My first marathon was an unmitigated disaster. I ignored a nagging injury and then tried to run it too fast. The result was four hours and twenty minutes of excruciating agony. I should have dropped out at the halfway mark but I was determined to finish and somehow get through through the entire race. It was one of the most painful experiences of my life.
The race was one of the Rock 'n' Roll series and the schtick is having bands play every mile or so. For the most part I ignored them because I was so focused on my internal battle to continue running. Then something strange happened at Mile 25. I passed a group of Jimmy Buffet fans playing one of his godawful songs (I really can't stand Jimmy Buffet) and it broke my mental concentration on the race.
And all of a sudden it was everything I could do to keep from bursting out in tears.
I was able to get back in control and somehow get through the last mile of the race but, again, when I crossed the finish line, I was almost overcome by the urge to start sobbing. Now, as you might expect, I was mortified at the idea of breaking down in tears in front of a huge number of people but I also had a very real concern that if I started, given my exhausted condition, I simply would be unable to stop.
Somehow regained my composure. But the experience was so unexpected and strange I've never quite forgotten it. To this day I'm not exactly sure what happened.
There are a couple of things I feel fairly confident in saying it wasn't. It's not that the pain was so bad I was going to cry or that I was sad because I had so badly missed the goal I had set for myself. It wasn't even happiness at completing the race. It was almost a sense of... relief. But that's not quite it either.
Thinking about it later I concluded that the urge to cry came from the huge emotional toll of the race which I had kept a tight lid on in my focus to overcome the pain. I went through the gamut of feelings that morning; excitement, hope, anger, disappointment, determination, frustration, and, yes, sadness. But it wasn't any single one of these that I can finger as the reason for my urge to cry. I now suspect it might have been all of them.
It felt a little like this but without the cameras and Coldplay.
I felt my training had me ready for the physical and mental trials of the event but I completely overlooked the emotional challenge involved. While I neared the finish I slipped on controlling the latter aspect and it nearly overwhelmed me. Or at least that's my guess. Because I've never had it occur again in any race or workout.
Since that happened I've noticed when other runners have mentioned it and also noted the peculiarity of the experience. I'm sure many runners cry because they are happy at reaching (or being denied) their long sought goal but this isn't quite the same thing. It's a sudden urge that comes seemingly out of nowhere with no distinct reason.
All this is complicated by the fact that crying can often be perceived as an expression of weakness, particularly for men. I have to admit that part of the reason I struggled so hard to keep my composure during that marathon was the sheer embarrassment of being seen in tears in public.
One thing it has made me realize is that while there are a lot of resources for preparing yourself physically and mentally for marathons and other endurance events there's very little instruction for dealing with the emotional demands. And these are far more imposing than many people might think.
What I have seen on the subject seems to group the issue into the realm of mental preparation but that kind of misses the mark. You can learn how to handle the mental toll of fatigue but how the hell do you deal with sad? I expect the best coaches are very well-versed in how to handle this aspect of their athletes' training but for us amateur runners, we'll just have to fight back the tears and carry on.