Kelly the Culinarian: What It's Like to Finish Last

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What It's Like to Finish Last

We spend our whole lives ranking ourselves and working to improve our standings. Moms worry about the babies in their lamaze classes who are rolling over and crawling while their kid only coos. As soon as we're old enough to take the training wheels off our bikes, we start identifying ourselves in competitive terms - the cool kids and the nerds, the winners and losers, the corner offices and cubicles, the Maseratis and the Kias.

Look at any race Web site and you'll see the photo of last year's winner breaking through the tape, surrounded by people cheering, timing companies carefully documenting their progress and volunteers ready to hand out bottles of water and snacks.

But what happens later on? After the crowds are gone, the signs have been removed and the volunteers are tired from an early wake up call and hours of standing outside with their best smiley face? What's left for the last runner across the finish line? I firmly believe all runners owe it themselves and the running community to find out.

When I ran the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon last month, I wasn't there for me. Jenny enlisted my assistance to help her get across the finish line, and I got her there. She tried to warn me that I was in for a different experience. I mentioned I was looking forward to a post-race massage from one of the sponsors and that I was going to eat the fuel and snacks advertised on the course. Jenny gave me a knowing look and told me to pack my own snacks.

You see, when you're at the back of the pack, the aid stations are wiped out by the time you come along. Towards the end, aid stations are being broken down and volunteers have already fulfilled their duties.  Medics get worried when they see you, knowing that much time on your feet is a strain regardless of your speed. Runners who have long since finished, showered drive past you on their way out of town.

Regardless of your race plan, you might find yourself in this position one day, too. Around mile 20, we encountered a woman who experienced knee pain, but kept going on.  It's hard to keep moving forward when the mile markers have already been removed and you have no idea how much longer you'll be out there.  The only thing that keeps you moving forward hours into a race is fear. The fear that all this work will be for nothing. The fear that you'll get pulled off the course with just 5K to go because you're going too slow. The fear that your gear check bag won't be there anymore because everything gets donated after so many hours. The fear that you will cross the finish line, but won't get a medal because you didn't make the time cut offs.

After more than six and a half hours of running, there is no fame. There are no prizes. There are no screaming fans (except for people telling us our tutus were awesome or that we were almost there ...liars). There's no hot food, no massages and no goody bags or champagne. There are no finisher photos, either, as we saw the photographers leaving when we rounded the corner for the last quarter mile.

All that's left is satisfaction. In yourself, in your performance and in your training. Because regardless of when you finish, you're still doing something that .001 percent of people can and have accomplished.

13 comments:

Pete B said...

Great write up of what it is like to finish near the back of the pack. I think just completing a marathon is awesome. I have done one an hour slower than my best in which I had to walk the last 3.2 miles due to an injury/cramping. I still had a blast. In fact, it was my favorite marathon! By the way, when I ran the L.A. marathon last year my hotel was near the finish line. I finished, took a 3 hour nap and when I woke up, I could still hear people clapping for finishers. They kept the course open a long, long time!

Jenny Gill said...

All the cool kids arrive last - hey how about seeing what its like to come in last at Huff?

Kelly Janowski said...

I don't know if my body could take 31 miles right now.

Amanda said...

Awesome job Kelly and Jenny. Never really knew all of that or thought of everything being gone. That's a shame!

Kelly @ Running Kellometers said...

To a certain degree, I experienced this in Grand Rapids. I had to walk the last 9 miles. The streets were starting to open back up. The race director that shakes the hand (or hugs, I forget) "every finisher" was gone by the time I made it past the finish line. The post-race beer was gone and there were only empty tents and overfilled garbage cans. I enjoyed the finish to my first marathon... I finished! I can only imagine how the course would have deteriorated further finishing an hour after I did (I finished in 5:28). Props to you guys for pushing through and finishing. :)

BabyWeightMyFatAss said...

Great post!

I finished the Chicago marathon in 2010 as the last female to cross in 8:29. For a week I was about the last person to cross before they inputted some of the last people (men) so it was a weird recognition. I'll take last female anytime over DNF.

You are right, the aid stations are virtually nonexistent, medics (non at Chicago) and you finish on the sidewalk and the street sweepers are behind you. But if you are lucky enough they hadn't run out of medals and that's the best thing to finish and get that medal no matter what!

Kelly Janowski said...

Beer, HA! There were only a few sad bagels and soggy sandwiches left when we finished. After we changed (we were waaay too late to take a shower at the hotel and the hotel gym's showers were open air style), we stopped at McDonald's for coffee, oatmeal and fries. Needed that salt, of course.

I will say that the volunteers who were left at the finish line were amazing. One very nice lady found me a pair of gloves and helped me get them over my non-functioning fingers.

kilax said...

I have finished two races like this. And honestly, I do hope not to do it again.

Erin said...

Great post, Kelly. Many people have no idea what it's like to run at the back of the back of the pack.

Unknown said...

Such an interesting and overlooked perspective on races. We are ingrained to believe that the closer we finish to the start of the pack the better, but the truth of the matter is that time is just a number! You finished and that's what counts :)

-Irina

Losing Lindy said...

I really like this post. Congratulations to both of you for finishing.

Maggie Wolff said...

When I did my first half marathon, I think I was among the last 100 to finish (out of 1,300+). The last couple of aid stations were running out of cups by the time I got to them. I was soooo thirsty by the time I finished. But I think the hardest part was how lonely it was in the back - it wasn't a big race to begin with, and it was an out-and-back on the closed road, so there were not many runners around me. After that race, for my next few longer races, I tried to pick bigger ones so I had less of a chance of being "alone" in the back.

Jen G said...

I honestly like the back of the pack. It allows me to soak up all the sights and meet new people. Besides, it's great to have speedster hubby Jack and the rest of my running friends/family waiting for me at the end - like my own private cheerleading section. They collectively sigh in relief that I didn't hurt myself (again) when I cross the finish :)