Catnip’s Double DNF Marathon Report

cbus kit
My first name (no number!) bib. And cat.

I’ve completed 12 marathons and countless shorter races without a single DNF. If you’re superstitious, the fact that the Columbus Marathon would have been my 13th  might appear unlucky. And attempting another the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon exactly 13 days later would appear foreboding.

If you remember, my goal for the Columbus Marathon was to break 3 hours. That time goal was based on 5k and 10k races and some decent workouts. Mainly, however, I wanted to complete the marathon feeling strong (no bonk!) and set myself up for a strong assault on the 2:43:00 Olympic Trials qualifying standard.

Race day dawned with perfect weather and I hung out in the elite hospitality room with some friends, Jasmine, and Patrick and baby JB. Oh — and my obstetrician! She is also a runner and was volunteering. I was surrounded by friends on the starting line and felt calm but eager to see what I could do.

As planned, I took the first mile easy relative to the sub-3:00 goal pace of 6:52/mile. In the past I’ve consistently hit the wall in marathons which I believe is related to starting out too fast. I ran 7:07 feeling like I was walking and gradually eased into the next few miles: 6:52 6:32 6:39 6:39 6:32. Passing the 10k, I tossed my arm warmers and enjoyed seeing lots of familiar faces from my running club.

I was thrilled with how easy the pace felt and cruised through 6:50 and 6:42 splits before a familiar feeling hit. I ducked in a restroom with a glance at my watch. 75 seconds later I was back on the road, splitting 7:45 for mile 9, consciously trying not to hustle to make up the lost time. The course turned a bit around German Village before the long slow uphill of High Street.  The pace was still steady and comfortable: 6:40 6:39 6:45 6:41 6:52 6:43 — but my GI system was starting to scream again.

I lost my positive attitude and even some rationality here. I couldn’t stop thinking about potentially needing many more stops and missing my time goal. I couldn’t stop thinking about quitting. Spotting a potty just after mile 15, I stopped my watch.

The Columbus Marathon was my first-ever DNF in 19 years of competitive running. I had (and still have!) a lot of emotions about quitting to sort through — but physically I was feeling great the next day. When a friend mentioned he was considering running the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon two weeks later, I was in.

Backstory: In 2011, I tried to run 2:46 at Chicago and had a rough day in the heat, but came back 27 days later to run a big PR at Monumental — a nonqualifier, but a joyful, well-executed race. So I was hopeful I could make history repeat itself in Indy this year.

Getting ready to tote JB along to the expo and elite athlete meeting in Indianapolis.
Getting ready to tote JB along to the expo and elite athlete meeting in Indianapolis.

I wasn’t nervous in Indianapolis on that cold, windy morning. Tucking into a large pack I ran smoothly through 9 miles of mostly headwind averaging 6:50 pace. However in mile 10 I stepped into a restroom, but was on the road again in less than a minute, finding another pack to shield the wind. I passed through the half marathon point just under 1:30 dreaming of the tailwind we’d have in the second half.

However, just past 15 miles I needed to stop again. Mile 15 again? I was repeating the pattern of Columbus, not my successful Indy run of 2011. This broke me mentally.

Despite the tailwind, I never regained my momentum, even breaking stride to walk briefly in mile 17. I was set on finishing this damn marathon, but I was preoccupied that my dad (who was watching JB back downtown) would be worried by my late arrival and they would spend too much time outside in the cold waiting for me. My third bathroom stop just before 22 miles was particularly disheartening. Four and a half miles seemed so long. When I exited and a kind nurse asked if everything was okay, I decided it was time to quit again.

So where does this leave me? Well, first I have made plans to see my doctor to form a plan to curb the recurrent GI issues. I also need to work on my mental game for when things aren’t going as planned. Following the Monumental DNF, I’d sent a few texts to friends swearing off the marathon (I believe my exact words were “fffffff marathons”), but I’m already making plans for marathon 13 this spring.

