"A lot of people feel this way after such a big event, it's a normal part of the process," says clinical psychologist Dr. Justin Ross

By Stephanie Emma Pfeffer
November 07, 2019 09:03 AM
Credit: MarathonFoto

I am a marathoner!

After running more than 20 half-marathons, last weekend I completed my first full — and the TCS New York City Marathon was just as awesome as everyone promised. The weather was perfect. The crowd support, unreal. People lined the streets mile after mile. Even the bridges felt manageable! I loved running through my old city and got a kick out of seeing friends and family members along the way. And the enthusiasm and excitement generated by runners from all over the world was unlike anything I have experienced.

Of course, it was especially cushy running with Michelob ULTRA’s TeamULTRA. The 95-person team — made up of everyone from marathon newbies to running legends like Dean Karnazes and fitness pros like The Bachelorette‘s Shawn Booth — bonded throughout the weekend and got the VIP treatment, including a warm tent at the start village with food and coffee, plus our very own porta-potties.

So… why do I feel empty? I went from feeling like a recreational athlete to … just a normal person. I’ve been a little lost since the elation of the day, like, what’s my purpose? And I can’t seem to shake it — even though I know my existence is crucial to two little people who rely on me for food, shelter, baths. (And leftover Halloween candy.)

“It’s normal to have the post-race blues,” says Dr. Justin Ross, a clinical psychologist in Denver specializing in human performance. “Tackling the challenge of a marathon takes months of preparation through which we begin to redefine ourselves, our limits and our capabilities.”

It’s true that over the past few months of training I have been more focused and disciplined than usual. I stayed in on Friday nights. I got up early on Saturday mornings and ran miles and miles. I ate less junk. I did not skip strength training sessions at the gym, like, ever. I was more aware of what I was putting into my body, and how it performed because of it. And now? Now I feel like nothing matters! Skip gym? OK. Eat cake? With ice cream. Binge bad show? Fine, because what else do I have to live for?

Okay, I’m exaggerating. But Dr. Ross gets what I mean.

Credit: MarathonFoto

“After months of training, the preparation suddenly climaxes with the running of the event, and many of us find ourselves looking ahead without anything that even closely resembles the personal growth we achieved through the process of training for a marathon,” says Dr. Ross, who happens to be a 10-time marathoner himself.

Basically we experience so much satisfaction and personal growth from the challenge of working toward our goal day in and day out that when the progress is no longer… progressing … the comedown hits hard.

So what’s a runner to do?

Reflect — and remember that the journey was not just about race day, but all of the many days of hard work that led up to it.

“It’s important to look back at not only the race but also the training with gratitude, fondness and learning,” says Dr. Ross. “What limits have you redefined? What self-growth have you encountered through this process? Because ultimately that’s what you’re chasing: an intoxicating feeling of redefining limits and big accomplishment.”

Dr. Ross was also pretty clear about what not to do: Sign up for another marathon right away. The high you feel after goal accomplishment can be so strong, it’s tempting to make a hasty decision and commit to something else. I’ll admit that the minute my race was over I was thinking about where I could get my next fix. But apparently, that’s not a good approach. “It’s healthy to look ahead with new perspective but without moving too quickly,” says Dr. Ross, who advises waiting at least a week before committing to anything else. And if it’s a big event, it should be 4 to 6 months down the road. “Give yourself plenty of time to recover and plenty of time to train properly for the next one,” he says.

Apparently there’s one more factor contributing to my mental state: “Part of what you may need to realize is that the first time you run a marathon, it is such an amazing accomplishment, you may not ever replicate that feeling,” he cautions. “You may be setting yourself up for a huge amount if disappointment.”

I worry that my NYC experience was so fabulous that nothing will compare, that I will always be chasing some sort of always-out-of-reach, slightly unattainable high.

Trouble is … I want to do it faster.

“That’s the beauty of the sport — there aren’t many other things in life we can actively pursue through training and see such tangible progress and outcomes,” Dr. Ross says. “But a lot of people get hooked, and then they are running 7 marathons a year and forget why they are doing it in the first place or they get injured. There’s all kinds of negative outcomes that come from not being able to step back and look at these things through the appropriate lens.”

All of this makes complete sense! I get what he is saying. I don’t want to overdo it. I don’t want to end up disillusioned. So for the next few months, I will focus on running shorter distances for fun.

But come spring, you know where to find me.