That was the case for Steve Bender, a Pennsylvania athlete who runs marathons on behalf of his Firefighter Five Foundation in a firefighter’s outfit, though with running sneakers. When temperatures crossed 90 for the Morgantown Marathon in West Virginia in October 2019, he stopped just after the halfway point. “I was starting to notice things, started getting nauseous,” he said. “It was getting hotter and hotter.”
Entrants can also find themselves in trouble if they cut back on their training plans. Training programs for marathons are intense, typically lasting 18 weeks and reaching an average of 25 to 30 miles a week. “Coaches like to say that the hardest part of a marathon is getting to the starting line healthy,” said Chris Forty, coach of the Dashing Whippets running team in New York. “If you’re able to overcome it, more often than not you’re fine.”
Marathon veterans say it’s experienced distance runners, paradoxically, who are more likely to quit. First-timers will do everything possible to reach the finish line. Elite runners may realize they have a day off and decide it’s not worth slogging for 26.2 miles. “If they’re not going to win a race or place, they can stop and that’s it,” said Philadelphia Marathon race director Kathleen Titus. “They will save their legs for another race in which they can compete and win prize money.”
For Jonelle Dragan, who ran the Marine Corps Marathon in 2017, two weeks after running the Chicago Marathon, it was too much of a marathon in a short amount of time. “It was a superhot day for both races, and Chicago took on a lot more than I expected,” she said. “I just didn’t have to.”
Whatever the cause of DNF, those who fail to eliminate it say the experience is heartbreaking. Many runners describe the same experience after making the decision to stop: sitting on the curb with their heads in their hands, tears rolling down their faces before making their way home.
“The first thing that comes to your mind is that you train all the time,” said Maria Luisa Cesca, who once suffered a hamstring injury during the Jacksonville Marathon. “You were doing great, many morning runs from 4:30 a.m. before the kids get up.”
Runners who talked about their DNF said it was important for them to try another marathon. The payoff is more meaningful, he said, first coming after less.