The thought of quitting comes into every endurance athlete’s mind from time to time. It’s part of the challenge. That said, is there a time when calling it a day might actually be the smart move, or are we hindering future performances by stumbling on this mental hurdle? We reached out to two experienced run coaches, Sandra Gallagher-Mohler and Dave Ames, for perspective not just from an Athlete’s perspective, but from someone trying to get that Athlete to achieve their very best.
Q: In your opinion, when should you quit a race rather than pushing through to the finish?
Dave: We have a “never quit” rule. Unless it’s a medical emergency (severe dehydration, dizziness, chest pains, muscle injuries, falling down), we are trained to finish no matter what. I do not like my athletes having a DNF on their conscience.
Sandra: It depends. Are you healthy? Have you had a fever or infection in the last week? How are your micro and macronutrient levels? How are your sleep and stress? Have you put in the training volume needed to make this a safe run? Are there any nagging or lingering soft tissue issues that are potentially leading to improper gait changes? Is there a sponsorship on the line? And the number one question: Where’s your head?
Q: Is there an example you like to give where quitting was the right choice?
Sandra: I was a senior in college the one and only time I have ever dropped out of a race, and it was pre-planned, but that didn’t make it any easier to do.
Two races before Nationals I had passed out at the finish line, well behind my goal time. At the next race my coach told me to get to the two mile mark and step off the course. “What? You don’t want me to finish?! You want me to drop out?!”, I asked. “No. I want you to finish the season.” he replied. I did as I was told and pulled off at the two-mile mark and proceeded to make the walk of shame to the finish line to greet the rest of my teammates as they sprinted in; legs burning, lungs screaming, pride booming. It made me feel inadequate, like a failure.
Two weeks later I found out I was severely anemic and was shut down for almost eight weeks while taking three iron supplements a day. I was not weak-minded. I was not lazy. I was not a failure. I was anemic.
Q: What about a time when quitting was on everyone’s mind, but it would have been the wrong choice?
Dave: This past October’s Chicago Marathon was a prime example of how many dreams and goals were delayed due to higher temps and humidity and less than ideal marathoning weather. While my runners fared pretty well (we adjusted early pacing for the weather), many were on pace for anywhere from 15- to 45- minute marathon PRs. The flat course beat their legs up, it got hot and they began to fall off pace. But…they kept on trucking and still ended up with five- to 10- minute PRs…and last time I checked, a PR is a PR!
Q: What is it about our endurance culture that causes some to struggle so much if the race isn’t quite going their way?
Sandra: Runners, especially endurance runners, are quite typically perfectionistic. We set a goal and expect that our hard work will get us to that finish line. We get the best gear. We put in the mileage. We eat the right foods (most of the time). And we expect that all this investment will pay off. And it does, but it isn’t a linear progression. This is why we need mental and emotional flexibility.
Dave: We see it far too much in today’s running, especially via the elites who are supposed to be role models for our sport. They’re five seconds per mile off goal pace and decide if a PR isn’t in the cards today, then it’s ok to quit. While they are the extreme example, to me, as a fellow runner, I just don’t know how I can live with dropping out. We train far too hard, for too many months, to show up and drop out. Again, if it’s a medical emergency, I totally get it. Never put yourself in danger. I’ve been there and learned my lesson early on in my running career.
Q: You both have expressed how averse you are to quitting in normal circumstances. How do you express that to your runners?
Dave: Running is about goals, whether to get a BQ, run a mile, set a PR, lose weight, feel healthy, we all have our own ideas of what we want to achieve via this beautiful sport. Goals are meant to be started and finished. Some happen sooner than later and in the case for running, we need to put in the necessary work to get them.
When all goes south, the runner has the ability to recognize how they can approach hardship. We can finish what we started, or we can bow out and never really know what could have happened.
Quitters quit. Finishers finish.
Sandra: As the coach, I make the call about whether an athlete starts or finishes a race, because if left to their own devices most runners would cut off their toes to spite their foot. They will sacrifice their long-term goals for their short-term ego because they don’t yet know another way.
Are there times when athletes need to deal with a side stitch or fatigue and just get to that finish line? Absolutely. In the end though, the question as a coach that I ask is, “Will starting/finishing this race make them better? Stronger? More physically and or mentally capable?” If the answer is yes, then you find the grit and make it happen. But if the answer is no, then that’s ok too. It’s not the end of the road, just merely choosing a new path.
Dave Ames is Owner and Founder of Ame For It Run Coaching, helping athletes Worldwide achieve their goals and dreams. Dave maintains his love for running by staying sub 3 hour Marathon fit, but puts 110% effort into helping others, which he would rather see anyway. He highlights his athletes, not his own running, which is a key to successful coaching today. RUN HARD. DREAM BIG. BE PREPARED. www.ameforitruncoaching.com @ameforitruncoaching
Sandra Gallagher-Mohler, IRunTons, LLC www.IRunTons.com Since pursuing a degree in psychology from Loyola University, over the last 15 years Sandra has had the opportunity to coach high school Cross Country, Indoor and Outdoor Track athletes, Division I Track and Field sprint and middle distance athletes, runners of all ages and abilities, and athletes of all ages from the sprint triathlon to the Ironman race distance.