Now That the Marathon Is Over
by David Coyne
The fall marathon season is now officially over. Over 30,000 runners have crossed the finish line in New York’s Central Park; 33,000 successfully navigated the streets of Chicago; 16,000 have become Marine Corps marathoners in Washington, D.C.; and thousands more have joined them in marathons large and small across the country.
Many of those finishers are veteran marathoners, having run the distance several times over a number of years. For them, the post-marathon experience is like an old friend: they know what to expect, and how to get beyond it.
Many others, however, are first-time marathoners, who came to the event with little, if any, background in running and racing. Most of them came through a beginner’s training program, often built around charitable fundraising. For them, training for and completing a marathon has been a new experience, full of revelations and exhilarations, as well as difficulties, questions and concerns. Buoyed by the challenge of the marathon, and perhaps by devotion to a charitable cause, they have spent months in preparation without necessarily knowing what was around the corner. Now the long runs are over, the informational meetings are finished, the fundraising completed, and even the big day itself has come and gone. And they are faced with a new question: Now what?
For experienced marathoners, the answer is obvious: recover, then get started again, aiming for another marathon, a 10K, or simply running for health, fitness and enjoyment. For a first-time marathoner, however, that prescription assumes the conclusion and ignores the real difficulties of the post-race transition.
Why the Marathon?
Runners and non-runners alike view the marathon as the ultimate running accomplishment, and often as something to aspire to. In large part, this is due to the challenge of the distance itself. A 5K may be within the easy reach of a weekend warrior, but a marathon requires vision, dedication, months of training, and hours of race-day effort. Tell your co-workers on a Monday morning that you ran a 5K the previous day, and you’ll likely be greeted with “Oh, that’s nice” as they turn the conversation toward football. Tell them that you ran a marathon, and they’ll likely ask how you did, how you trained, and how you feel now that it’s over.
Also, success in a 5K is usually measured not in terms of the event itself, but in the minutes and seconds it took to complete it. That time, while significant to you, is less accessible to those around you. In a marathon, on the other hand, to finish is to succeed in a very tangible way that anyone can understand. It has cachet. As Fred Lebow so memorably put it, the marathon “has everything. It has drama. It has competition. It has camaraderie. It has heroism. Every jogger can’t dream of being an Olympic champion, but he can dream of finishing a marathon.”
That’s a dream that anyone can identify with, and that many do. “I like having big goals,” says Emily Sohn, who has completed three marathons, “and the marathon seemed like one of those things you should do before you die.” Barb Jacobs, who recently completed her first marathon, concurs. “Running a marathon has always been something that I wanted to do,” she says, “but didn’t think I was able to do.” But when a friend mentioned that she would be training for and running the 2003 Twin Cities Marathon, and asked if Jacobs would be interested in joining her, “I took it on as a challenge. At the time, I was looking for a life-changing event. I felt that if I could finish a marathon, I could do anything, and I wanted to prove that to myself.”
With those kinds of motivations, the marathon has become the prestige running event and a genuine social phenomenon. And it’s no coincidence that a variety of programs have arisen to take advantage of that status and to help get the aspiring marathoner across the finish line. Marathon training programs have proliferated across the country, offering day-by-day training prescriptions, coaching assistance, informational meetings, and the camaraderie of a group. Some of those programs are offered by local running clubs, others by professional organizations or individual coaches, and many by charities as a way to raise funds for their core missions.
Training programs offer a structure that many first-timers find attractive. For those for whom the challenge of the marathon is primary, they offer a step-by-step recipe for success. After she had attended an introductory meeting, Tammy Fredrick, now a two-time marathoner, said, “I felt so encouraged and excited that I could have all the tools I needed to do it. Having a support group made it seem that it was an attainable goal.”
Other motivations may also play a role. For some, the health and fitness aspects of a marathon training program are a major appeal. Merilee Womeldorf had run track and cross country in high school and college, but had virtually quit running while raising a family. “I wanted to get back in shape, and a marathon program gave me the structure I needed to do that.”
For others, the camaraderie of a group is a prime factor motivating them to join a training program, or to stick with it through the weeks and months of training. “I had never run with people before,” says Sohn, “and now instead of dreading a run I’d be looking forward to it. I’d think of it as getting together with friends for a run, rather than just going out for a run.”
