Sunday, March 1, 2015

If You Have Never Finished Last (or if you have)

This is a little impromptu, but...

Oh, hi. It's me. You know that girl who used to blog? Yeah, I know I owe you a post on marathon training. I'm still doing it, so there's an update. It has been such a big journey so far and I have way too many thoughts to organize and write a post. But that's not what I'm here to write about today.

I want to share an experience I had today while it's still fresh and raw so that I can paint a vivid picture.

Today, one of my biggest running fears happened.

I finished a race dead last. And by a margin of a few minutes.

As part of my marathon training, I ran the Whitestone 30K (approx. 18.6 mi) today, just outside of Knoxville, TN. It was a beautiful rural venue with a lake and woods and quaint inn.

Don't let the beauty fool you. The course was brutal.

But I was warned...

Picturesque as it may be, this race is notorious for being one of the hardest, hilliest races in the Knoxville area. Against my better judgment, I let Brandon talk me into signing up for it. The course is open with traffic on both back roads and major highways. It was a small race consisting of a little over 200 runners. Some people run it as a training run for the Knoxville marathon (like me). There is also the option to run it as a relay. I didn't see many (or possibly any) novice runners, which was a sign I might come in last. Which I did.

But that's not even the sad part.

The sad part is that I fell last behind the group in the first mile.

But wait there's more!

The even sadder part was that I went out too fast in my first mile, and was still behind the group!

You've probably seen the last person in a race with a cop car following right behind them. You may have been that person once or twice. I never have until today. I'm usually middle to back of the pack, depending on the course and how I'm feeling that day.

I had no idea what it was like to be very last. Now that I do, I think it's an experience worth sharing, as it was different from any race experience I've had. My love and respect for last finishers is much deeper now that I've experienced it. If you don't feel the same about last finishers, I hope this helps.

Just don't feel pity or sympathy for us. Ew. No one wants that.

If you've never been a last finisher in a race, here are some experiences you've missed...

Being followed by a police car

Well, I suppose to experience that, you could either be a last finisher in a race or make some unfortunate life choices...

Kidding aside, I was followed by a police car during the race for I'd say 5-6 miles of the 18 (only on the main highways). Let me preface this by saying I have a HUGE amount of appreciation and respect for local police departments devoting their time and resources to help to keep us safe during races. I always make a point to thank them and volunteers during races.

However, there's something socially awkward in being followed (by anyone). I couldn't have handled it for the entire four hours. You just can't enjoy the quiet of the race. I felt bad walking, knowing he'd have to slow down his car even more. The policeman had to stop and wait on me at water stops. Thank goodness I didn't have to stop at a porta-potty - how awkward would that have been??! :\

Luckily the policeman today was really cool. He told me he admired me for getting out there and even joked I could ride in the back of his car to catch up with people. No, I did not take him up on that offer!

Seeing volunteers close up their stations

Let me preface again, this time by saying that volunteers are awesome. I always say that the only thing worse than running in cold weather for hours is standing in cold weather for hours. I generally try to be a courteous person, so it's tough knowing that my slow running is standing in the way of someone being able to close up shop and get out of the cold. The volunteers out on the course today were very nice. Some had gotten warm in their cars by the time I came by (which I completely understand!) but they either offered me or left me water/Gatorade and cheered me on just the same. Thanks, guys! Some of the mileage signs had been taken down, so I relied on my watch towards the end. Not a big deal.

Possibly not having a finish line or documented chip time

You may not experience this finishing last in some races, but today I finished after the allotted finish time of four hours. The finish line was rolled up and there is no record of me finishing the race. I can't look it up online or load it into my Athlinks account. Luckily, my Garmin stayed charged the entire 4+ hours and so I have a recorded time for myself. And I have the satisfaction of knowing I finished, even if it was over an imaginary line. Also, there wasn't a huge crowd of folks to cheer me on, but there were a few (more on that below).

