The Art of Letting Go When Race Disaster Strikes


At some point or another, most runners have experienced a letdown in some form or another, be it not hitting a goal time in a certain race, getting injured, or not living up to one’s own expectations.

After months of training, logging hundreds of miles to prepare for your goal, the big day arrives and disaster strikes: You get the flu. You wake up to a thunderstorm or blizzard. You twist an ankle and crawl to the finish. With this unexpected event, your dreams for running the race you have trained so hard for quickly fade away and disappointment sets in. You begin to ask yourself was all this hard work really worth it?

Two weekends ago, I was set to run to North Face Trail Marathon Championships, which I had been training for since I won the Regional North Face Trail Race in Washington DC this past June. Throughout all of my training I felt great and really had big expectations for myself in San Francisco. After weeks of hard work, I unexpectedly got the stomach flu the Friday  before the race. I tried to convince myself I was alright even though I was bent over the toilet for hours and couldn’t eat or drink anything, but soon reality set in and I came to the realization that I was sick and wouldn’t be running the race I had trained so hard for.

Of course, things like this happen, but that doesn’t make it any easier to get over when it does. The best thing to do in a situation like this is to learn from the experience and just move on to the next race, even though it can be difficult to do. Getting into a positive mindset and being able to learn from bad experiences and refocus can make you mentally stronger, which hopefully in the end will make you a better runner. In a lot of ways, letting go of a bad race experience is similar to grieving a loss. I have broken it down into five stages:

1. Allow yourself to be upset and angry

Immediately after the bad experience, let yourself be upset and angry at the situation. When you invest a lot in something and don’t get the results that you want, you have every right to be upset. Expressing this frustration is part of moving on from the bad experience. Let yourself cry, mope around, vent to a friend or family member who can sympathize with you. Do what you need to help you feel better but limit this “poor me” to a day or two.

2. Find something positive about the experience

Although it seems like nothing is going your way, try and find the silver lining to help you get over the bad experience. So you couldn’t run your target race – well, you got to miss a few days of work to travel to the race, and you now realize how much you truly love racing and can’t wait until the next race. If you can refocus this negative energy, it is much easier to move on and allow the next race to be a success.

3. Analyze what went wrong to prevent it from happening again

Once your emotions settle, start to think about what exactly happened. If you got sick, ask yourself if were you getting enough sleep and allowing your body to rest in the few weeks before the race. If you didn’t hit your goal time and your race was a disaster, review your training log, think about your diet, and try to figure out what went wrong so it doesn’t happen again. Sometimes figuring out what went wrong puts you in control and allows you to feel like you are taking proactive steps to prevent race disaster from striking again.

4. Set new goals

Every runner has bad races. Keeping that in mind and focusing on the future will go a long way in allowing you to move past a bad experience. Use the disappointment you felt to refuel your drive for the future. If you weren’t able to run a target race you planned and you still feel fit, plan a new target for the next few weeks and refocus on that. If you didn’t meet a certain time goal, make a new goal and make sure that when setting it, that it is manageable and realistic.

5.  Manage your expectations before your next race

Part of racing and running is knowing that things don’t always go exactly as planned. So before you jump into your next race, remind yourself that the outcome—good or bad—doesn’t define you. Running is meant to be fun and in the end it should make you feel happier and better about yourself, if it doesn’t it might be time to take a break and try another sport for a while.


   Need more running inspiration? Check out the Run It archives for posts from Missoula runners and marathoners.


Anna Russell is an active member in Run Wild Missoula and has been running competitively since high school. She has run six marathons and enjoys trail running in and around Missoula.

Anna and her fiancé recently moved to Missoula from Washington, DC. She is a personal trainer, specializing in running and endurance-related training at Peak Health and Wellness Center in Missoula. Anna feels very lucky to have moved to a place with such a vibrant running community.