Why I Stopped Running Marathons for Good

by | Sep 28, 2016
Photo by Juanedc

Photo by Juanedc

By summer 2005 I had two marathons under my belt, San Francisco and Big Sur. The Big Sur race I finished in April was especially difficult with a couple of notoriously killer hills, but I finished with a respectable time of 4:14:33.

I had been training for long runs for nearly two years in SF and was feeling pretty confident, particularly about my speed on relatively flat courses. So I got this brilliant idea that I should try to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

Back then, to be able to run in the Boston Marathon you had to first finish a race in under 3:40:00 for my age bracket (today it’s 3:35:00 for the same group––one I no longer belong to, alas). So qualifying for Boston would have been a big deal for me, but I was up for the challenge.

In September 2005, I signed up to run for what I thought would be an easy, flat race called the Sacramento CowTown Marathon and gave myself just over a month to get my speed up to qualify. This decision elevated running in my mind from a hobby, to a sport. I have a fierce competitive streak in me, so with only five weeks to train it was game on.

On race day I was pumped. I felt strong and energetic, and the weather was perfect. I was on pace to finish well within the 3:40:00 requirement for Boston––until mile 25, when one slightly awkward step tweaked something in my left knee.

I hobbled to a stop and tested my knee by putting a little weight on it. Yep, that hurt. Had I not been in the race I would have certainly sat down and put ice on it, but since I didn’t see any of the race officials nearby and still had hopes of hitting my time goal I kept limping forward.

The last 1.2 miles of the race were painful. I walked most of the way, occasionally attempting a sad jog-limp to make up some time. Ultimately I hobbled across the finish line at 3:54:16, nearly 15 minutes short of my goal.

Failing sucks, but being injured is way worse. While I didn’t have any serious tissue damage, my sprain was bad enough to keep me from doing any strenuous exercise for three full months. I was devastated.

For me being active is like meditation, a daily ritual that keeps me sane amid the chaos of my life. Without it I feel weak, lethargic and a little depressed.

Yet the worst part of this particular injury was that it was entirely unnecessary. It was caused by my ego.

As I limped around for those three months I realized that I really didn’t care about the Boston Marathon, I just wanted to say that I had run it. I underestimated the difficulty of improving my time so dramatically in such a short period. I underestimated the seriousness with which one should commit to a real sport. My arrogance was what left me sidelined.

But I also gained something by no longer running. Suddenly I wasn’t spending 8-10 hours per week training (in addition to my regular workouts) and could use that time for things I really did care about like working in lab, reading nutrition books and learning how to cook (this was 2005 and I was just starting to become a foodist).

Not only did my running habit cause me an injury that impacted my quality of life for three months, it was also taking time away from more important things that I didn’t realize I had been neglecting. It suddenly became obvious that running marathons wasn’t worth it for me.

Giving up on something you have previously committed to isn’t an easy thing to do. It can feel like failure or defeat. But sometimes giving up your goal is the smartest thing to do. Sometimes the cost of achieving it isn’t worth the price of admission.

It’s fine to start something thinking that it is a good idea then decide it isn’t for you. Maybe it takes more effort or time than you were expecting, or maybe you didn’t get the benefits you were hoping for.

Before you start a new habit your idea of what you’ll gain or how difficult it will be is really just your best guess. Without firsthand experience, you don’t have enough information to know for sure if it’s something you’d like to stick with.

Of course this isn’t always true. Some new habits are worth persisting in even if they’re really hard.

How can you tell the difference?

Some aspects of self-care should never be negotiable, as they are the cornerstone of being happy and productive in every other part of your work and family life. You probably never question whether or not you should shower or brush your teeth in the morning, for example.

Other goals may sound nice to have, but unless they add some deeper benefit than “could be fun” or “I’ve heard this is good for me,” then pursuing them may take time away from other essential activities and not be a good use of your time and energy.

