Joe and me after my last marathon. I'm smiling, but I was pretty disappointed with my finish ... but trying to keep things in perspective.
Joe and me after my last marathon. I’m smiling, but I was pretty disappointed with my finish … but trying to keep things in perspective.

It’s been about two months since my last marathon—a race I sometimes would like to just forget. I finished way slower than I ever imagined I would. I didn’t feel great through many of the miles. Post-race recovery was tough, too—my right calf muscle was clenched and tender for days.

Still, in the days and weeks following this race, my heart repeatedly told my head to ease up already. I need to be gentle with myself. This is just one race. But then my head (not in the right place, clearly) would fight back: But why did it have to go so badly? What’s wrong with me? My rational, practical side, which was incognito there for a while given all of the mixed emotions that remained at the forefront of my mind, finally returned and brought things into focus.

First, yes, we all have not-so-hot races, particularly the longer we’ve been running and racing. They just happen, for many different reasons. And second: I was undertrained for this race, and I paid the price for that.

There, I’ve said this here to all of you. I did not train right or smart for this race. And while this isn’t good for any distance, I’d say doing so with the marathon is especially, um, dumb. You don’t mess with the marathon. Even with ideal training, I’d say there’s still much that could go awry when running 26.2…so going into it not having conditioned your body for the distance? T.R.O.U.B.L.E.

The good news: I’ve determined that I really don’t wish away this race because it taught me a lot about myself—and how I plan to train differently for my next marathon, and really any race distance.

I can also thank my readers for helping me gain perspective on this. Not long ago a reader contacted me and shared her frustration over her first marathon. Janice D. “felt sick” about finishing in 4:26 and didn’t think she pushed herself enough. She also walked a couple of times and was upset about this.

With her permission I posed the question to the Michigan Runner Girl Facebook page, asking everyone for thoughts on getting over a not-so-great race finish. The responses came flooding in, from those who could completely relate (it’s true, we’re not alone in these experiences) and who also had great thoughts on not being so hard on ourselves. Some of the encouraging ideas shared:

Recognize your feelings are normal.

Lois O., who had a goal of running a sub-3:40 third marathon but finished in 4:02, was “completely and utterly devastated. I laid on the couch for a week, couldn’t bring myself to look at the results page or even see a picture from that race.” She said she completely understood “the feeling of letting yourself down after you have put up some big goals” but told Janice she needed to let herself off the hook. “Your first marathon is SO hard. You really do not know what to expect from yourself, especially in those last 6 miles.”

Remember that 26.2 miles is 26.2 miles – no matter your finish time.

“You are a marathoner no matter how you got it done,” Lois said. “Bask in the glory and enjoy your accomplishment.” Added Erin C.: “I think Janice did pretty fricking awesome! I can understand if her goal was to ‘not walk’ and she did a bit and feels frustrated. That was my goal for my first, but the thing is, I didn’t RUN an entire marathon. I jogged most and shuffled the last six … the point is she finished and a runner always finds a reason to ‘do better.’” Rose P., who follows John Bingham’s run/walk training plans, shared this gem: “As long as you keep moving and don’t stop to have a picnic along the way, ANY marathon finish is a reason to be proud. I figure my first one, if I get there, will take about 5 ½ to 6 hours. And I’ll be thrilled … I am a runner!”

Slower time? Next time will be better!

“If it was a slow time for you, think of the big improvement you will have on your next one and how fun that will be!” Lois said. Sarah L. echoed this thought: “You have a fantastic time for your first, and just think how doubly great it will be when you do beat it!”

Take the pressure off, at least for a while.

Some readers suggested re-setting goals and a change in attitude. When Lois decided to train for another marathon, she opted for a different outlook. “I changed up a couple of things in my training and ran just for fun. And you know what? It was fun! I ran an excellent time and it totally rejuvenated and renewed my love for the marathon.”

Spend some time reflecting on your race.

This may take some time, but when you’re ready, think about what you could have possibly done differently to reach your goal. “Learn from it,” said Tony A. (who has run many, many marathons). “What did you eat? Were you mentally focused? Each one is different, some will be better, some can be worse.” He mentioned this sentiment: “Survive the first, race the rest.” Cat B. shared that she thinks having a ‘no walk’ rule for an endurance event as long as a marathon might not be all that good. “You are likely to end up disappointed at least sometimes,” Cat said. “It sounds like Janice was listening to her body and that’s always a good thing.”

Plan to train better next time.

Never underestimate the power of commitment, said Dan. H. “Be proud of your accomplishment, you did what 99.9% of the people on this plane will never do. Most of them don’t do it not because they lack the ability, but they lack the commitment … if you want to improve your time, train your body AND brain harder. My experience has been that running is 90% mental. Train yourself to accept discomfort.”

Have you ever been disappointed with a race finish? How did you handle it?  What helped you move on?

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6 Responses to “Marathon Letdown: Been There, Done That Ideas for Getting Over a Disappointing Race”

  1. I was horribly disappointed in my performance at last year’s Disney Wine and Dine. I went into that race with the absolutely wrong mindset and I will never attempt to PR at a Disney race again, much less a night time one where the temp is 40* higher than the temps I was training in. Lots of lessons learned that weekend.

    • Hey Bari…I guess that’s just it — we need to take these experiences for what they are: opportunities to learn so that next time it’s different. Ugh. Not fun though. High temps are super tough for me, too. I haven’t done a Disney race yet…I would imagine the temps could be an issue for a lot of those races?

      Do you have another race planned anytime soon? How is your injury?

  2. After 10 months of hard training, 1 marathon, 1 ultra 50, 1 Ragnar and 2 halfs, and a Cherry Fest 15k—all of which were PRs this year—my body and lungs finally screamed “STOP IT!” in my final half marathon of this year. I had a hard, crappy run with my run buddy and finally said at mile 10, “I don’t feel the love and this is no fun.” Luckily, she was right there with me and completely agreed. So we enjoyed the rest of the race and kicked it back. Best three miles of that race! I haven’t had much energy to keep up cross-training in the last month. It’s just time for a break.

  3. Oh, I have so been there. The most frustrating is when you have trained well, done all you could to prepare and are still let down with performance. It is SO hard to learn that one race is a part of your overall running life. I say life because if you love running, it is so embedded into all you do. I too have beat myself up for missteps in training, letting fear take over before or during a race, not preparing enough or racing when injured (the worst). No matter what anyone told me, I didn’t learn how to deal with a race as part of the BIG picture until I did a bunch of them. At some point, you get “older and wiser” and realize that race day is just one part of your running. Learning to treat yourself as if you were one of your own children who felt like they failed can be helpful too. Kindness and acceptance with yourself is important and so is remembering and enjoying all the good training days you have in prep for a race. Those are usually the most fun!

  4. This post couldn’t be better timed! I just ran MCM on Sunday, my 2nd marathon, and was very disappointed with my time. I had a fantastic training cycle leading up to the race and was eager to crush the time from my first marathon. Unfortunately, a bunch of little things added up to a big bonk and not only did I fail to get a PR, I went over my previous time by 1 minute! I was super disappointed, but knew in the back of my mind that I should be proud to have finished, period. I made myself go take a finisher’s photo by the Iwo Jima statue even though I didn’t feel triumphant, because I knew I would regret it later if I didn’t. Anyway, thanks for passing on these pearls of wisdom. In the last few days, I’ve been able to come to terms with the fact that some of the things that went wrong were in my control, but a lot of them weren’t. It just wasn’t my day, but it doesn’t mean that the whole race or even the training cycle was a lost cause. I’m taking stock of the lessons I learned so I can apply them in the future.

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