Dead. Flat. 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:


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.

15 thoughts

  1. Indeed. Definitely been there. My first (and only so far)half marathon, only the little 80 year old lady shuffling along and the woman with the cane finished after me. I was a 25ish year old plus runner.

    I felt self-conscious at times. And a little sad. Then my husband (super speedy guy who ran with me for support)reminded me that MY race was about ME and that even attempting and training for the half was monumental. I held my head high as I crossed the finish, knowing I was as much a half marathoner as anyone else.

    I hope your reader can reflect on her awesomeness and be proud that her body went such a great distance- one only a tiny fraction of the population ever attempts.

  2. In the last 2 years, I’ve completed a marathon, 4 half-marathons, several 8Ks and many 5Ks. You won’t find my name on the finishers list for some of them because I missed the cut off time – sometimes by a lot, sometimes by not much at all, once because of poor recording keeping at the event. A few times my fast, not-plus, SIL talked to the people at the finish line, saying “my SIL is coming, just wait!”.

    When you can find my name on the finishers list, it’s not unusual to find it within 10-15 people of the bottom of the list. However, once, due to some kind of typo on the registration materials, I finished first in the wheelchair category & my name was published in the newspaper! [I’m not in a wheel chair.]

    Sometimes last is lonely – like the 8K where, as I approached the turn around point, the volunteers assigned to that post were starting to walk back to the start/finish line – “the turn around is down there” they said.

    A great training partner & event-day partner keep my coming back to participating in events. That & without an event to prepare for, my exercise regime loses focus & intensity.

    I’ve found that unless you’re in the top 1% of runners, no one really cares how fast (or slow) you completed an event. People will continue to be impressed that you not only completed the event, but also that you put the time and effort into preparing for the event.

  3. My very first triathlon was small, only a couple hundred people, and not only did I come in dead last, I did so by a good 10 minutes. I didn’t see anyone else for the entire run portion. Since it was so small, they let people break down their stations before everyone had gone through, so I came to put my bike in with people packing up and left for the run portion with people driving away. Since then the races I’ve been in have had more people/more waves so there have been people behind me, but in the end, it taught me that I’m more stubborn then I thought, and that I’m capable of sticking to it, even if no one is around to watch me give up.

  4. My DFL race was the Baltimore 10-miler last year. It runs through some of the busiest streets in the city, and I’ve run a few races so I understand cutoff times. But there was no cutoff time on the website, so I signed up. I grew up in Baltimore, so I love the city and thought it would be a great way to see it again. (I’ve moved to Virginia,)

    Within the first 2 miles, I realized I’d be close to the back of the pack. But eventually, I was last. By the time I got to mile 6, they were closing up the water stops. It was a hot August day, but I was carrying water, so I didn’t panic. But I did panic when they opened up the roads. And the
    Medics passed by me when I told them I was fine, just slow. I was on my own, waiting for traffic to cross the roads. The course wasn’t even well marked, and had it not been for a friendly Baltimore City cop, I would have gotten lost when I turned down the wrong street. I got to the finish line only to see them packing up the timing strip. I would have been alone, too, but my
    Parents ran me in the last 1/2 mile. You won’t even see my name on the finishers
    List, since the timing bar was packed up when I got there.

    For so long I’ve felt like I was the odd person out, the only big girl at races. I hate when people say “you can make it” from the sidelines. I KNOW I can make it, I’ve run a lot of races. I may be slow, but I am in great shape.

    Thank you for your blog. It feels good to know someone else understands. Keep it up.

  5. Sallie – I’ve been there, done that!!! When it happened to me I was running the 5k leg of a run/bike biathlon. I am pretty solid on the bike. But was really still struggling with my runs. Even for a 5k!

    The 5k was an out and back and they started the women in the last group. 😦 I had passed one girl on the out portion so I kept telling myself “there is at least one person behind me”. When I made the turn at the halfway mark I never saw that girl behind me. I assumed she dropped off. I kept plugging away but was annoyed with myself that I’d not trained the run better.

    As I came towards the transition to bike area I was exhausted and I turned around and there was the end of race police car was right on my heels. UGH! I turned and gave the police officer a “DUDE help me out here” shrug. He laughed and backed off a bit.