It gets tricky when a habit is difficult to create, but you haven’t yet experienced the value of maintaining the habit long-term.

For instance, if you’ve been eating processed food for most of your life, shifting to eating mostly Real Food can feel daunting (95% of the time, this means learning to cook). You therefore won’t realize how devastating your food choices are to your energy levels and ability to function, because you don’t know what it’s like to not feel drained and lethargic.

As a rule of thumb, your non-negotiable self-care habits are those that impact your ability to function day-to-day:

  • Getting enough sleep (rest)
  • Basic hygiene (cleanliness)
  • Eating Real Food (fuel)
  • Being active, not sedentary (mobility)
  • Relaxation (stress management)

If you let any of these things slip for too long you will certainly experience negative consequences in other parts of your life, like low energy, fatigue and poor focus. So any habit that fuels these minimal requirements should be considered essential.

Where we tend to get tripped up is when we confuse these self-care goals with related goals that are more specific, but less necessary. For instance, being active is good but that doesn’t mean I need to run marathons to be fit and healthy. Eating Real Food is important, but you don’t need to eat 100% local or organic to get the benefits.

It’s easy to lose sight of the real goal when someone you know swears by hardcore workouts like marathon training or extreme diets like Paleo (no grains, beans or dairy). They have the results you want, but seem to sacrifice a lot to get them.

You start believing that that level of commitment is necessary for basic health, but it isn’t.

For the people that love these regimens, it isn’t the health benefits that make the habit worth the effort. The vast majority of the time it is a sense of community and belonging that they get from these activities that is the primary value. This is fantastic if it works for you, but if you already have a strong community elsewhere you don’t necessarily need to join a CrossFit gym to stop being sedentary. A stroll with a friend is a great start.

The only way to know for sure if a new habit is worth your time is to give it a solid try. If it ends up not being your jam, that’s totally fine. Just remember to not give up the habit of caring for yourself entirely.

Do you feel guilty about giving up goals that are no longer serving you?

Originally published July 28, 2015.

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22 Responses to “Why I Stopped Running Marathons for Good”

  1. JR says:

    Giving up is tough. But sometimes it’s for the best.

    Since I love playing hockey, and I noticed that there is an inline half marathon in town, I thought that would be a cool goal to accomplish. So I went out and bought a spendy pair of inline skates. I started skating and tried to power thru the feeling that it just wasn’t for me. In the end, I decided that I really didn’t like inline skating all that much. So I gave up (quit?).

    I hate quitting. But it just didn’t feel right to continue. So I have to keep remembering that every time the inline half rolls around.

  2. Mrs. H. says:

    This is so perfect for me right now, Darya. Thank you! I am fighting the belief that I need to run long distances on a regular basis to be fit and healthy and not gain weight. I started having foot pain that appears to be arthritic in nature (even though I’m not quite 30), and I haven’t run for over a month. I’ve been enjoying some other cross-training activities and realizing that, if I want to be active and pain-free for a long time, pushing myself through 2-hour long runs every weekend might not be the best (or healthiest) option. Your post about the great results you saw when you reduced cardio and incorporated weight training into your routine has also been inspiring and reassuring to me. Thanks for all of your good advice!

    • Randi says:

      I would love to read the post you mentioned about reducing cardio and incorporating weight training! Any chance I can get a link?

  3. Dee says:

    Nice story! Love your ‘self-care habits’ concept … Darya, you’re truly an intelligent and talented writer.. Love how you think.

  4. Cassie T says:

    Great post, Darya!
    Goals have been a hard thing for me to give up – it used to be the only way I could push myself to work out, eat right, etc. Thankfully I’ve gotten over most of that with the help of Summer Tomato. 🙂
    Lately, however, career oriented goals have been more of an issue. The most recent having to do with getting my Master’s degree. A lot of my friends have recently earned theirs, making me feel as though I was slacking by not having one of my own. I started looking into programs, unsure of what area I was interested in. That’s when I realized I was more concerned with HAVING a graduate degree than about the knowledge I’d gain in the process. I may eventually go back to school, but right now I’m trying to focus on goals that will actually push my career in the direction I want it to go.

