A Runner’s Greatest Fear: Training Season DNF

The number no runner wants to see.
Apparently hilarious to nonrunners, but the sticker of doom for runners.

Despite all the work we put in and the hopes we bring to the starting line, not all races are perfect performances. We often talk about the tough races – you know the ones – the ones in which you miss your goal time, you get hurt, or even worse, you DNF (do not finish).  But we don’t often talk about what happens when your entire season tanks.

Today we are going to tackle the subject because unfortunately it happens more than we’d like to think it does.  And believe it or not, we can and do live through it.

I wish I wasn’t the one taking up this topic. Yes, I am currently struggling through my own training season DNF.  They all take their own forms, but they are all, frankly very hard, as my story demonstrates.  So here goes:

I am far from an elite runner, but after six years and 11 marathons attempting to break 3 hours and 25 minutes, I finally did it last fall.  It was amazing and I was on top of the world.  This fall, I was hoping to take it up  a notch and go for my-own-personal-elite goal of sub-3:20.  It would be my first big race as a masters runner too.

But the running gods conspired against me.  While vacationing in Wyoming, I agreed to go mountain biking with my family.  I am not a cyclist by any stretch, but when my boys begged and pleaded me to go, who am I to say no?  Before long I was feeling comfortable on the bike (which I really shouldn’t have been whatsoever) and I started hot-dogging it a bit (okay a lot).  Result:  major crash.  I didn’t break anything, but I was in severe pain for many weeks.  It was quite obvious that my marathon goal had flown swiftly out the window by the time the dust settled.

Adjust Your Goals (Reasonably)

After a month or so, the bruising was gone, I could sort of bear weight on my left side, and I felt the glimmer of recovery.  Like any dedicated (read: obsessed) marathoner, I made the natural choice and signed up for a half marathon a little later in the season.  Take it down a notch.  I started building my mileage back up, but I was struggling.  I didn’t admit it at first, because we all know struggles in training pass.  Right?

Wrong.  My shoulders were hurting.  When I ran, I felt completely out of alignment.  If a friend passed and I raised my arm up to wave hello, it hurt like hell.  I was slow, I couldn’t hit my uptempo paces, I struggled through every run, my heart rate was high, and I was wicked sore after every run.  I was (and frankly still am) a total freakin’ mess.

Seek Professional Help 

I finally went to my doctor, even though I knew there was nothing she could do.  She told me the words I knew she would –> you need to dial it back, Mint.  No speed work, tempos or long runs.  My training season was over.

Cut Yourself Some Slack, Go With It, and Make Lemonade 

When my half marathon approached, I considered ditching the whole thing.  I had done no speed work and hadn’t run over an hour in a month.  There was no way I could race it.  But I decided to do it anyway.  For fun.  To cover the distance.  Even if slow.  (This is very, very unlike Type-A Mint, by the way.)

The strangest thing was that on race morning, I popped out of bed and was SO excited just to get out there and run.  It’s race day!!  I kept thinking of one of my favorite race signs: “Some Day You Will Not Be Able To Do This.  Today Is Not That Day.”  Indeed.

Today is not that day.
Today is not that day.

I put on a smile and drove to the race.  The best part was my sister was there so we met up and started together.  Neither of us had good training seasons, but we had each other and we were ready to do this thing.  My goal was to run my regular training pace (8:45-9).  I was a bit fast, but I had a blast while out there.  I read every race sign and even had a dixie cup of local beer around mile 5 (cheers!).  I ended up running a 1:50 (8:25ish pace).  It wasn’t easy given I hadn’t run more than 6-7 miles at a time in the last month.  I was also a good minute per mile off my ordinary goal pace for this distance.  But I was SO glad I did it.

Mint and her sister after fabulous (even if slow) races
Mint and her sister after fabulous (even if slow) races

I learned a few important lessons this season too for how to deal when you have to give up on your training for a season:

  1. Go with it.  Some things we cannot control.
  2. Seek help from a professional. Go to physical therapy. Get a massage.  Go to a chiropractor. (Full disclosure: I am just going now after almost 5 months and regret it.)
  3. Adjust your goals. Adjust them more if need be.
  4. Run a race for fun. Time isn’t everything. The experience can be.
  5. If you can’t run at all, don’t. It’s okay.
  6. When you aren’t training, catch up on sleep and enjoy the time off.
  7. There is always another season. Take care of yourself and hopefully you’ll come back stronger than ever.

Some day you truly will not be able to do this. Hopefully that day is far away.

Have you ever been through a training season DNF?  How did you adjust or cope with throwing in the towel?

Mindi is a serial marathoner. She is a private practice attorney, wife and mom of two awesome (and super fast) boys, ages 12 and 14. She coaches Girls on the Run and is a big advocate of youth running.

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  1. I ran a half marathon this past weekend where I had the exact same experience that you’re talking about. I had planned this fall to run a half marathon in September, right in the middle of marathon training for a marathon in November. Half marathon in September went beautifully, I PRed, and was so excited to continue training. Two days after the half, my foot ballooned up and we couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I went to a professional, we determined nothing was broken, and that I just had to wait it out. I lost 3 weeks of crucial training time, and decided to forego the full marathon for the half. I just ran the second half this past weekend, and went into it with no expectations other than to finish with a smile on my face. And while my time was 14 minutes slower for the November half than it was 2 months ago, I had the best time. I ran with my sister-in-law and a good friend, and we chatted most of the way and smiled for all the cameras. When people ask how my race went, I can now tell them that while it was a slow race, it was a smart race- I know that I ran it well for how my body is feeling right now. Thank you for this post, and I hope that you continue to feel better and better!

  2. Yay – I am not alone! 🙂 It is such a different experience running a race like that for fun. I am glad your race was a big success too, Gail, and I hope you are back on the marathon wagon soon.

  3. I ran a 10 miler and felt strong after the finish. Two days later I had the worst hip pain (piriformis area, always troubled me during pregnancy). After two weeks of no running and no relief, I finally saw my chiro and she fixed the underlying issue, but I still had to take two more weeks off of running before the muscle pull was healed This caused me to miss the first two weeks of marathon training. I am running again and seem to be back on track for a healthy season, but I had to reevaluate all my goals. Speed workouts are out for the time being and I love speed workouts. Also, only easy runs for the time being. This kills me. I am reminding myself that only when we find our weaknesses can we truly make ourselves strong. Hopefully when marathon day comes up in a few months I will be running strong–even if I am not fast.

    1. Ugh. I struggle with piriformis issues too. That sucks! Sorry. What did your chiro say was the underlying issue? I have had a really hard time unraveling what’s causing mine. Doctors have pointed to cambered roads, misaligned pelvis, weak glutes, lower crossed syndrome, a herniated disk (which proved not true by mri) and now I am starting to believe it is my post-pregnancy abs (and perhaps it might actually be lower-crossed syndrome). This injury, it seems, usually has some other cause somewhere so I’m curious what your chiro said is the cause of your pain in the you-know-what 🙂

    2. Erin – sorry to hear it. Keep up your rehab efforts. I hope you are back to 100% soon. Missing the first 2 weeks of marathon training may not be the end of your season, but be smart and continue working hard. Best wishes to you. Mint