I'm a 20-year veteran of competitive running, USATF certified coach, mom of a toddler -- and still trying to set PRs. I write about training from 5k to marathon, motherhood and competitive running, and the elite side of the sport. The 5k is my favorite race (16:56 PR) but I've got a score to settle with the marathon.

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  1. I’m not generally a superstitious person, but marathon 13 has caused problems for me and my friends. NCY was cancelled for one friend. Hurricane Katrina caused problems for another friend. Another had an IT band causing a DNF. This year, my marathon 13 was cancelled twice- once for a trial and once due to an embezzling race director.

    Each of us has gotten over 13 by pacing other runners. Obviously you will complete your marathon 13 and do it in style. However, if you are developing the same suspicions that I developed, may I suggest volunteering as a pacer?

    Also- my DNF was at 18 for stomach issues. Good call.

    1. Kathy, I love that suggestion to try pacing! I am a big believer in karma so this might be just the thing!

      Sorry about your first two attempts at #13! I’d love to hear more about the embezzling race director…

  2. Oh Paige, I didn’t know the same issues came up for your 2nd one! I can just imagine how tough and frustrating this must’ve been. I appreciate you writing it out though, as I know other readers will. Sometimes I admit I look at my “fast friends” and assume they don’t struggle in the same way we midpackers do (which I know is 100% false). In many ways, the struggles you and your fellow elites/ sub-elites face (and later overcome!) make me feel less alone in my own struggles and injuries….like we’re all human and all (unfortunately) at the mercy of the port-a-potty sometimes.
    Eyes on that spring marathon, now. You’ve got this–it’s just a matter of time!!

    1. Yeah, can you believe it happened twice in a row? I think I would have finished just fine in Indy if it weren’t for the mental aspect of dealing with the same exact issues at the same mile marker. Thanks for the encouragement.. We’ll both come back stronger next time around. 🙂 And we all are indeed united as runners in our potential for poop issues. 😉

  3. Argh! So frustrating! And you were doing so well!
    Have you tried Imodium? Some people experience no side effects and it works great for them. I’ve heard other people find it makes them feel sluggish or drowsy, I’m in the former camp and take it before long races.

    1. I tried immodium once this past summer and the following runs was one of the worst…like it had the opposite of the intended effect. Horrifying. Maybe it was a coincidence but I’m a little nervous to try again. Things have been getting gradually better and dr agreed that it probably has a lot to do with the sheer volume of food I’m putting into my body right now

  4. Catnip, I am so sorry – I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to have invested so much in your training to be undone by stomach distress. Have you tried Kefir (cultured milk)? I drink a big glass of it every day and it does wonders for keeping stomach distress (which I am prone to) at bay.

    1. LIndi, thanks for that suggestion! I actually just started buying kefir this summer but have been pretty inconsistent about drinking it. I also recently tried kombucha, since it has live cultures as well. I’m glad to hear a testimonial for kefir — I’m really hopeful I can fix things with real food and/or minor modifications.

  5. Ugh, I’m sorry, that is super frustrating. But it seems like you have a great attitude and it will make for an fantastic story after you totally dominate your next race! Also, if we’re being superstitious, I say 3rd time’s the charm on your 13th marathon ; )

  6. You’ll have to ask JB to share his copy of Everyone Poops with you. Hey, sometimes shit happens. You’ll make it past #2.

    I never saw you after we walked half-way to the start. Clearly you have a sense of humor. Good luck. I’ll see you in the fall. (or before that if you ever want to come to Cleveland. I’ll show you my favorite woods.)

  7. I used to have the same intestinal issues but recently I gave up gluten and dairy and a few other things ( google FODMAPs) and no issues! I now go like clockwork and this have emptied out before starting to run.

    1. Hi Lynn, I’m glad you’re doing better now! I’ve been afraid that it’s some sort of intolerance. But I never had real issues until after giving birth, so I’m not convinced. My suspicion is it’s a combination of eating a lot (for breastfeeding) + lingering hormones + weak core. I’m hopeful I won’t have to overhaul my diet, but I might have to lean on your for questions if it comes to that.