Pull the plug? How do you make a decision on a marathon a month out

Runners cruise down Wisconsin Avenue during the 2018 Marine Corps Marathon. Photo: Dustin Whitlow

The inaugural MCM50K was going to be Melisa Augusto’s first ultramarathon and her ticket into the MCM Runners Club.

But Augusto, who is 36 and lives in Washington, suffered a hamstring injury in the spring, which led her to see numerous medical professionals before she found the right fit in a doctor. In a previous marathon, she had a tough time with the mental aspect, she said, and she wanted this experience to be a good one.

“I love the sport, and I don’t want to hate the sport,” she said.

So, Augusto decided to defer her MCM50K entry to 2020.

As the transfer and deferral deadlines approach for the Marine Corps Marathon weekend, the time remaining for registered runners to make a decision is limited. Registration for the MCM10K has closed, the deadline to transfer an entry to someone else is Sept. 30 at noon, and the deferral deadline is Sept. 29 at noon — or earlier, if the allotted spots for deferrals are filled before then.

Not all training challenges are negative. Stephanie Harboe, a coach based in Williamsburg, Va., said learning from the struggles that arise during training helps prepare runners for races.

“Even in a successful training cycle, there will always be some physical and/or mental adversity,” said Harboe, whose coaching business is SSF Running. “And that’s part of training for any marathon.”

What is considered a successful marathon differs from person to person, she said.

“When I coach my athletes specifically in the marathon, we set three goals,” Harboe said. “And they’re not set in concrete and they are meant to be revisited as training unfolds.”

The first goal is to finish, which can normally be accomplished unless a health issue arises, she said. The second goal is a reasonable personal goal time for a runner who has completed the training, she said, and the third goal is a “wish time” if everything works out perfectly.

Running with an injury can have serious consequences, and in the past, Harboe took off eight weeks for a stress fracture, she said.

“My philosophy with that is if you’re going to run a marathon on a stress fracture, then you have to accept the consequences of what that might mean in the short term and also the long term,” she said.

As a certified personal trainer, she also works with runners to try to avoid injuries before they occur.

Kareen Lawson, who coaches from Potomac River Running’s Burke store, for RunFit Kidz and on her own, was planning to run the Marine Corps Marathon this year, but she deferred her entry to 2020. She plans to run the MCM10K instead.

About 15 miles into an 18-mile run, she had heel pain that was so bad that she walked home on her toes, Lawson said. She said she waited a couple weeks before making the decision to defer. But for her 10th marathon, she didn’t want to do the marathon just to finish it, and even short distances were a struggle.

“I couldn’t even run 100 meters without pain,” she said, after mentioning a CrossFit workout that involved 100-meter runs. “So it didn’t seem to make sense to try to attempt the marathon.”

Lawson said training for a race shouldn’t bring on a massive amount of stress for recreational runners. A couple examples she noted were stress from not getting the training runs in because of an injury or other commitments.

“When it’s constantly just a great source of stress, that to me says we have to stop and think about it,” she said.

And although she was sad to have to defer her entry, she said she felt better knowing she’d made the decision. Plus, she’d be setting an example for others who may find themselves in a similar situation.  

“It was tough, but I feel like as a coach I’m kind of held to a higher standard,” she said.

Tammy Whyte, owner of D.C.-based TW Training and Wellness, said training is a major consideration for runners who are on the fence about going forward with the marathon.

With about five-and-a-half weeks till the Marine Corps Marathon, she said, runners should have completed more than a 12-mile long run and should be consistently running at least 20 miles a week. While many first-time marathoners are undertrained, she said, being too undertrained could lead to injury.

“If you’re severely undertrained, and then you try to run 26.2 miles on legs that have never gone longer than like 12 miles at a time, then you’re definitely putting yourself at risk,” she said.

Hitting higher mileage numbers for the long runs also helps mentally, particularly for first-time marathoners, she said.

“It’s a tough decision regardless of what you decide,” she said.  “But I think you really have to think about the long-term effects of running a marathon if you’re not ready to do it, whether that’s mentally and emotionally or physically, or both.”

Christopher Hoffman, owner and co-founder of Formula Running Center, which is set to open in Arlington in the fall, said the top consideration in whether to move forward with a marathon is a runner’s health — how he or she feels and whether there are any injuries.

Other considerations include how well the training has been going and what the goals are, he said. If training hasn’t been going as planned, that might mean altering goals.

“Sometimes you just have to modify what you’re doing and reevaluate what your expectations are,” Hoffman said. 

Even if training is going well, doubts may creep in as runners reach some of their longest-mileage training runs, he said.

“It’s OK to be nervous,” he said.

And each runner has different running experience and different circumstances. For example, Lawson and Whyte both mentioned that people who have run marathons before know what to expect when it comes to this type of endurance event.

There are other reasons to defer or transfer an entry, too. Harboe had a runner who planned to run the Berlin Marathon, the Army Ten-Miler and then the Marine Corps Marathon, but she decided to defer her Marine Corps Marathon entry because she wouldn’t be ready to meet her goal time after the other races and traveling internationally.

“My question to her and to everyone else is, ‘What is the purpose?'” Harboe said. “So, if you can’t answer what is the purpose and have it be a strong meaning, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it.”

Although Augusto won’t be running the MCM50K this year, she will be running a virtual marathon about a week later in order to gain entry to the 2020 New York City Marathon. That virtual run will be a different kind of experience, with less pressure, she said.

And she will still be out there for the Marine Corps Marathon race weekend.

“It’s a heartbreaking decision to have to make, but I know it’s the right decision, and I’ll be out there at Cowbell Corner with my Oiselle Volée teammates,” she said.  

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