running isn’t about proving anything to anyone. It’s about supporting the people around you and finding ways to fight for a stronger tomorrow. The London Marathon wasn’t the race I wanted, but it was the race I needed. It was a wake up call. I had so many selfless friends trying to keep my head in the right place, reminding me that I needed to run for myself. Or that my goal time was only something to work towards, not the reason why I run.
It’s hard to put yourself out there. To tell your friends, family, and colleagues that you’re working towards something that you aren’t sure you’re capable of accomplishing but daring to fail anyways. Quitting will always be an option, but so is going forward.
Last week, in Episode 41 of the Run, Selfie, Repeat podcast, my sports psychologist, Dr. Bob, told me that I needed to redefine failure and success. I thought I had. I realize now that failure isn’t just failing to show up to the starting line. Failing for me is not making it to the finish line.
The thing about quitting is that it never feels like the easier option. I knew that if I were to walk off that course, I’d have to live with that decision for the rest of my life. Sure, it may sound inconsequential, but I went into this race ready to close the chapter of my life that said I was a quitter. Today, I finally say that that chapter is behind me.
After two very public “failed” attempts at a Boston Marathon qualifying time, I wholeheartedly believe that the only way you can fail is if you fail to try. I’m not giving up, just placing my goal to BQ on the backburner until I’m ready to try again for the right reasons.
No regrets, no excuses.
Until next time, #RunSelfieRepeat.