What We Want You to Say to Us When We’ve Had a Bad Race

Des Linden commiserates with Kara Goucher at the 2016 Olympic Trials MarathonHave you ever raced with a friend who ended the race feeling horribly disappointed about her performance? It’s the worst. What do you say? What can you do to help her feel better? In the moment, when witnessing your friend experience the crushing feeling of defeat, it’s hard to know what to say or do, even though you know the pain she is feeling and have almost certainly felt it yourself at some point.

I know that pain. I DNF’d my first serious attempt at an ultra. After, I jumped into a 12-hour race on a whim and surprised myself with 36 truly delightful miles. That taste of unexpected success pushed me headfirst into ultras. Naturally, being naive and still high on that accomplishment, I decided to skip the 50 mile distance and jump right into a 100k (62 miles).

I devoted myself to training for the next five months and I was so confident at race registration that I told the organizers that if it took me more than twelve hours to run 100k, they should pull me off the course. I was cocky and, frankly, completely unprepared. Perhaps this exacerbated the devastation I felt when I dropped out and the funk I experienced for two months after.

Looking back, this is what I needed someone to tell me.

Running is not the only thing that defines me.

It’s so helpful to us to be reminded that we are so much more than our running accomplishments. After putting everything I had into training for the 100k I DNF’d, to not even finish it was completely crushing. I had let running define my identity and forgotten that I was also a Ph.D student, sister, daughter, friend, and a really really funny mofo. Those are all important roles, especially the aspiring amateur comedian. Remind me that I am so much more than one race and so much more than a runner. While a bad race sucks, there is a lot more good going on elsewhere.

I didn’t let you down. 

When we are disappointed we need you to tell us that we didn’t let you down; you still love us and will continue to support us towards our goals. After my DNF I read through emails from friends and family who had been watching my progress. Seeing reactions to the news that I dropped out made me feel like a huge disappointment. “NOOOOOO!” one read.

I felt like I had let everyone down, not just myself. This kept me from talking to anyone about it because I felt like the worst runner ever. How could I give anyone advice about running when I couldn’t even finish the biggest race I’d ever trained for? Would anyone ever support me as I tried to reach my running goals again? It’s so great to be a part of a community that supports you as you try to reach your running goals, but the flipside can be that you feel like you’ve let them down when you fail to accomplish what you set out to do. So know when we fail in racing, sometimes we feel like we’ve failed you.

Solicited advice … in time. 

Giving unsolicted advice is generally not a good idea, but when we’re reeling from a failed race it’s the worst time for it ever. You can’t fix it and we don’t want you to. When I experienced this, along with feeling like I had let everyone down, I also didn’t want to hear “I told you that you should have done a 50 mile race first,” and I wasn’t ready for, “Hey, maybe try running outside sometime.” I’m not saying those things weren’t true, but in the early stage of dealing, I was too fragile to hear them. Give advice only if it is asked for, and be gentle; the key is constructive criticism. If you must give unsolicited advice, tread very lightly and wait a while after the hurt isn’t so raw. Keep the message positive, and back off if it is not received well. No words of wisdom are so important that they’re worth losing a friendship.

running-friends
Luckily I had great friends to help me out of my funk.

Tell me that it’s ok to feel disappointed, but it’s also ok to move on.  

It’s normal and healthy to be bummed after a race goes wrong, but, when you don’t let yourself move on and put the disappointment behind you, you’re not doing yourself any favors. After a week or so I needed someone to tell me to get over it and look ahead. I didn’t die. I didn’t get seriously injured. I didn’t hurt anyone. It was just a race. Of course, saying “Get over it, already!” is not the best way to communicate these ideas. When we’re struggling with an extended funk, it can really help to have a kind reminder that our future is bright.

***

Three years after that devastationg DNF, I’ve run over five ultras and countless shorter races, and can see that I learned more from the DNF than I did from any of the races I finished. But at the time, in the post-DNF aftermath, I couldn’t see beyond my failure. I’m part of an amazing group of runners, but even we struggle with what to say to each other after a bad race, despite having gone through more than a few ourselves. Luckily, it doesn’t take much. A little support goes a long way!

What would you like to hear after a race goes poorly?  What’s the best – or worst – thing someone has ever said to you after a disappointing race?

Ultrarunner, adventurer, academic, and feminist. Running Across the USA in 2021 to raise money for Girls on the Run. Next challenge: Collegiate Trail Loop FKT. I write about ultrarunning, adventuring, and the intersection of endurance athletics and life.

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5 comments

  1. When I have a bad race, I like hearing stories of other people’s bad races. Misery loves company and all that. It reminds me that we all have bad races and I’m not alone.

  2. It’s always nice to be reminded that the main reasons I run have little or nothing to do with the race itself. The race is just icing on the cake.

    Also, what cardamom said about misery loving company!

  3. Things I don’t want to hear:
    “At least you finished and got a medal!” (after anything shorter than a marathon)

    “You still ran more miles than I do in a week!” (after bailing on a 24-hour or 100-mile race, as said by a <20 mpw runner)

    "But you set a course PR!" (after a dismal performance running a new-to-me race)

    "Even on your worst day I'd kill to be as fast as you!" (after coming in DFL 3 different ways)

    These are not consoling. They're isolating; making me feel even more alone and misunderstood than ever.
    What I'd love is for someone to ask how I feel and let me explain why.