On the eve of my latest marathon training cycle, I’ve been thinking a lot about quitting. More specifically, I am interested in how we talk about it: “Quitters never win.” “Try, try again.” “#noexcuses.” It’s always presented in this clear dichotomy – quitting is bad, no matter what. Finish at all costs. Michael Jordan said, “If you quit once it becomes a habit. Never quit.” And few can forget, try as we might, the words of the immortal Chumbawumba: “I get knocked down but I get up again, ain’t never gonna keep me down.”
So here, as I begin training for my tenth marathon, three DNFs and many unmet goals to my name, what does that mean for me?
The first time I dropped out of a marathon I felt like everyone understood. It was dangerously hot, my hip was aching, and beyond that so many other crazy things were happening in my life at the time. I was initially okay with my decision … until I wasn’t. Naturally, using runner logic, I signed up for another race. That would fix it.
The second time I dropped out of a marathon I shouldn’t have even toed the line. I had been willfully ignoring an injury-in-the-making. I mean, I knew it was an issue … but I’d also trained so hard and raised all this money for charity, so I felt like I owed something to everyone who donated. Emotionally, I handled it much better than the first time; there were not nearly as many tears or regrets. I had even suggested to my husband and close friends that a DNF might be in the cards, and told them not to worry if I didn’t cross the finish. Instead of reacting with a rash race registration, this time I took a more measured approach: time off, appointments with a sports chiropractor and even temporarily abandoning vegetarianism to try to address the issue.
As time went on I kept reading others’ race stories. “Well, it wasn’t my day, but at least I finished,” or, “I had a really bad day, but I never considered dropping out.” None of these statements were directed at me, but I couldn’t help noticing that people were talking about quitting as if it were the worst thing you could do.
I suppose it was after the second time that I became aware of being DNF Girl, the runner who cried 26.2. Someone said to me, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but when was the last time you actually finished a marathon?” In reality, I had finished one that spring, but I was nonetheless concerned that my persona was starting to be defined by my failures instead of my accomplishments.
At some point, having big, splashy goals contributed to the deterioration of my relationship with running. Not that my goals weren’t my own, mind you, but sharing them had contributed to this pressure cooker of my own making that began long before my first DNF. Of course I told all my running friends that I was trying to qualify for Boston; why wouldn’t I? And of course I shared this information with coworkers and acquaintances and anyone who asked about running. Of course I sent the tracking link to my whole family. Of course I posted on Facebook, “Before I die, I want to qualify for the Boston Marathon,” in the lead up to a race.
When you think about it, running is a funny pastime. While it’s our hobby, it is still a sport, and sports are often seen through win or lose lenses. Did you win? Did you hit your goal? Did you go all the way?” This sort of question is especially prevalent from non-runners, the casual acquaintances who have put “ask her about running” on their small-talk checklist for you. We don’t have the same type of conversations about, say, knitting or growing tomatoes. (Or maybe gardeners are a competitive bunch? I don’t have much of a green thumb.)
When races didn’t go as planned I had that same conversation over and over and over again: “Did you meet your goal?” Having to answer that question with a no so often only added to the heartbreak. Then for the next race I would be right back to the same goal—I just had to want it more, right?
Again and again and again this happened. Rinse, cycle, repeat. I even contemplated running another marathon in the same season (just 7 weeks apart) on multiple occasions after bad races. Once I even made it as far as writing out a plan, booking a hotel, requesting vacation time and logging a couple runs on my new plan before it dawned on me that this might not be a good idea.
Five years removed, I can barely relate to the woman with the two-marathons-in-seven-weeks plan. That wasn’t determination, it was plain stubbornness, but at the time, I couldn’t see the need to course correct or re-calibrate my expectations.
The last time I dropped out of a marathon, it was a surprise to everyone. I had a coach. My training had been solid, if not great. I had run a pretty strong half marathon as a tune-up race in less-than-ideal conditions (black ice on a one-mile loop course). I had been honest with myself about my goals, abilities and limits. But when race day came, it brought with it a perfect storm of freak circumstances. Still, as I struggled along on the course I had an internal battle: “Are you dropping out because you really need to or just because that’s what you do?” After the race, with a clear head, I was completely unwavering in my conviction that I had done the right thing.
Later, when I decided to try for another marathon, I held it very close to my chest. It was a delicious secret that I only shared with a few, select people, wanting to get back into fighting shape before I was more open about it. I had to believe I could run a marathon before I could expect other people to believe in me too. After all, I was DNF Girl.
I set my sights on this race last November. At that time, I thought my openness about my goals had been my downfall. It was only later that I realized that it hadn’t been the sharing that had been the issue; it had been how much value I had placed on the reactions. Is it really embarrassing to tell someone you fell short if you gave it all you had?
One of my favorite mantras is, “Trust your training.” But really, race day can bring so many things for which physical training does not prepare you. Taking on 26.2 miles is a leap of faith, and brings with it the hope that your day will go perfectly.
So here we are. I intend to run the Philadelphia Marathon this November. I don’t know how I will do, if I will finish, or even if I will make it to the starting line healthy. As I prepare to take the next leap I’ve decided that I’m alright with not knowing how the story ends.
Maybe people talk about quitting the way they do because that’s what they need, or maybe it helps them to try harder than they otherwise would. That’s fine and all, but to me it just doesn’t seem grounded in the real world, where there are so many variables.