What lies beyond the finish line? Some Colorado athletes report a big, empty feeling.

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A week or so after James Carlson climbed the height of Mount Everest twice over, he went for a run and was surprised by the voice in his head repeating two words. “Why bother?”

Sure, the afterglow from the greatest athletic feat of his life had faded a bit. The pain and a gnawing weariness, sensations that he secretly relished because they reminded him he’d done something great, had subsided as well. And, well, so did all the kudos on TikTok. As all that juice drained from him, the voice in his head made him realize a hard fact: He had no way to replace it.

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“I had prepared for the arrival fallacy,” said Carlson, who owns a real estate business and lives in Colorado Springs. “But I hadn’t prepared for what to do next. I hadn’t even thought about it.” 

Runners feel it after a marathon, especially their first. Olympians, most notably and publicly Michael Phelps, call the emptiness harder than a peak training cycle. Any athlete with any goal, from anyone who’s finished the 14ers to someone who finally lost 50 pounds, all refer to the sense of malaise as the blues. The marathon blues. The Olympic blues. Renowned ski mountaineer Hilaree Nelson noted her malaise as “post-traumatic stoke” in the weeks after becoming the first-ever to ski from the summit of Lhotse in the Himalayas. 

And many athletes don’t have a plan on how to prevent them or deal with them once they arrive. 

“There’s so much hype,” said Jamie Shapiro, a professor of sport and performance psychology at the University of Denver, “and then it’s over. It feels like a sense of loss, and we get sad when there’s a loss. I don’t think there’s a way you can prevent it completely.” 

In some cases, athletes find a way to move on a few days or weeks after, say, a big race, but in other cases, the depression can reach clinical levels. This is especially true if the event is the pinnacle of their career. Olympians regularly report severe depression after the big event, and self-destructive behavior is common. Even suicide rates are much higher among them. But average athletes — the so-called weekend warriors, who just did an amazing thing — feel it too.

Carlson concocted his own event after seeing an online ad for a company that hosts Everesting, a challenge where people climb more than 29,000 feet, or the height of the tallest mountain in the world. Carlson had recently turned 41 and when he went backpacking with his wife, Erin, in October 2022, he was disappointed in the fact that it “hurt like hell.” 

Instead of buying a sports car, Carlson decided to do a double Everest for his midlife crisis. This continued a pattern of doing crazy occasional things despite a mostly sedentary life: He did the Ascent, a race up Pikes Peak, one year. But climbing 60,000 feet would be the pinnacle. 

The training began to consume him, and he loved it, most of the time. The goal was daunting: Everesting is typically done on a bike, but he would be doing twice that, on foot.

James Carlson on June 24, 2023 began his double Everesting attempt, climbing twice the elevation of Mount Everest, or nearly 60,000 feet, in Telluride in 59 hours. (James Carlson, handout)

After some research — and yes, people do track these things, because, of course they do — he believed he would be the first American to do a double Everest on foot. 

A true first test as to whether he could even attempt it came when he tried to spend five hours with a backpack on an incline treadmill. He did it, but he hated it. He would later do 12 hours.

“It felt like the adventure I was looking for,” Carlson said.

On June 24, he traveled to Telluride, set up a chart to mark his progress alongside some cheering family members and became a celebrity for a day as people wondered why he kept riding the ski lift down and hiking back up.

He hiked or bounded up at times. He barely shuffled others. He thought it was stupid and amazing and only took a two-hour nap in between Everests. In all he climbed for 59 hours, from 6 a.m. Friday to 5 p.m. Sunday. He cried when he finished. Hugs. Cheers. TikToks of him finishing. It was an amazing feeling. 

After a few weeks, the joy from exercising was gone, and then the joy he felt from life ebbed as well. This shocked him. Carlson is an optimistic guy who loves the wonder of life. Yet he spent all day in bed.

The voice inside his head began to grow louder, and more insistent, and the phrase, “Why bother,” morphed into something a little more sinister. 

“Now what?”

The pain after the pinnacle 

Athletes typically don’t include a post-event plan in their training cycle, Shapiro said. 

“They don’t want to think about it,” she said. “So they aren’t prepared for those moments.” 

The post-event blues typically hit endurance athletes and Olympians the hardest, she said, because big events that are in the rearview are unlikely to be repeated. You can only run your first marathon once. It takes four more hard years to reach the Olympics.

They also tend to relish the sudden spotlight given to their activity, when the world, say, watches speed skating, or when your friends actually care about your running plan. 

