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Runner’s Journal: The race day hangover

You trained for months, sliding on your running shoes to head out into the rain, snow or blistering heat, logging miles when your legs were begging for some well-deserved down time in front of the TV, all in preparation for that moment you had circled on your calendar for ages: race day.

Whether you’re a competitive runner with dozens of races under your belt or a newbie who’s anxious to cross the finish line for the first time, there’s nothing quite like race day. After all the training, adversity and anticipation, it all comes to a head on race day. Doesn’t matter if it’s a 5K or a marathon; all that matters is the task at hand, the race that lies ahead of you. Even better, you’re surrounded by people who’ve gone through the same experience to get to this moment, and most of them are just as excited to see what the day holds. As a runner, you’re part of a growing community — the number of marathon finishers rose to a record 467,000 between 2008 and 2009, a jump of nearly 10% — and on race day, you can see it. You can feel it. It’s an awesome experience.

But eventually, the race will end. Whether you’re happy with your time or just happy to have finished, you’ll cross the line (or get booted from the course) and that moment you waited for, the dedication and hard work…will be over. Then what?

Like the much more common hangover, a race hangover can cause physical pain — body soreness (obviously), a headache (if you haven’t properly rehydrated), and even nausea and diarrhea. Unpleasant, perhaps, but true in some extreme cases. For me, though, the toughest part is the emotional letdown once the excitement wears off and everyday life takes control again. I felt fantastic after I finished my first half marathon last year — well, okay, I felt like shit, but I felt good about feeling like shit. I’d worked my tail off all summer and ran four miles farther than I had ever run before, and I finished with a strong time. It was a great day.

Then I realized I didn’t have anything to train for anymore. After being so focused on this one race for so long, I suddenly felt lazy and uncommitted. Was I going to fall back into my life of inactivity and excuses now that race day had passed? The mental and emotional shift — from race prep to race recovery — was pretty startling. The cure? Well, I signed up for the Vegas half marathon two months later, but different people will handle their race hangovers differently.

If you choose to jump back into the racing community, be sure you’re realistic about your goals and that you give your body enough time to recover. Obviously, your down time should be longer between longer races, but as always, just listen to your body and be smart when you choose your next race. Don’t let a particularly persistent race hangover force you to commit to something you can’t handle. If you’re new to this, take it slow and enjoy it along the way. As you get more miles under your feet, your racing frequency will jump too. That’s when it really gets fun.

Nearly six weeks later, my hangover from the Chicago Marathon is still lingering. Fortunately, I finally figured out why everything went so horribly wrong — I was taking Tylenol with codeine to help me sleep through my shoulder pain, and didn’t know that codeine can cause dehydration and electrolyte imbalance, a particularly brutal combination for a marathon — but now I’m just anxious to get a quality time on the board after finishing more than an hour slower in Chicago than I had planned. Not wanting to waste my eight months of marathon training, I’m aiming to run the Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Marathon on January 15. Tick tock.

My legs have been more tired and sore than anticipated as I’ve ramped my training back up, which makes me wonder if I’m trying to climb this mountain too soon after my last attempt. I’m being cautious, though — I haven’t signed up for the race yet or booked any flights — and I finally had a strong run earlier today, so I feel like I’m on my way. I’d prefer to not have to train through an Ohio December, but so be it. As long as my body holds up, I’ll be out there on January 15, gunning for 3:30 again.

Some hangovers are just too strong to ignore.