Moving On From a Personal Worst

Sometimes the finish line can seem like your worst enemy.

I ran 1:40:54 at the New Orleans Half Marathon last month.  My chip time was 1:40:54, and I recorded that time in my log.  That time is recorded in the race results for the entire world to see.  It was not my best half, and it was far from my goal of 1:30.  In fact, it was the worst half marathon I ever finished.  It was my Personal Worst, or “PW.”

As endurance athletes, at some point, we are destined to have a bad race. There are so many variables that have to align in order for us to have that perfect day.  One mishap can affect our entire performance.  Even the elites have bad races.   The important thing is to treat it as a learning experience.

So how do you recover from a personal worst?

First, a quick race report:

From the moment I woke up on race day, I just felt ‘off.’  I didn’t sleep well that night, and my stomach hurt.  My legs felt heavy during the warm-up, and I couldn’t do a stride to save my life.  My race plan was to start around 7:10 pace for the first three miles and chip away at it for the next 10.  Miles one and two went smoothly in 7:08/7:06, but by 2.5 miles, my stomach started to hurt, and my head just felt warm.  My legs started to feel heavy, and my breathing was way too hard.  I honestly didn’t think I would make it to mile 5.  I told myself to try and shake it off, but I felt worse and worse.  By the time I reached mile five, I had already shut off my watch. 

Our friends lived near mile eight, so I figured I would drop there, but I was in such a daze when passed, I forgot to drop out.  I decided to keep jogging as best as I could because I had no idea where I was in the city.  An 8:00 mile felt like a 6:00 mile, and my legs felt like I had at least 20 miles on them.  My stomach hurt so bad, I couldn’t run upright.

I met my husband at the finish line feeling worse than I did when I ran my marathon PR; unable to even drink water.  After the race, we had the opportunity to go into the VIP area where Mo Farrah, Kara Goucher and the other elites were resting.  I felt so awful, I didn’t even try for a photo op!  (Now I am kicking myself)!   I had to sleep for nearly three hours immediately following the race, and the only thing that helped calm my stomach cramps was three servings of nasty Pepto Bismol.  Ugh!

After some rest and forcing myself to eat some oatmeal, I managed to meet a few friends out for drinks on Bourbon Street.  We had all raced that day and while discussing our performances, a friend asked if I was pissed about my race. I answered ‘no’ almost immediately.  Sure, I was disappointed having spent so much time and money to race, only to come away with a PW, but I decided that I wasn’t going to let it ruin my evening or the rest of my weekend.  Besides, I had to put this experience into perspective and think about how it could make me a better athlete!

So onto the meat of this post: how can we use our PW races to make us better athletes?

Even though I felt awful, I managed enough energy to hit Bourbon Street for a little bit.
Even though I felt awful, I managed enough energy to hit Bourbon Street for a little bit.

Do:  Assess The Situation.  How were race conditions?  Did you get enough sleep the night before?  Are there work or personal issues on your mind? Is it that time of the month?  Sometimes, it can be simply that it just wasn’t meant to be that day and there is no clear cut reason; however, it is good idea to try and determine what may have caused the poor performance so that you can learn from it for future races.  After I returned home I took some time to go back through my log to determine if I set my expectations too high, or to see if I was overtrained.  I decided that my poor race wasn’t due to either of those, but after replaying the previous two days over in my mind, I realized that I accidentally had eaten some gluten the night before, which triggered my allergy–thus the stomach cramping and pains.  I wasn’t 100% for another two days!

Don’t:  Seek Revenge.  When a bad race happens, don’t seek revenge.  Don’t do a hard workout the next day to prove a point.  Don’t sign-up for another race the following weekend with the intentions of crushing it.  Do workouts and races because you want to not because you’re mad.

Do:  Stay Motivated.  Treat the poor race as a learning experience.  When I realized that I had eaten something bad for me, I immediately felt motivated and relieved that my race was due to neglecting my diet, which is something that I can control.  This is great news, because it means next time I can do better!  I was motivated to do my next workout and long run, and I executed both wonderfully the next week.

Don’t:  Dwell.  OK, so I mentioned above that it’s good to assess the situation to learn why it happened, but don’t let your PW control your mood.  Nobody likes being around a ‘Debbie Downer’.  Once you figure out what went wrong, move on and use it for future reference.  I had a much nicer time with my friends in New Orleans by letting go of the negative emotions my PW caused.

