Everyone knows who wins the race. But what about the other runners? Those who finished in the middle—or even the back—of the pack and may have missed their goals yet still found their way to the finish line. In partnership with New Balance, Runner’s World is highlighting these athletes to reinforce that running is not merely about finish times and placings, but more about claiming mental victories from even the most humbling races. Here, former Division I college runner Abbie McNulty talks about striving for more intrinsically rewarding goals. Explore more inspiring Beyond the Run stories here.
There’s a reason behind the saying “Life is a marathon, not a sprint.” A marathon is long and difficult, a winding road passing through humility and exhilaration, struggle and triumph—just like life can be. I’ve been a runner my entire life, and like most serious athletes, I’ve had my share of both success and disappointment.
I always knew I would run marathons one day. I ran cross-country and track and field at the Division I level in college, graduating in 2018. My races never exceeded 6K and 10K, respectively, but I’ve always preferred longer distances; long runs and tempo workouts are my favorite days. In 2020, after some good performances in shorter races as a post-collegiate professional runner—one being a top-10 finish at the seven-mile distance in a very competitive field the previous year—I finally signed up to run my first marathon.
It ended up being a hugely disappointing experience—the lowest point of my running career. But it was also a race that taught me invaluable lessons, which will only make me stronger and set me up for future success.
My preparation for the late-year marathon was going well—except for the seemingly minor injuries that ended up not being minor at all. I was managing some hamstring, glute, and sacroiliac (SI) joint discomfort all fall leading up to the race. It never impeded my training, though; I was still doing 100+ mile weeks and running key sessions. It was more something I was managing behind the scenes.
But the week leading up to the marathon, when I began to taper and bring down my mileage, my hamstring started irritating me more than normal, to the point where my stride wasn’t feeling long and smooth anymore. The pain got worse in the days leading up to the race; it was all I could think about.
I was still going to run this marathon, though. I figured that, since I had managed the discomfort all these weeks, it would be fine come race day; I was actually super confident about what I was capable of and my fitness level. But, as I would soon find out, the hamstring wasn’t fine.
Taking a Sharp Turn
The race started out great. I got into a good rhythm and was running at my desired pace through the halfway mark (13.1 miles). It wasn’t until 16 to 17 miles in that my glute and hamstring started to bother me and my stride became uncomfortable. As the miles ticked by and marathon fatigue set in, I couldn’t help but focus on the pain. I lost confidence, and my body began to break down.
Knowing I still had nine miles or so to go was troubling. There was panic and stress associated with the pain I was experiencing. It wasn’t good pain, the familiar kind where you give every last ounce of yourself to a race. It was the bad pain that you can’t control. Negative thoughts like “I can’t do this” started to seep in, but I tried my best to stay focused on what I could control, hoping the pain wouldn’t worsen, or, better yet, would go away.
The worst-case scenario of any race is to have to drop out, especially in a first marathon. When the pain started to become intolerable, I struggled to convince myself that it was worth gutting out and running through. I dropped out of the race after 22 miles.
My first feeling was embarrassment. I felt like I had let so many people down: coaches who got me to this point, friends and family who were cheering me on, and myself by ruining an opportunity. I was heartbroken to make it so far into the race and stop with only four miles to go. In that moment, how I felt was failure epitomized. I had put so much time, energy, and heart into this marathon build-up, only to drop out. It hurt.
The Aftermath of a Devastating Race
The following days were difficult. I was a bit sore and uncomfortable physically, but I really struggled to bounce back emotionally. It took me a couple of weeks to move on. The hard part of having a bad race is that you usually can’t immediately turn around and replace that feeling with a good race, especially when you’re injured.
Dropping out is the hardest thing to digest because you start questioning what you did wrong, what you could’ve done right, and why you even dropped out in the first place. Hindsight is 20/20, so you feel very foolish after the fact for DNF-ing.
Fortunately, I moved on from that disappointing marathon experience, and I’m better for it today. Every difficult experience offers a chance to learn and grow stronger. My main takeaway from the marathon was that a bad day doesn’t define me. Although this race felt like a failure and was heartbreaking in the moment, all it really did was fuel my fire for my next opportunity. I haven’t attempted a second marathon yet, opting to run shorter-distance races in 2021 and 2022 due to my injury issues, but 26.2 miles is on my radar for the near future.
Gaining a Mental Edge
I’m more at peace with running now than I used to be. I’m always striving for that “perfect” race, where everything falls into place. But the imperfect days, where things don’t quite line up and go your way, are going to happen—and I can still find success in those moments.
For the rest of this year, I’m working hard on finding the right doctors to treat my injured hamstring, which has flared up in the last couple months. I’m confident that I’ll be back running soon, and I truly believe that I have a great marathon in me. My goal for 2023 is to run a marathon and try to qualify for the Olympic Trials with a time under 2:30:00. I still have time, so I’m optimistic and excited.
My greater ambition is to be mentally tough. That’s super broad and vague, but at the end of the day, I want to say that I didn’t give in to negative thoughts. Sometimes that yields great results, and sometimes it’s just an okay day, but at least I can say I gave it my all and didn’t leave anything on the table.