    • Darya Rose says:

      Haha, don’t get me started on spending unnecessary time in school. Good call 🙂

    • Amy says:

      I feel the same way! I was just reviewing all of my goals I made about 8 months ago to see if my priorities were in line with my goals. I noticed going back to get a Master’s degree was one of them, and I was supposed to have been working on prerequisites for business school. I haven’t done anything other than see what the prereq’s were and have a few conversations about it with my family. Beyond that, since I work for the university, my tuition is FREE. How could I pass up a “free” MBA?

      But I know myself better than that. I don’t want to go into business administration and management. The career path I see myself on does not require an advanced degree, just experience. I do not want to give up my precious free time; I’d rather spend that time with my husband and 2 year old. I also remember what happened the last time I went back to school… I got pregnant 2 weeks in and lost all motivation. I squeaked by those 2 classes with a B- (the minimum to qualify for employer tuition reimbursement), and then decided not to continue.

      Even if it would be awesome to have my Master’s, and awesome to not have to pay for it, it’s a “goal” I am putting to bed. Night night!

  5. mike says:

    An excellent insight. One I will have to remember when I start beating myself up when my level of performance or speed degrades as I age.

  6. Great article! “Sometimes the cost of achieving it isn’t worth the price of admission.” – really resonated with me in regards to my professional life which I think you can apply here too. Sometimes it can be the littlest thing someone says to you to make you sit back and think, it’s ok not to do this “thing” even though I said I would. Balance is the most important thing to have in life.

  7. Tony Yao says:

    There’s a saying someone once told me – All worthwhile things are difficult, but not all difficult things are worthwhile. We can’t do “everything,” no matter how much we try.

  8. Ashley L says:

    Hi Darya –

    I’ve been an avid reader of your blog since 2011 when I was still in college. I remember baking cauliflowers based on your recipe in my small dorm kitchen and taking trips to NYC farmers markets, which usually ended in slight disappointment as I circled back to your photos of West Coast farmers markets. But now that you are in NYC, I’d love to hear more about your NYC life 🙂

    Today I was compelled to write as I read your story about your knee injury! There was a time when I was taking three hours of ballet everyday, even through my ankle injury. I eventually quit not because of my injury but because I got a job that requires more than 40 hrs a week. Even now three years later my ankle pain comes and goes, and I tell myself I should have stopped my exercise and took care of my body. At the time I was working out so much that I was so scared to be sedentary and lose my ballet technique and also gain weight. Reflecting back, it was more of an obsession than anything. Although I love ballet and I am passionate about it, self-care should always take precedent. Now my workout routine consists of yoga and 10k walks, and I never push myself when my body signals no. I am slowly trying to get back to ballet since I really love it, but I am taking one step at a time!

  9. Virginia says:

    You know what? I think this is actually the complete secret of life management (when we have discretion over how to allocate our personal resources). Understanding and respecting our natural limits, and not being sidetracked by misallocations that don’t support the life we say we want is huge, I think. “The price of admission” is always, always, ALWAYS the thing we are are NOT doing, watching, reading, eating instead. There are so many good uses of our lives, but they all exact the cost of other things we don’t do. There can be peace of mind with this, in a funny way. My friend was complaining about her house being a mess. I said “It’s a mess precisely because you are choosing to do other things with your time and energy and attention. Don’t beat yourself up about your messy house as long as you have clarity on the value of what you’ve chosen to do instead.” The messy house is what you call the price of admission for whatever else she’s doing instead. Of course, there may be strategies to support both. That’s the value of learning to cook. I’m really impressed with your philosophy because a lot of the bromides about cooking do not acknowledge that it IS really resource intensive, and you straight-up acknowledge this and suggest constructive strategies to streamline and automate the process. As far as marathons, I trained for the inaugural Orange County Marathon. The takeaway for me was similar to yours. For most of us, marathon training is not a good weight-management strategy, it’s super hard on your body, it makes you hungry, and is not a good use of time in terms of regular life. Having said that, I’m so glad I did it because it really taught me what my ordinary body is capable of (I used “Road Racing for Serious Runners” and it was soooo crazy time consuming, but it totally transformed me from a non-runner into a middle-aged woman who could actually run a marathon in 4 hours and one second. It was an exhilarating and and almost weird revelation to witness what my body could actually do, but I have never, ever felt a single twinge about making exercise a more hassle-free part of my life because I also saw the cost of that kind of commitment, and the cost was other things that better served the things that mattered to me :). People really don’t think this way. It’s a distortion of the modern age, and of abundance. I’m trying to figure it out at pennybun.com

