What Can We Learn From the “Post-Marathon Blues”?

Crossing the finish line can yield an oddly hollow feeling. What does it mean?

April 8, 2024 2:45 pm
A man holds his head in his hands after completing the Boston Marathon.
Marathoning is a quintessential example of the arrival fallacy.
Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

In Ray Allen’s memoir From the Outside, the former NBA sharpshooter recalled feeling surprisingly hollow after winning his first championship (as a member of the Boston Celtics in 2008). I’ve included the brunt of the quote below, as it rocked me the first time I read it:

“As the days wore on, there was a part of me that felt empty…I had always believed that when you win a championship you’re transported to some new, exalted place. What I realized was that you are the same person you were before, and that if you are not content with who you are, a championship, or any accomplishment, isn’t going to change that.”

Allen’s experience is a quintessential illustration of the “arrival fallacy,” or, the illusionary assumption that once we finally attain something, we will achieve some higher, or permanent form of fulfillment, happiness and self-worth…only, it doesn’t quite work out that way. In other words: there’s a big cookie waiting at the end the long tunnel — but it doesn’t taste as good as you imagined. If anything, perversely, you find yourself sort of miss crawling through the muck.

One of the youngest athletes to publicly acknowledge (and grapple with) sports’ paradoxical relationship with “success” is the Norwegian long-distance runner Jakob Ingebrigtsen, who delivered a strange presser back after winning the 5,000-meter finals at the Tokyo Games.

“It’s really strange because I trained for that specific race for basically my whole life,” Ingebrigtsen said at the time. “The peak is really high, but also right after the peak there’s a big low. Because I’ve done it. So what’s the meaning of going back and doing all the shit work that’s needed to get back into the same shape?”

One group that is especially susceptible to the arrival fallacy? Marathoners. They’re so vulnerable that there’s even a separate phenomenon — under the arrival fallacy umbrella — with its own name: post-marathon blues. As we plunge deeper into race season (Tokyo was staged last month, Boston next Monday) the timing feels right to interrogate the concept.

What are the post-marathon blues exactly? What do they feel like? How long do they last? Do they have an antidote? And what can we learn from them — in other walks (and runs) of life? We get into it below.

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What the Blues Feel Like

As post-marathon blues includes the word “post,” it’s natural to think of the experience as something that occurs firmly after the race. You run 26.2, you celebrate with friends and family, then it’s back-to-life stuff. The glory fades.

And that’s all true. But it’s critical to point out that post-marathon blues are informed by pre-marathon neuroses. The rollercoaster months of jittery self-doubt, mileage-stacking, routine-forming — the setbacks and triumphs of training — all of it combines and conspires in service of a singular mission. For a quarter of a year or more, you’re propelled by a rocket ship of purpose. But when you cross the finish line, you don’t have to do any of it anymore.

After my marathon, I found that sudden freedom almost as oppressive as my marathon schedule. For almost two months after the race, my running routine cratered to just a couple of three-milers a week. The muscle fibers in my legs used the time to prepare themselves, but I felt somewhat lost. I slept less, drank more and tried to make sense of my appetite — which had swelled to that of a lion’s during my 50-mile weeks.

What I realized was that you are the same person you were before, and that if you are not content with who you are, a championship, or any accomplishment, isn’t going to change that.

Ray Allen

Why Do They Happen, Anyway?

Experts stress that post-marathon blues are a multi-front phenomenon; they manifest in the body, the brain and in our everyday relationship with the physical world.

For one, remember, running is a dopamine bonanza. Our brains release endorphins during exercise, and endocannabinoids, specifically, during lengthy runs. The latter is a naturally occurring compound that’s biochemically similar to marijuana. It lights up our pleasure sectors during running (and has also been observed in the brain during orgasms).

Marathon trainees run five or more days a week, typically for at least an hour at a time. When exercise — which we now know is as effective as anti-depressant medication, in some cases — takes over your life in this way, when it takes you outside every single day, your brain is riding an almost constant chemical high. You can see why runners devote their lives to the activity.

You can also see why so many people become repeat marathoners. Purpose is powerful. They tether themselves to the yearly race calendar, traveling the world (and spending thousands) to knock out all six World Major Marathons, completing out the SuperHalf Series or even donning a track singlet once more. These people are lawyers, tradies, writers. They’re not being paid millions by the Boston Celtics or by Nike to train like a professional athlete. But they’d rather retain the mission aspect (and demanding schedule) of a racing life than run one marathon and subsist on glory days-chatter forever.

How to Meet the Blues in Battle

This is not to say that all marathoners are poorly-adjusted robots, desperate to run their demons away. Some people just find a reliable home base in the cadence of this lifestyle. Besides, post-marathon blues, as an example of “situational depression,” is not guaranteed. And many who experience it can expect it to subside within seven days of crossing the finish.

When it does manifest, the best approach is to A) savor what you’ve done and B) let yourself rest.

There was a point after my marathon, where I realized I’d put so much stock into how others were responding to my achievement (within my network, on social media, etc.) and not enough time talking to myself about it. And that reaction felt dramatically incongruous to how I’d prepared for the effort — I’m talking hundreds upon hundreds of miles, utterly alone, running up hills and down trails, urging myself to keep going. Didn’t I owe that person a debrief of sorts? A thank you?

As for the rest bit, I feel comfortable with the amount of time I took off. It helped set me up for the running strategy I’m employing this year, which you can read more about here, if interested. One thing I learned, though — it might help to make that rest intentional. Write it down, or say it out loud to yourself. If you consider it part of the overarching structure and strategy of your running protocol — which is totally legitimate; post-marathon recovery is imperative — you’ll likely be kinder to yourself as a result.

This delicateness is necessary because the lane shift from race prep to relative nothingness feels extreme. And if you’re like me, you may hurl the “L word” at yourself more than a few times. (Lazy.)

They Aren’t Marathon-Specific

Post-marathon blues aren’t specific to marathoners, of course. Whatever distance you train for, a sense of emptiness may creep in a day or two after you cross the finish line. The phenomenon isn’t unique to runners either, as we alluded to earlier. Consider Michael Phelps, gold medal extraordinaire, who reportedly came home depressed after his legendary exploits in the Athens and Beijing Games.

The concept has clear links to life events and accomplishments, too — did getting into a certain college, earning a lucrative promotion or buying your dream house yield exactly what you hoped? Was the pride or pleasure it conferred onto your life unflinching and permanent? I’d be surprised if so.

That paradox shouldn’t cheapen the worthiness of shooting for those goals if they matter to you. It should serve as a reminder, harkening back to Allen’s terrific quote in the introduction of this article, that you will remain “the same person you were before.” There is no apotheosis when you cross the finish line of the New York City Marathon or the threshold of your suburban split level.

But there is an opportunity for reflection — for appreciation of the “shit work” (to borrow Ingebrigtsen’s words) that the achievement almost certainly necessitated — and a platform to consider what you learned about yourself along the way. Done right, the process humbles and emboldens us in equal measure; stacked together, it’s worth far more than whatever it yields. All we have to do is cling to its lessons. When the blues creep in, that’s just your brain’s birdsong for the end of one season of your life. Don’t cry for it. Just listen closely, and you’ll know what should come next.

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