The completion of your first marathon is a huge achievement. You’ll have a medal, a Facebook feed full of congratulations from friends and family, maybe a ton of Kudos on Strava and a terrible inability to descend stairs any way other than backwards. Everybody knows that marathons are gruelling on the body but what about your head?
I made so many mistakes going into my first marathon (Paris 2009). I tried to run a five-day-a-week training plan with little prior running experience, got injured, tried to make up for lost time, broke myself again and stressed about lost training. In Paris, I worried about getting to the Expo and the start pen. Crossing the start line, I committed the cardinal sins of messing up my nutrition and getting sucked into going too fast early on. On shattered legs, I shuffled across the finish line an hour over my target time but my very first marathon medal was in the bag. I was a marathon finisher!
We were in France so we stayed for a holiday and I ate and drank enough to catch up on months of abstention. When we returned home, life returned to normal and, as the Paris finish line became a distant memory, without realising it, I hit a real low. I struggled with the motivation to run again, my work suffered and I became even more grumpy than usual! It took a couple of months to recover but I didn’t relate the state of my head to my marathon. Back in Paris for the 2010 edition, I got the medal, took the holiday, returned to the daily grind and again hit a low that took a couple of months to crawl out of. But this time I saw a pattern emerging.
Marathon training is designed to get your body used to increasing mileage and, on each long run, to push though the previous barrier to a new distance. As you do this, your body adapts to dull the pain and to flush away the waste products of the energy burn. Most importantly, you become accustomed to a having a pattern and a purpose in life as training dominates your life and thoughts. At the finish line that stops and though everyone reacts differently, this sudden end to months of single-mindedness resulted in symptoms of depression.
I’ve done six Parises now and I hope I’m a bit wiser these days. I’ve discovered that it’s important to retain that sense of purpose the training gives me and so I usually sign up for a late-Spring half-marathon to have something to aim for in the weeks after the big event. I’m a cyclist as well as a runner so, though my post-race legs might be telling me that they don’t want to run ever again, they somehow agree to pushing a pedal a bit. Short rides with some speed work flush away the junk in the legs and ease the body back into regular exercise. When the legs have finally forgotten what I put them through, I take them running.
So, I hope that in the following days and weeks you’ll recover swiftly, your legs will forgive you and you’ll continue to feel the elation of your first marathon finish. But if, like I did, you find yourself feeling low, it could be all part of the recovery from your big race. Talk to friends or to Waverley Harriers’ excellent mental health ambassadors, (Arianna Pissetti, Lizzy Goad, Mark Rowlands or Kate Horne) , come down to the club for an easy Thursday or Sunday run and, most of all, get out your medal and allow yourself a huge smile at what you just achieved.