The last team to finish a 200-mile Ragnar Relay race. The last qualifier to make it to the Olympic Trials marathon. A cancer patient whose friend carries her oxygen tank and walks with her while she finishes her first 5K race at the very back of the pack. Three stories of runners at vastly different stages of life, all with one message: When it comes to running, it’s showing up and getting in the race that counts.
We make running an indispensable part of our lives, even though it’s only a tiny few of us who will ever know what it feels like to cross the finish line first. Yet it’s that fear of the polar opposite—being last—that can keep new runners out of the race entirely.
Beth Baker, founder of the Seattle-based training company Running Evolution, calls it our primal instinct for survival from the days when we were either predators or prey.
“When we were last, we were usually picked off by whatever predator was chasing us!” Baker explains. “Runners can get this weird primal sensation in their head that there’s something wrong and they’re in danger [being last]. In modern day society it becomes, ‘I’m a loser,’ ‘I’m not good enough.’ It’s a little confusing in the head.”
Baker knows firsthand what it feels like to be last. Her athletes fielded two 12-person relay teams for a recent Ragnar Relay that covered a 200-mile stretch of scenic Western Washington roads. From Blaine, on the Canadian border, to the southern tip of Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound, her athletes made their way through their first-ever relay event. As the finish line drew closer, though, reality set in: they were behind. Far behind.
“Sure enough, we got to the end, and nobody was there. The pizza was gone! The beer was barely there. But there were 24 of us, so we just had a party,” Baker remembers.
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Baker’s training groups are built on camaraderie and friendship—no speed required. But what happens when you’re supposed to be one of the best, and you find yourself last? That’s where Pennsylvania-based marathoner Jed Christiansen found himself at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Los Angeles. The qualifying standard was 2:19. Christiansen made the cut by exactly four seconds. Of the 211 American men who qualified for the Trials, Christiansen was, you guessed it, dead last. Then came Trials day: hot weather and a mess of injuries that could have easily sent him to the sidelines.
Instead, Christiansen chose the path of participation: Show up, give your best, and forget about the rest.
“A lot of people have [a hard time] being able to compete on a certain day, and I just needed to run within myself,” Christiansen says. “It’s 26 miles and [I had to] just measure out my energy and do the best that I can. I was last in the [Trials] race for most of it, but I was just hanging on, and eventually people started coming back to me, because it was really hot and they weren’t really listening to their bodies for that day.”
He wound up placing 44th out of 105 finishers (169 men started the race). Not bad for the last guy standing.
“I think it starts with just every day giving the best you have. When you are trying to do something really well, ultimately you can’t control everything. You can’t control the other people, you can’t control the weather, so the number one thing you can do is control your attitude and your effort and give it the best that you have,” says Christiansen.
A few years back, Linda Keeney, a triathlete based in Shoreline, Wash., heard that a friend wanted to walk a local 5K. The friend was managing a cancer diagnosis, so Keeney figured they’d be slow. What she didn’t bank on was her friend bringing her oxygen tank with her to the race. “Do you think we can make it to the finish line?” her friend asked.
“I will get you there,” Keeney promised. Her friend finished that 5K far back in the pack, and went on to participate in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life before succumbing to the disease.
“I believe in the empowerment of the finish line,” Keeney says.
So does Baker. It’s the advice she gives every athlete who’s afraid of stepping up to run a race for fear of what could happen.
“I have heard of people doing a DNF instead of coming in last, choosing not to finish,” Baker says. “My number one goal for myself is to cross that finish line. You know? If all hell breaks loose, getting past that finish line is goal number one.”
And that’s what keeps all of us going, whether we finish first, last, or somewhere in between.
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