The Five Stages of Post-Race Grief

The Five Stages of Post-Race Grief

The Five Stages of Post-Race Grief

Earlier this spring I traveled to one of my favorite cities, Washington, D.C., to participate in one of my favorite races, the Sallie Mae 10K. Generous prize money and first-rate organization make Sallie Mae one of the premier races on my calendar. Plus, of course, it's a great excuse to spend the weekend "playing tourist" in D.C.

D.C. has a very active running community, and several of Rich's former Bucknell teammates live in the area. After the race a few of us went out for breakfast and spent a leisurely morning chatting about anything and everything. Of course, being competitive runners, the chatter included a healthy dose of post-race assessment, both the event overall and the individual performances. Between sips of coffee, as we reviewed the good, the bad, and the ugly, it dawned on me that the pattern of our discussion seemed vaguely familiar. There was a sequential flow to the way certain topics arose, and also to our perspectives as we discussed them. It was almost predictable. I didn't dwell upon it at the time - was much more interested in finishing my omelette - but the nagging feeling of familiarity stuck with me. The next morning, over coffee at a neighborhood Starbuck's, it hit me: In the course of about ninety minutes, we had zipped through the five stages of grief.

I'm certainly no psychologist, so when I got back to Ann Arbor I did some research to see whether I was on to something or simply under the influence of too much caffeine. Son of a gun, some obscure Reader's Digest article from years gone by must have stuck with me! Our breakfast discussion really had followed the five stages, and in the customary order.

1. DENIAL (immediately post-race through the drive to the restaurant). "There's no way I ran slower than 36:00! I was just over 28:00 at 5 miles, and I certainly did not slow down that much during the final mile." "My workouts this week have been terrific, and based on those I should have been well under 36:00." "That course can't be accurate." "The mile markers must have been wrong."

2. ANGER (while waiting for food after ordering). "Darn it, I've been focused on this race all spring!" "The field at this race is very strong, and if I was going to set a PR, today would have been the day." "We're never going to have weather this good at this race again, and I blew it." "I should have taken the first mile a bit slower, and I knew it while I was running!"

3. BARGAINING (during consumption of food). "Well, maybe next year if I run that first mile a bit smarter, I won't fade as much toward the end." "If I do a bit more speedwork leading into next year's race, maybe I'll be able to hold my pace better during the middle miles."

4. DEPRESSION (after finishing food but before second cup of coffee). "I trained hard, came all the way out here, and then ran like an idiot." "If I can't run sub-36:00 at this race, I might as well just give up." "I really, really did think I was in shape to run a lot faster than I did."

5. ACCEPTANCE (after second cup of coffee). "Well, it's still early in the racing season, and this is only my second 10K, so all-in-all, I didn't do that badly." "I certainly found some things to work on before my next race." "I did have fun, and picked up some prize money, so overall it was a pretty good day."

I thought back to other races, and realized that with few exceptions, I follow this pattern nearly every time. Even my good races touch upon two or three of the stages; no matter how well I ran, upon reflection there always seems to be some point at which I could have done something sooner, better, or faster. Maybe since I felt so good at the finish I should have taken the first mile a bit quicker. Maybe I should have stuck with that sweaty guy through the middle miles, despite getting flicked with slime at every stride. Maybe I should have started my kick a few meters sooner.

I'm not sure whether it's human nature in general, or the particular mindset of a competitive athlete, but satisfaction always seems to be mingled with a bit of self-criticism. There are times when I have to fight to keep the self-criticism from clouding my overall perspective. We're probably our own worst critics - it's the nature of our demanding, competitive personalities, I guess. As long as the end result is enlightenment rather than condemnation, I guess a little bit of grief isn't such a bad thing.