I'm amazed by the fast and highly trained athletes who win races. But I'm just as inspired by the slow and too-often-ignored athletes who end them.
I've heard a version of it uttered at almost every big race I've ever run, usually as a way to calm pre-race nerves. I've said it myself: "I know two things for sure. I'm not going to win and I'm not going to lose." In other words, relax, run your own race, and try to enjoy it. In the middle of the pack -- that bell-curved melting pot of age groups and genders and body types -- there's no pressure. The pressure is up front, where money and public expectations are on the line, and at the very back, where... what happens, exactly?
We can imagine what it feels like to win a race -- the donning of the laurel wreath, the hoisting of the trophy -- because we see those moments glorified in photos and video feeds. But long after the victors have showered, spectators have gone home, and aid stations have been broken down, people are still out there running. Eventually, one of them finishes last. Very few of us know what that's like, and who'd want to, given the stigma? After all, in a culture that lionizes winners, aren't those who come in last losers?
Not in road racing, they're not. (See "Dead Freakin' Last... And Proud of It!") In any race, the last finisher is no more a "loser" than one who finishes in the middle, and I have just as much respect for the runner who stops the clock as I have for the one who breaks the tape. First and last are very different achievements, but both require guts, ability, and dedication. A 2:03 marathon (the current world record is 2:02:57) is inconceivable to me. But I couldn't run for seven or eight hours, either.
At the past four Runner's World Half Marathons, I've started in last place, waiting until all 3,000 or so runners (as well as the police escort) have taken off before I step across the timing mat. Then I make my way forward, at about nine-minutes-per mile pace, to meet and cheer on as many runners as possible. Usually, the people I meet in the back are happy for the company. There are lots of encouraging words and on-the-run selfies. But I've noticed some self-consciousness, too. Some runners feel I'm showboating by "zooming" past them, and I can understand why, even if that isn't my intent. It isn't easy to pull up the rear.
At our Heartbreak Hill Half in Boston last year, Heather Gannoe had a tough time. An avid runner with a 1:40 PR, Gannoe woke up on race morning with a bad cold and an upset stomach. It was a hot day, and she ended up running and walking, finishing 3,065th out of 3,074 in 3:31. The sparse crowds, tapped-out aid stations, and packed-up bands upset her. She wrote a blog post about it, quoting a back-of-the packer she met as saying, "Honestly, I don't know any different."
David Willey running at the back of the pack (left -- Photo by Ryan Hulvat). Heather Gannoe at the Heartbreak Hill Half (right -- Photo by myepevents.com). "The difference between running in the front half of the pack and the very back is night and day," blogged Gannoe. "But everyone runs for their own reasons. Finishing is not about medals or cheerleaders, it's about personal accomplishment."
We've heard this message before from other runners at other races, and we've taken it to heart. Just as our magazine and website are for all runners -- beginners as well as lifelong marathoners, from the front of the pack to the back -- our events honor each and every participant. At the Runner's World Half & Festival, we award up to $300 in prize money to the top three finishers (male and female) in the 5K, 10K, and half marathon (as well as for the winners of the combined Hat Trick). Although the purses are small, we think it's important to support competitive age-groupers whose sponsorships (if they have any) often don't cover a year's worth of running shoes. These athletes view each race as a sporting competition, and perhaps even a part of their livelihoods. We recognize them with prize money because we believe it's the right thing to do.
But we try to do right by everyone -- and we aren't the only ones. In 2013, a collegiate athlete named Jonathan Bogert won the 10K in 33:43. Because accepting prize money might compromise his athletic eligibility, Bogert said he wanted to give his $150 to the last-place finisher. So after Laura Doot crossed the line in 1:42, that's exactly what Bogert did. That check, and the sense of camaraderie it represented, was a direct link from the front of the pack to the back. Doot was moved by Bogert's gesture, and so was I.
"I was proud to be last, carrying my running partner," says Julianne Yost (above, in pink -- Photo by myepevents.com). "She wanted to do my first half with me but had just finished chemo for breast cancer. After mile 10, she did not have the strength to go on, so I put my arm around her waist and carried her. When we came to the finish line, she wanted to cross on her own. That's the spirit of running!"
After finishing last year's Bethlehem Half, I stood on the homestretch with Race Director and RW Chief Running Officer Bart Yasso. The finish-line announcer at five or six races each year, Bart makes a point of calling in every single runner he can, however long it takes. We were there when Tony Bevis finished with fellow members of his Sub-30-5K group who'd circled back to join him. And we were there when our last finisher, Julianne Yost, followed behind them, crossing the line in 3:57:10.
"I never utter the word 'last,'" Yasso says. "No one wants to be last, and 99 percent of those at the back are new to the sport. It's key to stay positive so they are encouraged to keep running."
So to any runner who might finish last at the RW Half in October, I promise you this: You will not be alone. Bart and I, and lots of volunteers and fellow runners, will be waiting for you. Music will be playing. Food and drink will abound. We will announce your name, celebrate your achievement, and make sure you understand -- that you know it in your heart and your bones -- that you do not have to receive prize money to feel like a winner.
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David Willey is the editor-in-chief of Runner's World. Follow him on Twitter @dwilleyRW.