And many find the combination of mar-athon training and charitable fundraising an additional incentive. Doug and Nancy Imholte were looking for a way to give back to the cause after Nancy had completed radiation and chemo-therapy for Hodgkin’s disease. Training for a marathon fit their lifestyle, but was a serious challenge. When they received a flier for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training program in the mail, the challenge and the cause came together. “It was a way for us to give back: The challenge, the camaraderie of a group, and the chance to help a cause that we really believed in made it a no-brainer.”
This incentive, while puzzling to some long-time runners, is very real to many active and prospective marathoners. While training for and running a marathon has its own attractions, some see it as less valuable simply because it is a self-directed rather than an other-directed activity. For them, combining marathon training with charitable fundraising is a way to assuage those feelings. For others, it provides an extra impetus: the intrinsic appeal of the marathon may be inducement enough, but the addition of the charitable element makes the choice an easy one.
The Post-Marathon Blues
These incentives may get you through your training and across the finish line, but an entirely different set of feelings may greet you once you’ve done so. Your first feeling, assuming that you achieved your marathon goals, is often one of euphoria. Long ago, you set a goal of running a marathon. Maybe your co-workers, friends or family didn’t believe you could do it. Maybe you harbored some doubts yourself. But you stuck with it, and now you’ve done it. The sense of accomplishment that comes from meeting such a goal can be very powerful. “In the days and weeks after the marathon,” says Doug Imholte, “you have such a phenomenal sense of accomplishment; it’s a lifetime achievement.”
Soon, however, that euphoria may give way to a more difficult feeling: the post-marathon blues. “I remember getting on the airplane to come home after the marathon,” says Fredrick, “and I cried. You think about that day and that moment for so long, you wonder whether you can do it, and then when you’ve done it you say ‘Oh my gosh, what do I do now?’” Imholte had a similar sensation. “You wake up every day during training with this goal in mind, and then one day you wake up and there’s nothing out on the horizon. That’s where the blues can come in.”
The blues can also come in by a more direct route. If your marathon day was not as successful, or if you found the experience to have been less than you had envisioned, you might wonder whether all that training was worth the time and effort you put into it. Finally, even if your experience of the marathon itself was successful, you may find that your friends and family, while happy for your accomplishment, are more eager than you are to focus on something else now and to get back to pre-marathon routines.
If this is your experience, there may be solace in knowing that you are not alone. “While not everyone is going to have the post-race blues, it’s a very normal thing,” says 10-time marathoner and psychologist Tim Wolfram. “So don’t let it alarm you.” Whether you will suffer from such a letdown depends on a variety of factors, Wolfram adds, including your personality type, how successful your marathon experience was, and the extent to which you are able to maintain your pre-marathon routines.
Looking Back, Moving On
The post-marathon blues, however, need not be permanent. While your first inclination, particularly if your marathon experience was less than you had hoped, may be to quit running entirely, a little time and reflection may provide some valuable perspective and may bring you back to running. As Wolfram says, “Be patient and give yourself some time, and things will often take care of themselves.”
If a disappointing finish time is what troubles you, recognize that many runners struggle in their first marathon, and that they often improve significantly in their second. If your blues are more generally based, the perspective of time may be even more valuable. Allow yourself a full recovery, and you may find that the things that led you to run a marathon in the first place, supplemented by your experience training for and running it, are the same things that can lead you back to running.
One factor is the experience of running itself. Perhaps you came into a running program seeing the marathon as a great accomplishment, but training for it as a necessary evil. At some point in your training, however, you may have found that you actually like running. “I had always thought that I hated running,” says Jacobs, “but now I realize that I had just never found a good way to experience it.” Sohn had a similar revelation. “I had always run just to keep in shape for my other activities. Now I’ve discovered a love of running, and I’d like to keep running for a long time.”
If you initially decided to run as a means to a charitable end, the discovery that running can be enjoyable in its own right might be a bit surprising, but running, and running a marathon, is no less valid for the lack of a charitable connection. Runners tend to be happier, more creative, and more productive than non-runners, and there’s nothing wrong with being a happier, more creative, and more productive person.
Another factor is the health and fitness benefits of running. Some of those benefits have probably become quite visible, in the form of lost pounds or inches, improved concentration, better sleep, and the like. Others are less visible but equally real, such as a stronger heart, lower blood pressure, and improved oxygen delivery. All of these health benefits are available to you for the rest of your life, as long as you remain active. Marathon training is not necessary to obtain them—a moderate but less ambitious running program is all that you need, assuming that you’re consistent.
