Emotional Release: Why Runners Cry at the Finish

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We’ve all seen it, men and women alike, the infamous breakdown at the finish line. It’s tears of sheer joy and relief, occasionally the inability to stand up and embraces from those standing closest.  One of the most recent, and most memorable, emotional finishes was Shalane Flanagan winning the women’s division at the 2017 New York City Marathon.  She became emotional before even crossing the finish line.

You don’t have to be winning races or placing in the Olympics like Shalane to feel emotional about the races you run. Is the reaction we have at the finish emotional, physiological, physical, sheer exhaustion or relief?  Or are runners just a bunch of super sensitive saps deep down? An educated guess would suspect a combination of multiple aforementioned reasons. Why do runners cry at the finish?

Emotions

Strangely the exact same hormones that are responsible for the Runner’s High are the very same hormones that are responsible for you losing it when you cross the finish. The release of the hormones generated during your run allows you to feel the full range of the emotional scale, not just the positive feelings. It’s just that we often only run a ‘reasonable’ distance and don’t seek to push ourselves past the Runner’s High to other end; unless of course we are running a race.

When you cross a finish line in a race, unlike in most of life, you are physically crossing a finish line. You are going to feel big emotions, no matter if you accomplished your goal or not.  Those emotions can become powerful and they will manifest themselves in physical form. Any pent-up emotion you are carrying might find its way out in the manner of tears.

Your Resources Are Spent

Let’s recall the amount of energy, fuel and concentration that is used to run the miles that make up your race and at your “race pace”. No matter how well trained you are, how well your nutrition plan worked out and how mentally prepared you are, all of your resources will be tapped by the time you cross the finish line.  The body is not always logical in its responses. There is a science-backed reason that people cry. Your body wants fuel and the physiological response of your body to that need that can be crying.

For months you have been training for and focusing on your race. As race day gets closer, runners can get a little tense and anxious about their pending goal.  That stress and tension is physically held in your body. Once you cross the finish line, that stress and tension will be released. The intense physical activity of running your race allows the emotional portion of your brain to be less repressed. At the same time you are also stimulating neurotransmitters that lead to amplified emotional reactions.

Running, especially longer distances like marathons and ultras, increases your self-awareness. Anyone who has begun to notice inane things bother them after 20+ miles can attest to increase awareness. The increase in physical awareness makes us more prone to cry as well. It’s also extremely tough to harbor any type of emotion when you have physically exhausted yourself, hence the water work release.

A Runner’s Thought Process

The time. The miles. The early mornings. The sweat. The effort. The planning. The list could go on and on of things to you did and didn’t do to get ready for your race. It could be that other races lead to this race.  That this is years in the making. It could be your first time racing. The complexity and layers of tasks it took getting your body ready for, and actually across that finish line, is overwhelming.  You spend most of your training looking ahead instead of grasping what efforts you are going to in the moment.

Race day is upon you. You push everything to the back of your mind and focus on the task at hand– the finish. Whether you are one who can race without getting emotional during  the race or one who does get emotional and can push it off, when you cross that finish line it’s like all the pillars fall. Relief that it’s over washes over you and everything that’s been tense relaxes. You begin to feel and be aware of everything you had been ignoring during the race: the ache in your legs, the hunger in your stomach, the sickening after-taste of your last gel, the throbbing in your feet and the release of your fear. The final is what most runners would say is the tear jerker. That release of fear is immediate as your foot strikes the finish line and gets replaced by an overwhelming sense of accomplishment (ideally).

The reality of your sacrifices and hard work coming to fruition rush over your already spent body and for the first time in a while you succumb. And it feels damn good. You did it. And you stand there and you boo-hoo. There may be science behind what is happening but it sure feels like it’s all about you crushing your goal.

In reality, the tears might last 30 seconds but they are some of the most cathartic seconds you’ll ever get. The best part is that the finish is a judgment-free zone. For those that are a little embarrassed, you shouldn’t be.  No one is paying attention. Most other runners are probably a little jealous because tears are the hallmark of accomplishing something big, at least in running. You wouldn’t judge someone who just ran their heart out and was sitting on the curb crying, why would they?

Sources

  1. Lori Majewski, The Unique Release of an Emotionally Cathartic Workout, Web, Apr 07, 2015
  2. Amanda Casanova, What Causes Those Happy Tears At The Finish Line, Web, Feb 21, 2018
  3. Cassie Shortsleeve, WHY EXERCISE MAKES US CRY, Web, Nov 15, 2016
  4. Jeffrey Smith, Why do marathon runners cry after they win?, Web, Nov 03, 2014
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