When Is Quitting A Marathon OK?

Pride, injury and mind tricks complicate marathoner’s decisions about DNFing. Here’s advice from elites on when to stop — or push through.

You’re 17 miles into your marathon, and things clearly aren’t going your way. Either that small ache you felt on the starting line feels a lot bigger now, or your pace is dwindling like your hope for a great day. Your eyes continue to dart to the sidewalks where everyone is cheering, and you’re searching for a dark alleyway to go and hide.

First, you think of all the hard miles you’ve run to get to this point, the cold morning runs, and the strenuous hill repeats. Then you think of tomorrow, you think of races next month, or even next season, and you don’t want to injure yourself into early retirement. Like most marathoners, you eventually ask yourself, “Is this worth it?”

Photo Credit: Chris Waits, via Creative Commons License - Original Photograph

Photo Credit: Chris Waits, via Creative Commons License – Original Photograph – http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

So, when is it OK to pull out of a marathon?

Patrick Rizzo, a professional runner for Mizuno, says it depends on the severity of pain. “The only acceptable reason to pull out of a race is when your health is on the line,” says the Boulder, Colo., runner. With a 2:13:43 personal best in the marathon, Rizzo’s qualified for two U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. Despite a strong running resume, Rizzo has off days like everyone else. At the 2013 U.S. Marathon National Championships in Minneapolis, Minn., in October, he entered the race as one of the favorites. He took a few shots leading the pack, but eventually. his body stalled. After 20 miles, he was forced to ask himself if finishing was truly worth it.

“I was on the fence about it,” Rizzo says of his mid-race rough patch. “It was hard to determine if it was injury pain, or just race pain.” Despite falling off his goal pace, he carried on. “It wasn’t bad enough to inhibit my training moving forward,” he says. So he did what most competitive runners hate: he endured the painful and off-target pace to finish. He was 17th place with a final time of 2:20 — well off his goal time.

Fortunately for Rizzo, grinding out the final miles through his aches and pains did not come back to haunt him. He was able to successfully assess his discomfort and escape injury. Sometimes a lingering injury came come back several miles into the marathon, and the small ache it once was can blossom into something much more painful.

Jason Hartmann, a 2:11:06 Boulder, Colo., has finished fourth at the Boston Marathon in both 2012 and 2013. On the starting line of the 2013 New York City Marathon, he rode a hot-streak of great performances. But as he ticked off the miles, Hartmann experienced a new challenge: blood blisters spreading across the bottoms of both of his feet, which hampered his stride. He pulled out, logging the second Did Not Finish (DNF) of his career as a marathoner.

As with Rizzo, his decision required much thought. “You pull out when the risk of further injuring your body is greater than the reward of finishing,” Hartmann explains. “If it’s altering your form so you’re compensating for the pain, it could negatively effect your training and racing for a long period of time.”

There’s a fine line between personal pride and practicality. Both Hartmann and Rizzo came to this conclusion somewhere deep within their marathons.

Like most of us who take on the challenge of the 26.2-mile footrace, Rizzo and Hartmann came to a fork in the road. Each runner facing pain during a marathon must decide if the pain is a potential injury, or just an exhausted body searching for an easy way out. As appealing as the sidewalk looks from the road, the decision to finish or pull out should never be taken lightly. It’s the same for the professionals as it is for the rest of us: we’re all just trying to get to the finish line with a smile on our face, even if that means delaying the finish until another day, in another race.

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