How to Fight the Post-Marathon Blues
No matter how your big race went, feeling a little empty after it's finally over is normal
It’s already May, and the biggest spring marathons have come and gone. Perhaps you were among the tens of thousands of athletes who put in hours of training to race on the streets of Boston, London, or Paris. But once the race-day euphoria wears off and your hard-earned medal begins collecting dust in a closet shoebox, you might be left wondering: Is that all there is?
Several articles have been written about “post-marathon blues” (PMB)—that creeping sense of anticlimax that ensues after a race you’ve spent months preparing for. Susceptibility to this phenomenon isn’t necessarily tied to race performance. If anything, you may be more prone to PMB after running the race of your life. When a race goes badly, it’s easier to be preoccupied with the postmortem—questions of what went wrong and why, and how you can train better next time. After a disappointing race, you can tell yourself that the ecstasy of experiencing your peak physical potential still lies ahead.
But what about after you shatter your PR and run faster than you’d ever thought possible?
“Running, one might say, is basically an absurd pastime upon which to be exhausting ourselves,” goes the line, frequently attributed to Bill Bowerman, the late University of Oregon track coach and Nike co-founder. The quote rings true regardless of whether Bowerman really said it, and it helps explain the inevitable sense of letdown after a big race. Running is absurd, and having something to train for can temporarily obscure that fact. A person who wakes up at five a.m. to run 20 miles in the rain to prepare for a marathon is dedicated and disciplined. A person who wakes at five a.m. to run 20 miles in the rain just for the hell of it might need some help.
PMB is generally more common in amateur runners than professionals. While pros often grapple with questions about when to retire or whether trying to make a living as an athlete was a smart career choice, the fact that they are making a living (however modest) by running means the answer to the “why run?” question is fairly self-evident. Not so for the competitive amateur who puts in 100-mile weeks and ultimately has little more to show for it than office bragging rights and burgeoning plantar fasciitis.
Seeking some philosophical insight on the physical and mental aspects of PMB, we reached out to Portland-based runner Peter Bromka, who is currently dealing with his own case. A celebrity of sorts in the esoteric world of fast amateur marathoners, Bromka ran this year’s Boston Marathon in 2:28:44, finishing 52nd overall in what is cumulatively one of the most competitive marathons in the world. A year ago, he achieved a personal milestone by finally running under 2:30 in the same race. (You can read Bromka’s mile-by-mile account here.)
Of course, the “cure” for PMB is simply to sign up for another event and set new goals. But for now, we give you permission to indulge in a little springtime brooding.
Accept That All Good Things Come to an End
“During taper week, as much as the anticipation is starting to build, the sadness starts to creep in. I have a good network of guys in Portland who I meet up with for runs, and there’s a sadness about seeing the end of that routine—of being invested with a group of friends toward a common goal. When it starts to draw to a close, you’re always like, well, this feels kind of weird, and you’re sad that it’s almost over.”
Prepare to Feel Like You’ve Spent All Your Fitness at Once
“I know I ran 2:28 last week, but it took so much out of my body that I don’t feel like I could do it again. I was posting runs on Strava [leading up to the race] where I felt like my legs were fresh as hell, and I had a monster stride. And I took that and just destroyed it. It took me a long time to get to where I was, and I now I’ve gotten it all out of my system. My legs are very sore, and suddenly all the cues about how ready I am to run, cues that I’ve been obsessing about for months, are telling me I am not ready at all because I’ve pushed it all out of my body.”
Expect Your Days to Feel a Little Less Meaningful Without Running
“In my case, I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve run quite well and hit my goals. So it feels weird to have any element of sadness, but after a race, there’s always a feeling of, ‘Well, what am I going to do this upcoming weekend?’ You’re supposed to focus on all the other [i.e., non-running] things. I went wine tasting last weekend with my in-laws and had no concerns about getting a run in. It was wonderful, but the hard thing is that’s just not how I’ve set up my weeks and months. I’m not sponsored, so this isn’t my life. And yet it’s my entire life, outside my family and friends. I like to say that marathons are meaningless, but they mean everything.”
Remember That Post-Race Glory Is Fleeting
“You achieve a goal that for a long time you didn’t even think was possible, and then, immediately, people start to ask, ‘What’s next?’ I was literally in the recovery chute at Boston, and my dad’s on the phone saying he thinks I could do something really special in a flat marathon this fall. And I’m just, like, ‘Dad! Too soon.’”
Enjoy Each Race as If It Were Your Last
“Boston was my only real race goal from last year to this year. When you start to have only one big goal in a year, it starts to feel like a long time to stretch, and you realize you don’t have that many years left to do it. Very few people ever experience the downtick [of getting slower as you age] because they throw in the towel and just attribute their lack of fitness to lack of training.
“I recently asked a good runner who is in his forties what it’s like when you know you’re getting slower. His answer was so ominous. He said he turned 40 and, not long afterward, did a workout and wondered if he had a cold or something, because his times were a little off. I was like, ‘God! That sounds horrible!’ Like there’s this hand at your back pulling you backward. I think there are two paths: you either just naturally get slower from what you’re capable of or shift your focus.
“I think my life will naturally tell me when my priorities will shift, and maybe goals will be further apart. I’m not too worried about it, but I think I will come out of a bubble and be like, ‘I was really focused back then.’ And I think my wife will be like, ‘Yeah. No shit.’”