A Plus Runner’s Guide to Finishing Last
I got a great, great email in my inbox today, from a runner who successfully finished her first half marathon recently. That was the great part. The part that had challenged her was one that’s common to many Plus Runners, and she was honest. She wondered, fresh on the heels of finishing her first half marathon, if anyone else had the experience of finishing last in a race. She said that but for another run/walker in her race, she’d have certainly been last in hers, and even considered dropping out.
That part of the email made me want to give her a big hug, because I know what it feels like to be there. But her question was simple: Do you know anyone who has written about what it feels like to come in last? So before I start here today, runners, I’m issuing an open plea: can you share your story with Tracy? Have you ever finished last? Come close? What was it like? Post in the comments below, or over on Facebook, and let’s get real about what finishing last is like.
Here’s my experience.
I’ve finished last – officially last – in one very, very big race. I’ve finished pretty late in a lot of races. I’ve only ever dropped out of one race. And I’ve only ever seriously considered quitting one other. There’s a saying in the running community, which always sticks in my mind when I think about these races, and it’s like an equation:
DFL > DNF > DNS.
Dead Flat Last is better than Did Not Finish which is still better than Did Not Start.
Dead Flat Last
My DFL was in the 2008 Soldier Field 10 Miler. (I offer you the link as proof. Scroll to the bottom of the results, and you’ll see my name there.) I had never run that race before, because I knew that the time cutoffs were aggressive for my pace (13:30 miles, when at that time, I was way over a 16:30). I was pretty heavy then, and was training regularly but still not fast. Chicago races run downtown along the waterfront are famous for many things – but for “back of the pack” runners like me, who had been running in them for almost 10 years at that point, they were famous mostly for one thing: incredible pressure to be faster than the “end of race” car.
By 2008, I had been a pace setter for the Chicago Distance Classic, the friendliest Chicago race there ever was, where runners were given plenty of time to hit cutoffs. But I knew the challenge that race organizers faced each year to keep the police cars off the backs of the people at the end of the pack. Chicago is a huge city and the police are on the butts of the people at the back of the pack to re-open the course as quickly as possible. When I say I’ve been an advocate for the BOP runners, I mean it – just ask any of those folks in my pace group the last few years.
So, with that in mind, I tended to steer clear of the 10 Miler at Soldier Field, which was VERY clear about the end of race times. That said, this one year, I agreed to run it with a friend, who wanted to do her first race there. We were there on race morning (with my mom, a true treat, in the stands), and we headed off with the pack early and smiling.
By the first mile, we were already woefully behind the pack. This was a fast race, and we found ourselves relatively alone as we headed down an open stretch of Lake Shore Drive. We would be mostly alone for the next four miles, run/walking down huge stretches of the famous street with no one – no cars, no people – in either direction.
That was a first for me. I’d been slow before. I’d been alone before. But I’d never been slow and alone and last before. In previous races, there were always walkers behind me, or others around to break up the pace. I’d cut my teeth on large half marathons which were run/walk friendly, and this was something different. This was a foot-by-foot reminder that we were holding people up. I was panicked that we were going to get kicked off the course at every turn. I was sure there would be no water, and the longer we went alone, the more I realized we probably wouldn’t finish on the 50 yard line. And of course, that was my thinking – an experienced runner, who had nothing to lose with this race.
I was a horrible friend that day. I pushed my friend to move faster, to try to cut some of the distance between us and the girl in front of us – simply because I didn’t want to get pushed off the course. I thought if we could make it to the turn, we would be off the Drive and we could survive on the path. But it was my friend’s first race, and I imagined she just wanted to finish. That’s all I had wanted the day I first lined up – to finish.
The day of the 10 miler, a race marshall met us on a bike at Mile 6. He stuck with us the entire way in – just making sure we could get there. We had picked up an amazing, quiet girl who was out for her first big race ever. She had been our “rabbit” for two miles when we caught her – slow and steady, our target to pick off. She hadn’t told anyone she was racing that day, just in case she didn’t finish. She didn’t look like a runner. She didn’t have on running clothes, and she was holding an old Walkman to keep her company. But she was nice as nice could be. She had grown up with Asthma, and damn if she wasn’t going to finish that race.
I found myself holding back tears as we came up to the stadium, and “my” two first-timers were heading to the finish. The director of the race met us outside the stadium, and took us down a special corridor to finish, on the field, as the last official racers. We wove through guys holding beers in their hands and racers going “holy crap, there’s still people out there!” Yep. That was us. We went through the tunnel. We were on the field. And the girls were sprinting, having a pretty cool finish. DFL was just fine with me.