“You get so many positive emotions feeding your ego and your self-worth,” Shapiro said, “and maybe you get a lot more attention. Those fizzle pretty quickly.”

Sometimes athletes will continue to chase the dragon and sign up for another event. Shapiro isn’t sure that’s the best strategy. 

“When you have a breakup, do you go out and date right away?” she said. “Some do, but does that help? I don’t know. You haven’t given yourself a chance to grieve and recover. It’s really important to take time to recover because if you don’t, then there’s burnout.”

And yet she does support finding a new goal, with the caveat that it doesn’t have to have anything to do with the event you just finished. Maybe instead of climbing another mountain, for instance, you can hike with your family. Or you can learn how to crochet or do other activities that weren’t possible with the training. 

“If you have a new goal, I think that does help,” Shapiro said. “But there has to be an acceptance that I’m never going to have another first.” 

The plan after the plan 

Coaches of endurance sports have started incorporating the weeks after an event as part of an overall training plan.

“We don’t think about the event as the end goal,” said Kaitlyn Yonke, head coach of Run Infinite, which focuses on coaching runners to finish an ultramarathon or other outdoor events. “That event is part of a timeline. We look further ahead.” 

This mindset, she said, helps her runners get past the blues pretty quickly because they see their races as stops along a long journey. 

She does allow some mourning time, especially if they don’t finish — a common trait of tough ultras such as Leadville is that 50% don’t finish them. 

“You’re allowed to be sad for two weeks to, say, not finish Leadville,” Yonke said. “But it’s easy to pull them out of it. There’s always other stuff to do.” 

Jenni Nettik, owner and coach of Mercuria Running in Denver, includes two weeks of training after the event in her plans for runners. Recovery can and should be part of an overall training plan, she said. In fact many believe now that inflammation, a natural byproduct of any event, can cause depression on its own.

Longtime coaches such as Hal Higdon who sell training plans online also include a monthlong post marathon plan that ends with a more relaxed race such as a 10K. 

What occurs post-race is just as important mentally as physically. 

“Maybe they stop running for a bit,” Nettik said, “but they don’t stop talking to their coach. There’s a wind down.” 

Both coaches believe in perspective as well. In the end, Yonke said, “it’s just running.”

“Some have too much self-worth wrapped up in it,” Yonke said. “My question to them is, ‘Why are you out here doing this?’ That can be a tough conversation, but it’s a coach’s job to have that. If they can’t tell me why, we need to have a deeper conversation. Those are the people who tend to really fall into depression after an event.” 

Nettik reminds her clients, much like Yonke, that they aren’t just runners (or triathletes or climbers or, in some cases, Olympians). It’s true that during peak weeks, training for an event should take priority, but that shouldn’t last. 

“They are family, friends and a caring person,” Nettik said. “Running should complement your life instead of control it.”

Coaches, nutritionists and therapists 

Despite all their preparation for the post-event blues, sometimes they can still hit hard, and some coaches have learned when to refer their athletes to a therapist. 

“If the blues is a tendency for someone,” Yonke said, “I encourage them to chat with someone who has a greater knowledge of mental health.”

Though the national conversation about mental health is more open, there’s still some natural resistance to seeing a professional, Yonke said, especially when the problem can be perceived as silly, such as being sad over a marathon. Yonke tells them their mental health is just as important and needs guidance as well. 

“Athletes have nutritionists and coaches,” she said. “They can have therapists too.” 

Indeed, Carlson is seeing a therapist for the first time in his life to help with his depression after his double Everest. He did another race a few months later, a 24-hour event in Palmer where he ran 70 miles, after his depression kept him on the couch for a month. He received an ankle injury from overuse but some satisfaction from another event. That event, he said, at least helped him understand and remove some of the pressure he was putting on himself by posting on TikTok. 

He is feeling better, he said, although he can’t pinpoint exactly why. He put in more work at the real estate agency he owns with Erin and has some purpose again. He would like to do an event next year but maybe not have it be twice the length of the world’s tallest mountain. 

“Something I’m trying is moderation,” Carlson said. “I want to do an event for what it is and see if I can enjoy that. I tend to be all or nothing.”

Some may ask if it was worth it to Carlson to do what he did, no matter how amazing it was. He smiles at the question.

“Had I known all those things, like I would need therapy, I’d be severely depressed, that I’d injure my ankle,” he said, “I would do it again in a heartbeat.”