When I hit the wall on College Avenue, I had to sit down.
It was cold and rainy in Toronto. Hungry and tired, I ran out of energy and couldn’t stand anymore. I had to sit.
This was on Monday, the day after I completed the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. I didn’t hit any walls during the race. In fact, I ran the best race of my life.
It was while waiting for the streetcar to take me back to my apartment the day after that I finally felt dread and suffering. It’s called Mile 27: The point where the race ends and the recovery begins.
Mind you, race day was as good as it could be. The race’s motto is “fast, flat and festive,” and it lived up to its billing. The weather was sunny and cool and cheering crowds lined the streets. And having a certain yellow shirt on helped me as well.
My goal was to stay between the 3:40 and 3:45 pacers for close to 25 miles, then run as fast as I could to the finish line. For most of the marathon, I had a consistent gait and strong legs. The wind was at my back and my overall pace was quick.
As I turned the corner toward Queen Street East, close to the Mile 20 marker, the 3:40 pacer group was gone. I looked around. Where did they go? Had I lost that much speed? My breathing shortened, my core fell out of alignment and my arms dropped. Thoughts of slowing down or stopping began to infiltrate my brain.
Then, I hit the reset button. Just keep moving, I told myself. I straightened my back, got my arms in place and started counting again.
My gait came back into rhythm. My breathing steadied and my mind calmed. In the corner of my eye, I saw the 3:45 pacer group on the other side of the street.
I was exactly where I wanted to be.
Running into trouble
For some endurance athletes, race recovery may include the following: Avoid stairs and any inclines. Eat pizza and burgers. Better yet, eat and drink everything. Then, stop moving for as long as possible.
Once you’re done, you’re done.
This was my mentality when I ran my first marathon in fall 2013. But my recovery from the amazing experience of the Buenos Aires marathon was a physical, mental and emotional nightmare. Now, after three marathons in a 12-month period and a vast improvement in running form and race time, I had to properly recover. It was time to take a break.
“Runners have a great race, get a big high and want to run more races, so they sign up for a 10K and try to get outside as much as they can,” said Lisa Reichmann, a D.C. running coach with Run Faster and Farther. “That’s where the problem comes in. They don’t understand [recovery] and run into trouble.”
Running wisdom asserts that recovery should last one day for each mile run. For long-distance runners who spend months in training, that may seem like a tall and unnecessary order. However, recovery isn’t just muscle repair. It’s mental and emotional repair, as well.
The race is “a major mission and goal, and it’s done the next morning. ‘What do I do?’ Identity gets wrapped up in the half or 10K, in the goal,” Reichmann said. That immediate loss in purpose and identity brings about confusion, anxiety, even depression.
The feeling of the “post-marathon blues” affects runners in different ways and may come as a surprise, said Julie Sapper, also with Run Faster and Farther. “The normal post-marathon letdown applies to any goal and race,” she said. “You see the goal and achieve the goal. Now what?”
Reichmann and Sapper emphasized that runners need to use recovery time to reconnect with their life. Priorities get shifted to accommodate training, so getting in touch with friends and family is important, both to regain support and reestablish ties.
I talked with Mark Cucuzzella, the running coach who taught me the “1,2,3 step,” after Toronto. Cucuzzella, who ran his 23rd Marine Corps Marathon on Oct. 26, urges runners to take the time to relax and let “good things” happen during recovery.
“I think the real important thing is to give yourself time to allow for the joy of accomplishment,” Cucuzzella said. That joy allows for what Cucuzzella called “deep recovery” to occur.
“Sleep, good nutrition, healthy fats and proteins” are important, Cucuzzella said. “Do some things you’ve neglected, go for a hike, longer bike rides, join friends to do an alternative activity. Call it active recovery and stay active as a person.
“If you finish happy, you’re already about 80 percent recovered.”
No pain, no strain
So, what if you don’t finish happy?
That’s what Kenny Yum faced at the Toronto marathon two years ago. Pain in his left calf, along with training struggles, led to a personal worst 4:00 time for the run.
Yum, a 40-year-old managing editor of Huffington Post Canada, has run 28 marathons, including the Marine Corps Marathon six times and Boston twice, and he usually averages 3:30 or faster. After the 2012 race in Toronto, he used the recovery time to regroup.
“I tend not to get overemotional about bad races or races that don’t go my way,” he wrote by e-mail. “I try to keep a level head about bad experiences and use the time between training cycles to think about what went wrong.
“A marathon is a long-term project — you can build over months and in many cases, years. Recovery helps you reset yourself, so you can run slower, but also think about getting the things you need — sleep, strength work, time with friends. Not only does your body need to recover from a marathon, but so too must your mind.”
Yum came into Toronto in 2014 wanting to resolve unfinished business. He took advantage of good weather and a strong pace to finish 3:07:20, a personal best.
As for me, I took off at 25 miles and ran as fast as I could. With the crowd cheering and the finish line in sight, that’s when I knew: You’re about to run a sub-four-hour marathon!
I finished in 3:40.27. More importantly, I ran without any pain. In past races, I had pain in my ankles and quads for weeks on end. Although I had some muscle soreness, there was never an issue of real pain. The training paid off.
That streetcar did arrive on College Street Monday night, and although I was mentally and emotionally exhausted, I got up and kept moving. And I left Toronto with a real sense of accomplishment.
Joy, even in my suffering.
By the following Monday, I was looking toward my next race.
But first, there are friends to see and great walks to take.
More from The Washington Post:
Viewing art through mindful meditation
November Project: Hugs and fitness
Why it really is harder for women to lose weight
Protein: Why it’s so popular right now
How to stay fit while on vacation
Follow the MisFits on Facebook
Read past MisFits stories here
Subscribe to the Lean & Fit Newsletter
@mjmplunkett on Twitter