Flower photo
Be grateful for every day that you get to run! Flower photo (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

Do:  Feel Grateful.  Think about what’s most important in life:  friends, family, job, health.  A bad race is nothing if we have balance in our lives.  Three years ago, I lost a dear friend to breast cancer. When I get stressed out or think life is rough, I think of her and how her family would love to hear about her stressed out days or bad races. Comparing myself to someone else’s misfortune kind of lame, but it really does help remind me how grateful I am that we get to run and experience this wonderful sport.  You gotta take the bad with the good!


What have you done to help move on from a personal worst?  How do you consider it a learning experience?

Native Ohioan now living in Boulder, Colorado. I love to run, tri, train, eat good chocolate, drink good rum, and laugh (a lot). I am a CPA by trade and work for Newton Running.

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  1. I would add that it’s one thing to assess to find REASONS for why the race didn’t go well and another to make excuses for a “bad” performance. I think when we make excuses for bad performances, we make it a heck of a lot easier to cop out in the next race. I know this from personal experience and I’ve seen many good runners have bad race after bad race because they’ve allowed themselves to quit or gave up when the going got tough over and over again. Accept the bad race and move on, but don’t make excuses for it.

    1. Salty, your thoughts are exactly why I wanted to write this post. I know of too many people who let bad races dictate their mood and approach to future races and training. A bad race can be a great learning experience, or in my case, validation that I still need to really watch my diet.

  2. My PW was the Akron Marathon this year. My chip time was 3:38, which for most, is a respectable time. But, for my goal of 3:30 and staying that course to mile 22, it was a major bonk. Long story short, I ended up in the emergency room due to severe dehydration. I am no rookie to running. This marathon was my third (and my 2nd 26.2 was run just 4 months before that as a BQ!!). I unfortunately made some very poor choices. This race was a major learning experience for me. Biggest lesson learned -never, EVER try anything new (on a stupid whim I decided to take an Imodium because I was having some stomach issues the week before, not even that day). I learned that race hydration starts before race day and I learned that being smart is more important than being confident. So, as I go into my next marathon (Boston baby!!!!), I am nervous, but I do know that I am prepared to make smarter choices.

    Life is one big learning experience, right?

    1. 8 minutes off goal time for your third marathon on a hilly course on a bad day isn’t bad, just so you know 🙂 Hope Boston training is going great! What’s the goal this time around?

      1. It’s going real well, thanks:)!! I am counting the days!! I am just so excited! I am heading in to the peak of my training with three hard core weeks, then taper. I am shooting for 3:30-3:35, but in all honesty, I just want to experience Boston. I’m not going in with the mind set of “I have to kill it & get rhis time”. If I do well, I do well, but I’m not going to kill myself in the process. I just want to enjoy every step & breath:)!!

      2. I agree–Akron is a tough course! Good luck with Boston training, and I’m glad that you were able to figure out the root cause of your race. Hope the training is going well!

  3. So first I have to say that you’re personal worst is the PR that I’m shooting for in my next week and it will be a pretty significant PR so that was still a decent race time and nothing to be ashamed of. However I totally get it. My current PR for a Marathon is 4:17 and change which is a completely respectable time but I know for sure I could run it faster. I had stomach and IT band issues during the race which caused the last 8 miles to be really slow and miserable. It’s a hard thing to bounce back from and takes a lot of mental resilience.

    1. Good luck in your race! I was still pleased with the time, but it’s just the fact on how awful I felt. But, at least I know what the issue was, and I will make sure from now on to take nothing for granted. Let us know how your race goes!

  4. You have the right perspective on this! Experiences like this just add to your arsenal of racing/running knowledge and that is not a bad thing.

    By the way, I would kill for anything under 1:50 in a half!

  5. Your post came at a great time for me. I just had a PW marathon time in Little Rock on 3/3. I trained so much better than in the past, but race day just fell apart on me. It was a combination of things, but it is nice to hear other peoples’ experiences with a PW. I was 19 minutes off my goal time (I’m slow, and would rather not share my goal time), but I’ve been trying to focus on the first 16 miles where I felt great and really enjoyed the race, since that’s why I run in the first place.

    There will be other races, other days to PR! I have broken down the race by segments, and now have a plan in place to tackle my next marathon on 4/27!

  6. Thanks, Ellie, for your comments. Sorry that your race didn’t go as well, but I’m glad to hear that you have a great attitude and are looking forward to the next race. There are so many things that have to go right on race day! Good luck!