  10. Em says:

    I can relate to this article on so many levels.

    I started up an Ashtanga Yoga practice this year, which is known as the hardest type of yoga going round. It’s traditionally practiced 6x a week for 1.5-2hours at 6:30am in the morning. I was drawn to it because it looked challenging, and my type A personality got way too excited over how regimented it was. By default, the practice pretty much requires you to be in bed early 6 nights a week and to eat before 7pm so that you could twist into all the crazy asanas – so my social life took a massive hit, along with my sleep schedule. My teacher would notice which students missed a day of practice and there was sort of this culture that frowned upon the less dedicated yogis. I put a lot of pressure on myself to to try and ‘perform’ these very hard postures, and equally to have a lean body…which was a recipe for disaster as this kinda snowballed into having the most unhealthy relationship with my body and food.

    Despite its impact on my physical health (more flexibility but weight gain), social life (or lack there of) and mental health (low self esteem, disordered relationship with food/binge episodes) I forced myself to continue going…until I decided to let go and swap Ashtanga yoga with simple meditation.

    All the facets of my life have improved! It sucks because I really wanted to like Ashtanga yoga, I know it’s a very powerful tool for life for some people but it just wasn’t right for me.

    • Erin Pitkethly says:

      Em- I have been doing Ashtanga yoga for eleven years. I go to class once a week (sometimes twice if I’m lucky). The physical and mental health benefits are amazing. I really encourage you to find another teacher. It absolutely does not need to be an every day thing but it is an amazing addition to a healthy lifestyle.

      • Emma says:

        Hey Erin,

        Thanks for your message!

        I do really miss it now and used to enjoy it more at the beginning when I went just 2-3x a week. I might start that back up again.

        Do you do any other type of exercise throughout the week?

  11. Hallie says:

    Great article! I have always happily worked out at home, by myself. Numerous friends think it’s so weird I don’t want to run a marathon or do cross fit but you put my feelings into words! Thank you! 😀

  12. Susan says:

    I almost didn’t read this because I am hoping to qualify for Boston in November. It’ll be my sixth marathon but the first time I am trying to qualify. And I am tired. I will still try but I feel less guilty about telling my friends this is my last marathon. (Unless of course I qualify, then I’ll go to Boston.) My life and priorities have changed dramatically this year, but I feel I must follow through. I don’t want to live with the “what if”.

  13. Leah says:

    Being honest with ourselves is one of the hardest things for us as humans to do. Sometimes you just have to know when it’s time to quit.

  14. I’m a runner as well and it can be very demanding on the body. I found that it is perfect for me as my me time. When I was raising my girls it was really nice to grab my jogging stroller and go. It’s important that we listen to our bodies and what they need. Hopefully you find a passion for something else as great as your passion for running!

  15. Ognjen says:

    I never loved endurance activities. But as I get older it feels natural to me. I use to smoke and this keeps my health level up. But I quit using a vaporizer. And I keep running. I start half marathon. From day to day I get better. Maybe distance running is not for everybody and that is fine.

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