This fall, roughly 7,500 people will run 26.2 miles for the first time in the New York and Chicago marathons. Poor, unsuspecting innocents. Little do they know what vexing mind games lurk beneath the free T-shirts, pasta-loading parties and general carnival atmosphere that accompany today's marathons. Certainly some runners will circumvent the mental pitfalls and thrive on the experience, but others will fall victim to the Marathoning Blues when they least expect it—weeks and even years after the race.
I ran New York in 1983, and the ordeal nearly killed the considerable love of running that I'd had until then. My experience isn't unique, although it might be somewhat extreme.
Ignoring all prerace warnings, I ran the first 13 miles at a pace about 15 minutes faster than I should have; I paid for it by hobbling in 12 minutes past my goal of 3:30. I was devastated because I had trained so hard for so many months. I was standing in the finishing chute, shoulders slumped in defeat and exhaustion, when the runner in front of me turned and threw up on my shoes. Perfect, I thought. Then, adding insult to injury, a bag lady accosted me as I limped down Central Park West, sticking her sooty face in my salt-encrusted one to yell, "Sickos! You're all sickos!" I had to agree.
So it's no surprise that I'm stunned by friends who speak frothily of their wonderful marathon experiences. My most positive emotion was relief that I'd lost only one toenail. I felt cheated. I also felt like a wimp, loath to admit that I'd been beaten by the race.
Completely missing was the sense of accomplishment that I expected for just completing the course. Somehow it had all gone wrong. I had wanted to love this sport, make it a long-term avocation. Now I'd rather chew glass.
What had happened?
"Disillusionment isn't uncommon with first-time marathoners," says Rick McGuire, psychologist for the U.S. track and field team. He and other experts agree that this is the result of a combination of things, among them the nature of the runner, the explosive growth and popularity of the event and the race's physical and psychological demands.
For the most part, marathon runners are highly motivated and goal-oriented people. Bob Sevene, who coaches Joan Benoit Samuelson, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist, says, "My problem has always been holding runners back, getting them to cut down on mileage or take a day off. All runners seem to push themselves too hard."
One thing that attracts people to marathons is the camaraderie among runners. While that works on one level to support a runner, it can also produce peer pressure to overtrain. Another attraction is the glamorous image of the marathoner. "People like the idea of being an athlete in training," says McGuire.
"But the marathon really gets into the gray area of the body's upper limits," says Dr. George Lesmes, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Northeastern Illinois University. "Trained athletes know how to handle this, since they test these limits regularly in workouts. Novices don't. They still go out and attack the distance." As a result, the neophyte marathoner isn't prepared for the mental stress that goes hand-in-hand with the physical pain. Worse, he doesn't have a coach to help him put that stress into perspective the way a seasoned runner does.
Setting unrealistic goals before the race can also be a problem afterward. "A person starts training with a goal to finish the race," McGuire says. "Along the way, he discovers that he's better than expected. Just finishing isn't good enough anymore." These are, after all, competitive, success-minded people. Consciously or subconsciously, they start to run against the clock.
The runner either surpasses or falls short of his goal. Either way, he feels pressure mounting to improve on that time in the next race. "Then he realizes that in order to improve he'll have to spend even more time and energy to train," McGuire says. To the person who is emotionally and physically drained from just completing a marathon, that idea is terrifying. So he doesn't run at all. What is left is the guilt-ridden feeling that he has copped out. "Which isn't the case," McGuire says. "It all boils down to a matter of priorities."
Al Bunis, 29, an investment banker who ran the Boston Marathon in 1979, fell into a different trap. "The race was an ego thing with me," he says, "especially finishing...and running the gauntlet of women at Wellesley. But in the middle of it, I realized that I had zero desire to do it again. I'd have to say that the first time was a novel experience. The second time, obviously, wouldn't be."
John Coughlin, 30, a financial consultant, ran the New York Marathon in 1984, when temperatures climbed into the 70s and the humidity into the 90% zone. "The marathon is so much work and preparation," he says. "But for me everything was ruined just because it was a crummy day." In training, Coughlin had run more than 100 miles a week; his marathon goal was 2:36. He was on pace through 22 miles, but coming out of the Bronx he blacked out. He came to three hours later. "I didn't have the experience to lower my sights and wait for a better day," he says. "The more I run, the less I'm enticed by that distance."
But what about those runners who are still smarting from the frustration of their first marathon but want to try again? Sevene suggests taking a break. "You have to remember that to maintain your cardiovascular system, you only have to run three times a week for 20 to 30 minutes," he says. "Everything above that is training. So point your head in a new direction. Set different goals." Also spice your training regimen with some different activities—like tennis, biking or swimming.
"Look at Joan," Sevene says of Samuelson. "When she comes back from an injury she's always stronger and running better. The doctors didn't do that. She's just mentally rested."
"I'm going to sound like a Zen philosopher," McGuire says, "but the marathon, like so much in life, is a matter of deciding what makes you happy and being satisfied with that. There's no shame in deciding that the marathon isn't for you. But if you do run and perform to the best of your abilities, even if you finish in four hours, you haven't failed. In fact, you've accomplished a great deal."
As for me, Zen philosophy sounds good. I think I'll try yoga for a while and stick to shorter runs. And if you're one of those 7,500 running a marathon for the first time, remember that the race isn't necessarily over when it's over.
Lisa Twyman Bessone runs 26.2 miles per week in Lincoln Park in Chicago.