    Once I got on my bike I saw that girl I’d passed on her bike heading back into the finish. She’d apparently turned when she saw her hubby run past with the male runners. She ended up proudly collecting a third place age group award while I watched on aghast.

    I ended up passing a fair amount of people on the bike and finished just fine. I was far more pleased with completed the whole race fairly finish than anyone else could have been on that done. We do this for ourselves and that finish line is a magical place.

  6. I love this topic, and love reading everyone else’s stories! I have many stories of my own. In fact I only DIDN’T finish last one time, my first 5K, when my good friend came in 10 minutes after me (she had struggled the entire time with horrible back pain). Every other race I’ve been last, or haven’t finished. I cut the course short once on a 5 miler, and gave up 2/3 of the way through what would have been my first triathlon.

    My favorite story, though, is from the Omaha Half Marathon. I was last most of the way, after the first few miles. I saw my last person at the third to last water stop and didn’t see a soul again until mile 7….when a truck came up behind me, picking up all the cones and signs, and the guys in it told me I had to move to the sidewalk because they were tearing everything down. Luckily I had a hydration pack, unluckily I did not know the course. They gave me a map, but it was so tiny and blurry that I had to guess on the route. I ended up going pretty far out of my way actually. I managed to find the very last water stop, still partially set up. A sweet little boy had saved a few cups of water for me and wouldn’t let his parents leave until the last person came by. I didn’t need his water, I had my camelback, but I took it and drank it and was so thankful that they waited for me. That was so sweet and kept me going for the rest of the race.
    In the last two miles I got terribly lost and had to phone a friend, lol! My trainer and two other friends came up to meet me and we did the last mile together. I ended up finished 25 minutes after the second to last person. Many of the full marathoners finished before me. MOST in fact. But I got my finisher’s medal, and I proudly display it in my cube at work along with my race bib. I would have one of those cheesy 13.1 stickers on my car, but I didn’t do 13.1. I did something closer to 14 when all was said and done. But I finished! 🙂

  7. I ran my first ever road race in fall 2007 at a fairly small half marathon. It was the same weekend as the Chicago Marathon and temperatures were in the mid 80’s shortly after the start of the race. I didn’t fuel well the night before, my longest training run had been around 6 miles, and I didn’t fuel well the morning of the race, and I was wearing a cotton shirt. Basically I did just about everything wrong even prior to the start of the race. At the start I took off like a rocket. I ran a 8:30 mile for the first mile, a time I have not seen since; I don’t even know how I ran that fast. I hit my wall at mile 2, by mile 3 or 4 I was alone. I had no idea if I was last or not, but I was determined to finish the race. There was a lot of walking. A lot. In the last two miles my per mile times climbed over 22 minutes each, it was all I could do to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Especially as I began to see people leaving the race and driving past. When I got to the finish the gate was already down, but they waited for me to complete the race. I thought I might be the last person, but there was one person still out on the course. A 75 year old grandfather who finished about 10 minutes after me.

    The following year I decided to do the same half marathon not knowing they had put a 3 hour time limit on the race. I began the race with so much more going for me. I had trained better, fueled better, had gu for during the race, and started off much more reasonably paced. I had lost 20lbs during the year and felt certain this race would go much smoother. The weather was even better. I was in last place by mile 4. I knew for certain in was in last place this time because the biker assigned to “clean up” the course began to ride by me and never left my side. I had locked my keys in my car prior to the start, so I asked him if he could help me get this fixed. During the 9 miles I had left in the race, he called ahead and there was a locksmith waiting for me when I finished- a benefit to being in last.. This race I never once walked- at that time I thought this was important (it’s not). I improved my finish time by over 20 minutes. How huge of an improvement- but I still finished 25 minutes behind the next to last runner. I again got to see the other runners begin to travel home while I was still out on the course. The race directors were incredibly supportive and allowed me to officially finish even though my time of 3:04 was beyond their limit. When I finished I realized that it didn’t matter what place I got because I had finished, I had crushed my previous time, I had done better for myself and that was all that mattered.

