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Just Keep Moving Forward: To Start Or Not To Start?

Four ways to know if sleeping in on race day might be the best race plan of all.

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When Should You Decide On A DNS?

Counting down the weeks for Ironman Louisville in 2015, I was positive and hoping to redeem myself from the horrific Ironman Lake Placid a few months earlier. Ironman, as many of you know, is a long-distance triathlon (swim, bike and run) that ends with a marathon. I was feeling hopeful and ready to race—although “race” is always a tongue-in-cheek term for me, because I am slow as molasses. I like to get every dime out of my race entry fees—enjoy the scenery, graze the aid stations, you know.

So anyway, I was feeling pretty good before this race with my training, but then I went on a bike ride about 12 weeks prior to race day and I crashed, landing on the same hip that had already dealt with labreal tear issues.

The result of the crash? I couldn’t lift my leg to get onto my bike. Small detail. (“Well, get on the other side!” It wasn’t that easy. I couldn’t really stand on the bike single-legged either. Quite a quandary.) Running was more like a skip, as running is really a big act of single-legged motions. Still, I pushed on, saw a physical therapist and figured that, after a few weeks, I was about 50 percent improved.

With less than four weeks until race day, I had pushed my training miles up to acceptable “Hail Mary” distances before wham—I was driving down the road and t-boned by a driver running a red light.

“Is this a sign??” It seemed easy enough to say, “Yeah, I am not going to even show up to this Ironman. Everything, including my body, is falling apart.”

But I showed up to the race. I finished in just over 15 hours, which was decently under the cutoff. Strangely, it went down as the best race ever for me.

How did I know that showing up and racing was the “right” call? In circumstances like this, with the looming question of “should I start this race or not,” I like to ask myself three questions:

1. How undertrained am I?

I would pose the question “did I train enough,” but that is a rabbit hole kind of question. I mean, do we ever train perfectly? What about that one workout we missed? Asking if we did “enough” is such a loaded question that I like to frame it in another way.

By asking how much I am undertrained, I am considering if I am rested and recovered from workouts, or rested from the sheer load of workouts. I am considering my base fitness. In the case of my Ironman Louisville pre-race debacles, I considered that I had a substantial base of fitness under me from racing Lake Placid only three months earlier and the training that led up to it. If we are slightly undertrained, that’s okay. If we didn’t bother to show up to the vast majority of our workouts, then that’s a factor to consider.

2. Is my heart on FIRE for this race?

Undertraining might be (ever so slightly) overcome by the desire to do the race, and the mental fortitude and burning fire in the soul to finish. Notice that I said “undertraining,” not “no training whatsoever.” If you had a tough run of it but your heart is on fire and you are determined to make it happen, this is a pretty big plus. However, if the circumstances leading up to the race have taken the air out of your balloon, then maybe it’s not the right time.

3. What is the worst-case scenario?

With this question, I try to keep out the “really bad” worst outcome. I think more along the lines of surface-level worst-case scenarios: I will need to quit at the next aid station. I will have to do some walking on the run. If the damage or potential worst case is relatively minor, then it might be something to overcome. However, being injured and risking further injury, missing out on a big family or life event, being undertrained and having no business tackling a race of that distance…these are all valid reasons for considering a “Did Not Start” (DNS) on race day.

4. Will this race make me better in some way, shape or form?

Will racing improve my fitness, emotional state, heart or soul? Will this race teach me something? What can I learn if I race this event? If the answer is “no” or “nothing” to any of the above, then it’s likely a prime candidate for a DNS. I am a big proponent of “showing up” to racing and life. If there are reasons that the race can go “okay” but not “perfectly,” then I usually vote in favor of showing up. After all, there is usually something to be learned each and every time we toe the line.

Of course, we run and race for the love of running, the challenge, the benefits and the memories. If none of those are good for this event, then what’s the point in showing up?  Save the money and sleep in (this time).

What race did you NOT start, where you knew it was the right thing to do? Share your stories with us by tagging @SwimBikeMom and @WomensRunning.

Meredith Atwood (@SwimBikeMom) is a weekly contributor to Women’s Running. She is a four-time IRONMAN triathlete, recovering attorney, motivational speaker and author of Triathlon for the Every Woman.  She is also the host of the hit podcast The Same 24 Hours, a show which interviews interesting people who make the best of the 24 hours in each day. Read more at


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