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Q: I never want to drop out of a race, but where do you draw the line when you are sick or injured—or just having a really bad day?
I believe it was Scott Tinley, two-time Ironman world champion, who said there are exactly two reasons for dropping out of a race: a broken right femur and a broken left femur. No one likes to be a quitter, and I agree with the general spirit of Tinley’s advice. My rule is this: Barring complete mechanical failure (i.e., your bike is unrideable) or a physical emergency such as a severe injury or dehydration that makes it unsafe to continue, your goal should always be to make it to the finish line—no matter how long it takes. »
The following are NOT good reasons to drop out:
A flat tire. Bring a spare.
You feel bad/are having a rough day/just don’t feel like running anymore.
Throwing up. Slow down, take some water and keep eating—lots of pros throw up all the time during races. If you keep putting food in, eventually some will stay down.
Your arch-nemesis is beating you.
Your grandmother is beating you.
The weather is miserable. Bring a jacket, or just go harder to stay warm.
A mild injury that you have been training through all year presents itself. That’s called a “convenient excuse” to quit if things aren’t going your way.
I am certainly not perfect—I can’t say that I have never violated these rules—but the instances are few and far between. Pros tend to have slightly different considerations when deciding to start or finish races. When your paycheck depends on successful performances, sometimes it’s worth retiring early and racing again the following weekend when things go south, especially at the longer distances. Slogging through a marathon when you are 30 minutes back due to a mechanical issue can be a poor decision if it means you can’t race again quickly, making your rent check bounce. No matter how bad the race is feeling, not finishing feels much worse, and will stay with you for far longer.
So what are some valid reasons for dropping out, or not even starting?
Injury: This is a fine line, and is something you will have to discuss with your doctor or PT. I have raced while injured and skipped races due to injury, and the real question you need to answer is “will this make it worse?” I have raced with healing bones (cracked ribs and a scapula) after reassurance from my doc that, barring a second crash, I wouldn’t make it any worse; it would just be a matter of managing pain. Soft-tissue injuries (tendonitis, muscle strains, etc.) are trickier, as these are usually chronic injuries brought on by overuse or muscle imbalances. If an injury was significant enough to halt your training leading up to the race, I would sit that one out. If it is a minor issue that doesn’t seriously impact your training, consider racing through if it’s an important race, and skip a lower-priority race to avoid jeopardizing the rest of your season.
Concussions: Many of us tend to take bumps to the head a little too lightly, but there is serious risk of permanent damage if you were to hit your head again (in a bike crash for instance), and heat stress and high intensity can prolong and aggravate a concussion. This is an area in which I will not take a chance, and will cancel a race or a week of training to let my brain heal. I figure I have killed enough brain cells over years of endurance training; I need to hang on to all I have left.
Illness: This is an especially cruel one; you prepare for months, do everything right, and a badly timed virus knocks you off your feet during race week. My doctors have given me this general rule for training and racing: If all of your symptoms are above the neck (head cold, allergies) then you are generally safe to go. You may not have the race of your life, but you probably aren’t going to make it any worse. If your symptoms are below the neck—fever, chills, muscle aches—you should reconsider. The best way to avoid this dilemma is to, duh, not get sick in the first place. This, I think I can help you with:
Wash your hands obsessively in the weeks leading up to a race. I bring alcohol hand wipes with me when I travel.
Get enough sleep. The last two weeks before a big race is not the time to cram in all the extra work you will be missing; try to get to bed a little earlier.
If you start feeling run-down, take a day or two off—this will not affect your fitness but may allow you to avoid a full-blown, in-bed-for-a-week flu.
Bring your own food to a race in countries where finding clean water and food sources may be an issue. You don’t need to lock yourself in your hotel room, but avoid eating from street carts.
Avoid children, even your own. I am semi-kidding about this one. But seriously, wash your hands after contact; kids are notoriously germy little buggers.
Lack of fitness: Sometimes life gets in the way, and your training is not where you intended it to be when race week rolls around. Usually you have a pretty good indication of this a few weeks before the race, so be honest with yourself before committing to the start line. Long races like Ironmans and 70.3’s require a certain level of preparation, and there is simply no faking it. If you know you haven’t done the appropriate training to complete the race, don’t start. Find a shorter race to do that weekend and push your goal race back a month or two so that you can do the more challenging event properly. There is nothing wrong with taking extra time to make sure you are prepared for the big day and prevent a DNF. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that big races notoriously sell out months, even years, beforehand (and no refunds!) so make sure your training plan is feasible before you commit to a big race.
So, yes, Scott, broken legs are valid reasons to drop out of race, but there are a few other cases where it can be smart to call it a day early. To get you to the start and finish line in one piece try another, more moderate, piece of Tinley’s infinite wisdom: “Above all, train hard, eat light and avoid TV and people with negative attitudes.”
Olympian Samantha McGlone (@samanthamcglone) is a former 70.3 world champion and was runner-up at the 2007 Ironman World Championship. She lives, trains and attends medical school in Tucson, Ariz.