    When I was in high school an article by John Bingham appeared in Runner’s World called “Last shall be first,” the message of the article to me was about our perseverance as back of the pack runners. No one was there to cheer us on, no promise of medals or glory, but our conviction in ourselves pushes us on despite these odds. The longer I have run the more I believe that the people finishing at the back of the pack deserve the most praise for doing what they do. We run despite the fact it isn’t easy for us; we run (and compete) despite the fact that our finishing isn’t going to make the news; we run because we love it. When I count up my half marathon races there isn’t an asterisk next to the one I finished last, it counts just as much as all the others.

  8. Hi–Tracy here.
    Thanks Sallie for making this a topic and thanks everyone for sharing your experiences. It has really helped me heal my bruised ego. I have even begun to accept that finishing a half-marathon is something that many people I know have never done and it’s an accomplishment I am proud of–even though I was last.
    Looking forward to training more and getting back out there in a couple of shorter races this summer. Am also planning to “give back” and volunteer at some races to cheer on the back of the pack runners and make sure no one is going it alone.

    1. Hey Tracey – thanks for giving us the opportunity to share!! I, for one have been completely motivated by how much dedication we all have to keep running….

      And I love your idea of volunteering at the back of the pack….it’s a great way to look out for new runners and still give back!

      Good luck on your next race and Ghana again for giving us such a needed topic 🙂

  9. Aaaahhhhh! Just found your blog today. Love. It! I’m an plus+runner, too, and I also have a blog. In fact, I posted just yesterday about my fear of coming in DFL in a 10K in one month.

    I’m not a new runner, and I’ve run several races, but I’ve never known going in that I would finish DLF. Most people try to say, “Oh, you’re just being negative.” Nope. Being realistic. Your post, and the discussion that followed, made me feel better.


  10. Walked my first 5K last night…and came in LAST, to the whispers of people wondering if I was part of the 5K.

    I didn’t TRY to be last…it just happened. The only other 5K I attempted was a leisure walk for Weight Watchers…I didn’t come in last for that, but the only ones behind me either had an oxygen tank or were using some kind of assistive device.

    Last night’s “run” was a midnight one, so I was, at times, wondering if this was a dream, and asked myself several times, “WHY am I doing this?”

    There’s a personal challenge that I can’t deny being fulfilled, and what I realized is that it’s more important to start than to finish. Yes, I finished in these cases, but giving up at times seemed pretty tempting and a always a possibility for future “races.”

    I signed myself up for another 5K in a month, to honor fallen military, where we will wear the name and details of a fallen soldier instead of race numbers. I asked myself if I really wanted to come in last and let that soldier’s family down…but then, I thought, if I don’t participate, that’s one soldier that doesn’t get honored that day.

    Go for it, there’s a reason finish times are referred to as “PERSONAL best(s).”

  11. I’ve only run a few 5Ks and I’m SLOOOOWW. I was all jazzed my first 5K, the Special Olympics Polar Plunge, because I set a PR of 43 minutes. Yeah, you read that correctly. I ran the entire time, but I’m short and in the middle of my weight loss process, but I was excited!! I ran the entire way and I finished!! Since then…..eeehhhhh…not so much. I’ve been DFL my last two 5Ks. But I still don’t have a DNF! Go me!

  12. Love your blog! I want/need to be a runner, but I am not very good at it. Most times then not, I can walk faster than I can run. I am training for a Sprint Triathlon in July and my motto is exactly your math equation above! If I at least start, that will make all the diiference!

  13. I love the math! I have been DFL at so many races that it’s hard to recall them all. Just this past year, 2012, I ran in 4 marathons and was DFL in 2 of them. I’m running in 4 half marathons this year and I expect to be DFL in most of them. I agree it is a tough position to be in but my thought while I’m out there is “if they want to pull me then it was meant to be” and then I try to find another race to run in that is more slow friendly. I was suppose to run in 5 marathons last year but was pulled from 1, because I missed the cut-off because they had already cleaned up the directional sign and I ran off course by a mile. Yeah, I won’t be running in that race again.

    Thanks everyone for sharing your stories! I cried reading most but they all strengthened my resolve to keep running for me and not for a race organizer who wants to clean up fast and get out of there.

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