Not mingling with friends afterward

So, my husband Brandon is a LOT faster than me. He finished the 30K today in about 2:43. What???!!! He has to wait on me to finish runs and races all of the time. Poor guy (not really). When he finishes, there's usually a big group of our friends and other folks in the local running community that he chats with while he's waiting for me. They share battle tales from the race, congratulate each other, commiserate in how tough the race was, etc. I do this as well during shorter races when I finish closer to others. As a result, he knows a TON of people in the local running community. He's always saying, "Oh, you know so-and-so?". Nope, sorry, I know a good amount of local runners, but while he's mingling, I still have another hour or so to run. Now, I totally understand that everyone is tired and ready to go home after they finish a race, so no complaints here. It's just part of the dynamic of being a last finisher.

A limited variety of post-race food

I get it. I've served food for people and had no idea how much to make to feed everyone. I can only imagine how hard it is to plan for hundreds of runners. So again, no complaints, but that's another dynamic of being a last finisher. There may be limited food left when you finish, or possibly none at all. Don't feel bad for me though - I'll explain below.

Just being alone and knowing that you're last

There's no way around it. It's mentally tough. It's a blow to your ego. You know the event organizers are waiting on you to close down. You know your friends have finished. It's just an unpleasant feeling emotionally. I can't say I believe last finishers have more mental toughness than early finishers (because I've never been one to experience it), but it does take a lot of mental toughness to finish a race with all of these odds stacked against you.

I say all of this not to complain, however.

Everyone at the race was great. I'm just trying to paint this picture that it's just a different race experience when you're back of the pack versus front of the pack. That doesn't mean we want you to feel bad for us (remember my point on pity above) or cater specifically to us, I'm just sharing a different perspective.

But that's just one side of it. There were a few other things I experienced that I never have finishing in the middle of the pack...

I had a personal police escort to keep me safe.

Socially awkward as it is to be followed, the other side of this is that I had a policeman making sure I was safe from traffic. Sure there are policemen and people directing traffic along the course, but no one else got a personal escort.

The volunteers stuck around, just for me.

Yeah, I feel bad they had to wait on me, but it was nice of them to stick around, even if I was the only one out there. They cheered me on and seemed so proud of me for sticking it out!

My friends went to extra lengths to support me.

This is the big one.

Okay, my running friends are great at supporting each other in general; that's a given. However, a few folks in my RunKNOX group and the Knoxville Track Club community in general were extra supportive during my race. They passed by me as in their cars as they were leaving and offered extra words of encouragement. One of my running coaches (after running a relay leg himself) found me at mile 15 and ran with me the rest of the way, while my other coach (also after running) came along and drove beside me offering words of encouragement.

A few friends were there waiting on me when I arrived at the finish. They seemed to have been in contact with each other because they knew when I'd be arriving.

It was like my very own "The Eagle has landed" moment.

A couple of them ran me in the last 10th of a mile or so to the imaginary finish line. They cheered me on just like they would anyone else.

No one pitied me.

They were even kind enough to have prepared and wrapped a plate of food for me before the food was put away so that I didn't miss out.

Talk about VIP service.

Long story short, in finishing last, I experienced some of the biggest challenges I've faced in running. But it also gave me the best illustration of how supportive and wonderful the running community can be for each other.

All smiles, thanks to great friends!

I hope that if you've been a last finisher, you've received a similar level of support. Hopefully you attended a race with friends or family who were there for you. If you ran out of town or at a race where you didn't know anyone, I hope that the volunteers and other folks around supported you.

Regardless, hold your head up high and be proud no matter where you finished in the race. You ran the distance. There may have been one time you weren't able to even do that. No matter the distance, there are probably people out there who aren't able to run it (for whatever reason) - you were fortunate to have had the ability and fitness to do it.

And now the rest of my day involved yoga pants and burgers. I promise I'll try to write an update on marathon training soon. It really is an interesting journey.

Have you or a fellow runner been a last finisher in a race? What was your experience?


I was not compensated by any of the above organizations for this post, nor are they affiliated with this blog in any way. I am simply sharing my honest opinions and experiences. The views expressed in this article are solely my own.

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