That was the case for Steve Bender, a Pennsylvania athlete who runs marathons in a firefighter’s outfit, albeit with running sneakers, on behalf of his Firefighter Five Foundation. When the temperature crept past 90 for the Morgantown Marathon in West Virginia in October 2019, he stopped just after the halfway point. “I was starting to see things, starting to get nauseous,” he said. “It was getting hotter and hotter.”
Entrants may also find themselves in trouble if they cut corners in their training plans. Training programs for marathons are intense, typically lasting 18 weeks and reaching 25 to 30 miles a week on average. “Coaches like to say the hardest part of a marathon is getting to the starting line healthy,” said Chris Forti, a coach of the Dashing Whippets running team in New York. “If you’re able to pull that off, more often than not you’re OK.”
Marathon veterans say it’s the seasoned distance runners, paradoxically, who are more likely to quit. First-timers will do everything it takes to reach the finish line. Elite runners may realize they’re having an off day and decide it’s not worth slogging for 26.2 miles. “If they’re not going to win a race or place, they may stop and that’s it,” said Kathleen Titus, the race director of the Philadelphia Marathon. “They’ll save their legs for another race they can compete in and win prize money.”
For Jonelle Drugan, who ran the Marine Corps Marathon in 2017 two weeks after running the Chicago Marathon, it was too many marathons in too little time.“It was a superhot day for both races, and Chicago took a lot more out of me than I expected,” she said. “I just didn’t have it.”
Whatever the reason for the D.N.F., those who fail to finish say the experience is nothing short of heartbreaking. Many runners describe the same experience after making the decision to stop: sitting on the curb with their head in their hands, tears streaming down their face, before figuring out a way home.
“The first thing that comes through your mind is all the time you spent training,” said Maria Luisa Cesca, who once sustained a hamstring injury during the Jacksonville Marathon. “You were doing so well, so many mornings with 4:30 a.m. runs before the kids get up.”
Runners who spoke about their D.N.F. said it was important for them to try another marathon. The payoff is that much more meaningful, they said, after previously coming up short.