What Kara Goucher’s DNF Teaches Us About Competing

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Kara Goucher opted for a DNF at the Houston Marathon, and her loss helps us gain lots of racing wisdoms. What Kara Goucher’s DNF Teaches Us About Competing www.runnerclick.com

After weeks of training, we line up at the start and brace ourselves for the journey that stretches out before us for the next 26.2 miles. Running a marathon isn’t easy. If it were everyone would be able to do it. But imagine realizing that the road is being cut short on that day, and having to pull out. No one wants to get a DNF in a race, but imagine how disappointing this is to an elite runner. This is exactly what happened to pro runner Kara Goucher when she decided to back out of the 2019 Houston Marathon around the 31k mark.

“You’ve really worked hard for something. It’s hard to let it go,” the two-time Olympian said.

But deciding to drop out of the race is probably one of the bravest things a runner can do. This is called a DNF or did not finish.

And this example teaches us a lot about competing.

Photo: Kara Goucher | Facebook

The Big Take Aways: Lessons Learned

1. Not Every Run Is A Good Run

For starters, not everyone has their best day at a race. This includes the elites who dedicate their lives to the sport. Sometimes the unplanned happens. Goucher’s DNF reminds us that not every run is a good run, and sometimes that run is at the big race we looked forward to.

2. It’s Brave To DNF

It’s heartbreaking for runners to get a DNF. Even though the race wasn’t finished, it wasn’t a cowardly decision. Instead, it is a brave decision to DNF. It means focusing on the runner’s health, which is more important than a finisher’s medal or PR. It means having the courage to know when there is a major problem that needs to be addressed to prevent further injury. Although it means not finishing, Goucher and other who DNF are not quitters.

3. All Runners Need Rest

This is a good reminder that all runners need rest—even pros like Goucher. When a new injury presents itself or an old injury returns, it’s important to take the time to heal. It’s better to take a few days off than to push it and end of having to spend weeks away from running because a small injury turned into a serious one.

“For now I need to rest, recover, and give it a few days,” Goucher wrote.

4. Let The Race Go

“You’ve really worked hard for something,” Goucher wrote. “It’s hard to let it go.”

These words ring so true for those who DNF in a race. It hurts and it’s a disappointment. But a major lesson to come out of it is to be able to let go what we cannot control. Let the race go. Don’t dwell on it for long periods of time. There is nothing the runner can do to change what happened. Take time away, process all that’s happened and move on.

Photo: Kara Goucher | Facebook

5. Make New Goals

Goucher writes that her DNF did not taint her marathon experience, but for now, she will “be taking her running in a new direction.”

A DNF is a great opportunity to think about goals. Instead of getting stuck on the negative aspect of it, turn this into a positive. It means now focusing on training better and smarter for next time. Or maybe it means shelving a marathon for a while and instead focusing on running faster 5ks. This could be a chance to try something new like a triathlon or trail runner. Finishing these can boost confidence and be something run.

When To DNF

After training for weeks, hanging in the towel isn’t easy to do. But in some cases, it’s an absolute necessity. There is a big difference between a DNF for reasons related to mentally not being there and when there is a real physical problem brewing. Yes, races are hard and our mind starts telling us we are too tired to keep going. In a marathon, many hit the wall and feel like they cannot move another step yet alone reach the finish. But these issues are avoidable. Having a mantra to get out of a funk, putting on that motivating music, or start chatting with other runners are great ways to get distracted and get back in focus. Make sure to properly fuel throughout the race, including carb loading starting two weeks before the marathon, to prevent getting that wall.

Running long distance races like a half or full marathon mean some discomfort for the body. Our legs start to get tired or maybe we start to cramp if we aren’t hydrating enough. But then there are those nagging pains that are more than just a small ache. Many times these are old injuries making themselves known again.

This is what happened with Kara Goucher’s decision to DNF. She revealed that an old hamstring injury from a party tear back in 2015 made itself known about mile 16. At first, she thought it was all in her head since she knew this was an old injury. Instead, she backed off her aggressive pace to a 6:20 min/mi. The pain persisted and she began doing the math and decided she just wanted to finish the race. Soon enough she was thinking about walking half a mile, running half a mile to the finish. It was time to make the call, the pain was too great. At the next medical tent, she dropped out of the race.

This was the smartest thing she could do because she could’ve caused more damage to an injury. All runners should not continue to run if they feel intense pain.

Signs To Stop Running

The warning signs of a running injury occurring typically start before the race. This can include feeling overtired and having trouble sleeping. Think of this of being more than just tired from a workout, and more like having severe low energy. Another red flag is having heavy legs. These are both signs of being overworked. Make sure to taper and get enough rest.

Injuries from a pulled muscle to a stress fracture start with an ache and pain that just won’t go away when running. Some people attempt to run through the discomfort only to find they cannot finish their target mileage. This is a warning sign to stop running. Don’t ignore this Take the time off.

Some aches and pains like runner’s knee or slight lower back pain from running just need some rest, ice, compression, and elevation. If symptoms get worse, see a doctor.

But what if you are mid-race? Any severe, shooting or throbbing pain requires immediate attention. Do not try to run through this. If you do, it could cause more damage like potentially tearing a muscle. A general rule of thumb is if the pain gets worse, and causes the runner to change their stride or speed it’s time to seek medical attention and possible DNF.

Photo: Kara Goucher | Facebook

How To Come Back After A DNF

When the runner gets cleared by their doctor to resume running, or if they are now pain-free start back at running one mile at a time. Start back slow and work back up to distance and speed pre-injury. This might take time, but it’s better to start slow then go full throttle and aggravate the injury. Once on the good road, sign up for the next big race the runner has their eyes set on. It might be that same distance of the DNF or something new and exciting.

For Goucher, the professional runner will return to racing mostly likely in the summer with a June race.


  1. RunnersWorld , Kara Goucher Explains Why She DNF'd the 2019 Houston Marathon, Video Wesbite
  2. Kara Goucher, Kara Goucher, Social Media Site
  3. Taylor Dutch , After Houston Marathon Disappointment, Kara Goucher Feels Ready for a Change, Running Website
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  5. Christine Luff, Warning Signs of Running Injuries , Health Website