Those folks - those race directors – didn’t have to do that for us – they didn’t have to let us finish – but they did. And make no mistake, Race Directors make these very hard calls every day – whether to keep a race open for those last walkers, or runners, or to shut it down. The good ones agonize over it, and stretch it as long as they can. Two of the best are John Bingham and Beth Salinger, who have hearts of gold and the mindset of Penguins – in fact, John’s the original Penguin, and his races always made it okay to be last – in fact, even better than okay. John started something called “The Balloon Cuties” – a group of women who walked at the back of any of his races, to gather up those who had fallen behind, and give them someone to follow into the finish. Beth, who RDd for John and now runs a number of great races in her own right, continues that trend today, always making sure that there’s a welcome, kind, encouraging face on the back of her races, so that no one has to finish “last”.
Finishing last is hard on the heart. But finishing alone, as Tracy mentioned, is harder.
Did Not Finish
In 2007 or 2008 (I’ve blocked out the year), I cut the course at the Shamrock Shuffle in Chicago. I was two miles in, having started in my allocated wave, moving at a 13:30 pace, when the Chicago Police came up behind a huge group of runners and run/walkers and began yelling “WALKERS TO THE SIDEWALK PLEASE”.
I was pissed. I was WAY ahead of pace. I could see people one block over on a return route walking far slower than I was. I knew that, at the end of the race, my pace would be far faster than some of them, but I was going evenly. But that didn’t matter. The cops were clearing the streets, and my heart rate was way up, and I could either sprint for the next few miles, or I could cut it and go home. I was mad at being rushed; I was mad at the unfairness of the race, and I was mad in general. I cut the block, chopping off at least a mile and a half, and headed into Grant Park for the finish.
I knew two important things that day, both of which made me A-OK with that tactic: first, my mind was not in the race. I was way too angry to have a good finish, and while I could have gotten it under control, this was an 8k race that didn’t mean anything to my training plan or my goals, and it just wasn’t worth it to sprint, or get hurt, or feel that much pressure. Because EVERY step I took in that race made me think “I am NEVER going to be good enough to run these races. I am NEVER going to be strong enough.” And you know what? That’s JUST. NOT. TRUE.
Somewhere in my mind, I knew that to give myself a mental beating for the next three miles wasn’t worth it. So I quit. And I was very okay with that decision.
Fast forward to the winter of 2009. We were in Arizona for the RNR Half. It was a hot day, and I was not entirely race ready. About 8 miles in, I was hurting pretty bad. There was no shade, and there was horrible replacement drinks, and I was pretty miserable. Plus, owing to a case of plantar fasciitis that I hadn’t really addressed, my pelvis was starting to flare up in a way that, I was certain, felt like it must feel to have a baby. By which I mean, not entirely pleasant.
I knew the course fairly well, and I was pretty sure that there was a chance to cut it to get towards the finish. I considered it. Heck, I think I even asked someone. But there was simply no shortcut to get me home. I probably should have stopped then, but I kept going. It was quiet. And I had a long time to think about my body, my health, my friends. It felt like years. I remember thinking “just get to the next water stop”. And then “who can I talk to?” I struck up conversations with other walkers nearby, and that passed the time. But it was tough. Eventually, I came to the finish, and got my medal, and almost cried.
All of which is to say that being in the back can be challenging, and it can be lonely. There’s something to be said for running in big races with generous finishing times – where there’s always a walker around to keep you company, or a charity group with coaches on the course. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that there was probably one thing which made it much easier for me to run long races for the first few years of my running time – and that was that I joined a running group – and those people were always around – and I happened to find a friend who was at my pace.For several years, every race I ran, I ran with my new friend. I can say without a doubt that I would not have gotten through my first race if it weren’t for her, and probably quite a few after. We distracted one another; and when I had a shitty day, she kept me focused. So if I have any advice for you, it’s to find a local group of new runners, and try to find someone to train with who’s at your pace. If they’re not present, keep going back to the store or the group until they turn up. And believe me, they will. There are always people trying to join the club – but we dont’ stick around much if we don’t feel welcome. So stay, and be the welcome committee. Or better yet, start your own group in your area. Talk to a local run shop about a run/walk or a “slow runner” pace group for the weekly runs.
Don’t be afraid to go it alone – but don’t let it stop you from finding the friends you need, either.
Don’t let it make you a DNS. Cause that math up above is right. Anything is better than DNS.
See you on the path.