Marathon Meb: 4 Ways to Turn a Bad Race Into a Positive Experience

At the 2016 Rio Olympics Meb had to stop several times due to stomach issues and finished in 33rd place in 2:16:46. "When I kept having to stop, I changed my goal—finish the race no matter what, even if I was the last one in," he says. Photo: Photorun.net

In his own words, four-time U.S. Olympian and 2014 Boston Marathon winner Meb Keflezighi gives real advice—based on his experience—on how to remain positive during your worst races.

We all have races where things don’t go as hoped. When I have a bad race, I don’t obsess about it, and I don’t ignore it. Instead, I try to benefit from it. After all, we often learn more from our setbacks than our successes. Here are four ways to turn what might have been a bad race into a good outcome.

Be Flexible With Your Goals

One reason many runners are disappointed with their races is that they have only one goal for the race, such as setting a personal best. When they don’t achieve that goal, they think they’ve had a bad race. Often those negative thoughts will become overwhelming during the race, once it’s obvious they won’t finish like they’d hoped to.

A better approach is to start every race with a series of goals. Start with the absolute best outcome you can reasonably hope for. That’s your “A” goal. After that, have a “B” goal, shy of that ultimate but still great, a “C” goal, and on down to all the outcomes that will still be an accomplishment for you on that day. That flexibility in your goals will help you to stay motivated and keep pushing during the race.

For example, my race in the 2016 Olympic Marathon didn’t go as I’d hoped it would. Before the race, I thought I had an outside shot at another medal to go with the silver I won in 2004. I was confident that on a good day I could finish in the top 10. But I didn’t have a good day. After running with the leaders for the first half, I got sick to my stomach, and stopped seven times during the second half of the race. I finished 33rd in 2:16:46, more than six minutes outside the medals.

When the stomach troubles started, I realized I probably wasn’t going to medal. I adjusted my mindset and focused on finishing in the top 10. But I had to stop a couple more times. So I told myself a top-20 finish would be great in these circumstances. When I kept having to stop, I changed my goal—finish the race no matter what, even if I was the last one in. I thought about representing Team USA as best as I could in my final Olympics and about seeing my family at the finish. That gave me the mental strength to keep going.

Even on your worst days, unless you have a specific running injury, find a way to get to the finish line. And then always celebrate finishing what you started.

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Reflect on What You Accomplished

After a sub-par race, analyze your performance. Wait a couple of days for the emotions of the moment to pass. Then review your race to see if you made any mistakes, such as starting too fast, or if there are parts of it that you should be proud of, even if your result wasn’t what you wanted.

In the 2012 Olympic Marathon, I lost contact with the leaders early in the race. At one point I had fallen back to 21st place. I thought about dropping out. But, thanks to being flexible with my goals, I kept finding ways to competing. By the finish I’d fought my way up to fourth place. When I later thought about the race, I realized I still had the desire and talent to compete with the best runners in the world. This attitude opened the door to the biggest win of my career, the 2014 Boston Marathon.

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Analyze Necessary Training Changes

Sometimes races don’t go the way you want simply because your training hasn’t been good. And let’s be honest—it’s rare to enter a race thinking that your training has been perfect. Do the best you can on race day given your training, and then think about how to improve your training so that your next big race goes better.

I had these thoughts after winning the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials. The race was only two and a half months after the 2011 New York City Marathon, where I set a then-personal best but wound up getting an infected foot afterward. By the time I could run again, I had only 40 days to train for the Trials. That I was able to win the Trials told me that if I could do longer tempo runs and more long runs, I could win a major marathon, which I did two years later at Boston.

You might conclude you need to do things to allow better training. I finished third at the 2005 New York City Marathon after being able to train for only eight weeks, because of a thigh muscle injury. That performance motivated me to rededicate myself to first and foremost staying healthy, so that my body could hold up to the training I wanted to do.

Start Thinking About Your Next Race

The end of one race is the beginning of another. The training you did for that race and the lessons you learned from it are building blocks for a better future.

At the 2013 New York City Marathon, I had a calf problem and finished 23rd in 2:23:47, the slowest marathon of my life. I knew I had more good races in me. I immediately turned my attention to the 2014 Boston Marathon. It turned out to be the greatest race of my life.

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