Once you got into your training, you may have found that you enjoyed the camaraderie of a team and the social aspects of group runs. Once the marathon is over, you may miss your running friends and the fellowship of the group. Continued running can help maintain those bonds. If you developed a core group of running friends, keep up with them. In the immediate post-marathon recovery period, get together for a cup of coffee or a pint of beer. After a week or two, center your get-togethers around a run. Before long, you’ll find yourselves planning a group outing to a local race.
If it was the camaraderie of a group as a whole that kept you going, join a local running club, or sign up with another marathon group. Every training group is unique, with its own cast of characters. You may never be able to duplicate the experience of the first time, but that doesn’t mean that the second time won’t be just as enjoyable. You only get one chance at your first kiss, but I’ve never heard anyone give that as a reason to never experience a second kiss.
At the core of many people’s motivations for running a marathon, of course, is the challenge of the distance. This motivation can continue long into the future. In training for and running a marathon, you worked toward an ambitious goal until you accomplished it. The fact that you reached that goal does not mean that your running life is now permanently without direction, there being nothing left to accomplish. Running provides many more goals and many more challenges. Find a new goal, and work toward it.
That new goal might or might not involve running another marathon. If you found that training and racing was a positive experience, but that marathon training took more than you can regularly give, set your sights on shorter races. A 25:00 5K or a 2:00 half marathon may be something that can motivate you just as much as a 4:00 marathon, without requiring 20-mile training runs. “I’ll probably do another marathon,” says Sohn, “but it’s so hard on my body. I like training and racing, so it’s an appealing goal for now to do shorter races. It’s something new and different, and I can have the gratification of improving my times.” Shorter races provide a different training and racing experience, focusing on a season of racing rather than a single event. They also feature a movement away from pure endurance and toward a greater balance of endurance and speed. That balance can be very helpful generally, and can provide a solid base in the event you decide, at some point, to run another marathon.
If another marathon is in your future, one way to find new enthusiasm is to shift your focus from just finishing the event to finishing it in a specific time. “Now I know I can do it,” says Jacobs, “so I’d like to beat my time, and experience it again.” Maybe you ran your first marathon in 5:00; if that’s the case, set your sights on 4:30, then maybe on 4:00. If you were close to qualifying for Boston, work to make that standard in your next marathon. If you did qualify, book your ticket, and begin preparing for it.
On the other hand, maybe you want to forget about time altogether. Fredrick’s second marathon was very different from her first. “The first time I was nervous about doing it: could I make it? The second time I knew I could make it, so I focused on enjoying my time out there, talking with people, making jokes, and having fun with it.” In a similar vein, you might want to add a new element to your marathon experience by running a trail marathon, which adds the challenges of terrain and (sometimes) altitude to the mix. If you ran your first marathon “because it was there,” you might run your second marathon for a charity.
If a charitable cause was your primary motivation, there’s nothing that says that you can do it only once. Many runners do a fundraising marathon every year, and find that the rewards never go away. While a second round of fundraising may seem daunting, your continued support of the cause may open more pocketbooks than you might expect.
Another way to experience the marathon anew might be to become a mentor to the next generation of marathoners—individually, through a club program, or for a charity group. Where once you were a novice, now you are a veteran. You’ve seen what works and what doesn’t work, and how the marathon, which initially seemed impossibly long, slowly became more and more possible, until in the end it became a reality. You might think that you have little to offer, but give it a try, and you’ll be surprised at how much you’re able to pass on and how infectious new runners’ enthusiasm can be.
Act the Part
If you still need a little extra push, take some more tangible steps. Buy some new running shoes and clothing. That done, you’ll want to put them to good use. Make a running date. It’s easier to get out the door when you know someone is waiting for you. Sign up for an upcoming race. Join a club. Subscribe to a running magazine, and read it when it arrives. Bookmark some running web sites, and visit them often.
Many people come to and participate in a marathon with the thought that it’s a once in a lifetime experience. Take another look at your experience, however, and you might find that your reasons for running are just as strong, if not stronger, after the marathon than they were before it. Act as if running has become a lifestyle choice, and you’ll find that it has become one.
David Coyne writes, runs and coaches in St. Paul, MN. He is a coach for Team in Training and for the Twin Cities Running Club and has guided hundreds of novices through and beyond their first marathons.