Nice Guys (and Girls) Finish Last

Being last past the post is seldom as bad as beginners fear it might be, and can prove to be a memorable race experience

Posted: 16 October 2005
by Berenice Baker

"I got a huge cheer and a bouquet of flowers"—Lyn Whiteside

Are you worried about finishing last in a race? The good news is that if you're reading this article, the chances of it actually happening are very small. Big beginner-friendly races, such as the Race For Life 5K series, field thousands of competitors of all abilities, and all but the smallest races have a big range of finish times. The even better news is that if you’re having a bad day, or all your opponents are super athletes, there’s no shame in being last home. In fact many runners’ most memorable experiences involve coming in after everyone else has showered and put their feet up.

I made the mistake of entering a race the day after my birthday celebrations one year. Prising my bleary eyes open one scorching late-summer day, I decided I couldn’t abandon my entry altogether, as it set off from the park at the end of my road and it was for charity. I downed a couple of pints of water and resolved to cough up the charity donation, trot partway round the park, then peel off from the back of the pack and head home for a much-needed nap.

As we rounded the corner to the exit of the park, I made my way to the back and was about to potter off home when I heard someone run up behind me. The owner of the footsteps was the running club’s sweeper, and he explained that his usual role was ensuring the octogenarian members made it back in one piece. He made it quite clear that I wasn’t going home before I’d done the full 10K.

After gasping my way up the first hill, we met the first course marshal, and my companion told him we were the last. The marshal got on his bike and cycled along beside us. The race continued in the same way until every marshal, marker and water monitor was cycling or trotting alongside me, encouraging me all the way.

When we entered the final strait, I had accumulated an athletic entourage that would have made Madonna envious. Hard-core spectators and friends of the marshals gave me the biggest round of applause I’ve heard in my life, as I crossed the line blushing and panting. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Plenty of other Runner’s World website readers confirm that the worst that can happen usually isn’t all that bad.

Lyn Whiteside, 47, from Bournemouth (pictured above), says, “I ran my very first race just one year ago. 5K seemed like such a very long way, especially as when I had started running, just a few weeks previously, I had only been able to manage the distance between one lamppost and the next. Race day came and I was really nervous. I had no idea about starting at the back, but was very soon last anyway. The lovely sweepers encouraged me all the way round and were very patient when I needed to walk - until the very last bit of the race. One of them said, 'Everyone is watching now and we are not going to be seen walking around the track,' so they bullied me into keeping going at a gentle trot right to the last 50 metres, at which point I was given a sharp slap on the back and told to 'Go for it!'. I managed to put on a bit of a sprint and crossed the line begging for oxygen! I got a huge cheer and a bouquet of flowers.

”I've entered quite a few races since then, but I have to admit that none of them have giving me the same sense of achievement as that one.”

Last can be a much-coveted place and as disappointing to have robbed from you as first. Jonathan Beaumont, 51, a care-worker from Norwich, tells this tale: “Last year I was in a 20K race. I set off okay but blew up spectacularly in the second half.

”Towards the finish, I was tailed by a St John Ambulance and a minibus picking up the marshals, which didn't help my spirits at all. A figure detached itself from a small group that passed me a couple of kilometres from the finish and doubled back to run me in - it turned out they had all arrived at the start late. It was very kind of him, but I could have done without his cheery encouragement to 'bounce off the toes' and 'push up this hill!'.

”Finally as we approached the line he insisted on pushing me ahead of him and to avoid an unseemly scuffle I reluctantly crossed first. I felt miffed at being deprived of my honourable, rightful last place. In my opinion, there is something worse than coming last.”

"...made me quite moist-eyed..."—Julie-Anne Ryan (centre)

Support always makes those last few lonely yards bearable. Julie-Anne Ryan, a media director from Naphill, was very grateful for support on one occasion: “I was last forumite at last year's Sodbury Slog,” she says. “Seeing that so many of the others had stuck around in the cold waiting for me made me quite moist-eyed.”

If you want to reduce your chance of coming last, generally speaking, the higher the race turnout, the slower the back-markers (see 'How Slow Can You Go', below).

As forum member Louise says, “I deliberately chose a large event for my first 10K (the Nike 10K, London) in the hope that it would lessen my chances of coming last - however as the event loomed, I worried that I might be last out of 15,000, which would have been even more embarrassing than last in a smaller race!” [As it is, Louise was fine.]

Karen Wake reassures everyone that position isn’t everything: “I feel chuffed at finishing, and feel no one should take this away from us. Last year at the Horsforth 10K, my sister and I were the last two. Then this year the same happened at the Goole Riverbank 8, and we were in the last three at Apperley Bridge. I always worry that everyone will have gone home or to the pub, but marshals and sweepers are brill people who appreciate runners of all speeds, and there is always someone to cheer you over the line. Never let being last put you off entering; I haven’t.”

All race participants appreciate the marshals’ and sweepers’ efforts, but none more so that those every other racer has passed. Many forumites agree with RW forum member Jonathan: “In my opinion, the true heroes of races are the marshals. While we can keep warm by keeping moving, albeit slowly, they often stand out in foul weather conditions with nothing to protect them from the elements. While they must be inwardly cursing us backmarkers for keeping them from their cups of tea and hot baths, they are invariably cheerful and encouraging. “

"...thoroughly enjoyed it,..."—Fenella Holdaway (right)

Simon Cutmore, 44, a risk management consultant from Woking, adds, “I was last but one in the last Guildford G3. One of the marshals very kindly offered me a lift from the drinks station back to the start. I declined. I’m going back in January for another go.”

The marshals appreciate acknowledgement too. David Philpson, a 21-year-old student from Helensburgh, sometimes marshals. “I try to smile as much as possible as the competitors go past, as they always crack into a grin. I often find the backmarkers give some good chat, since they're not as focused as the racing snakes.

”The last guy home in a triathlon I was marshalling at (he was a good 15 minutes back on the guy in front, and suffering badly) still managed a grin when he saw us, and won the £50 spot prize - which I thought was rather nice!”

Tony Williams, a systems analyst from High Wycombe, reminds everyone that even at the highest level of athletics someone has to come last, “I watched Ironman South Africa last week and it showed the last person home being paraded in by a huge group of supporters, cheerleaders, motorbike marshals and well-wishers. She may have been last but she was still an Ironman.” He also reassures less accomplished athletes that “however far behind you are, you're still miles ahead of the people who didn't make it off the sofa.”

Fenella Holdaway, a finance manager from Petersfield, was reassured by other people’s experiences as her first 10K approached. After the race, she reported back, “I very nearly came last, but I think there were a handful of people behind me! I thoroughly enjoyed it, and wasn’t jostled as I was out of the bulk of the pack.”

Completing a race will always be a personal triumph, and coming last can’t fail to be memorable. After all, aside from first, second and third, last is the only place of note up for grabs.

How Slow Can You Go?

In most races, you'd have to be slower than you'd think to take the coveted last place...

Race category Race name Results date Total number of recorded times Last recorded time
Small 5K Reebok Manchester 5K Sizzler 30th June 2005 358 00:42:35
Medium 5K Midlands Lung Run 24th April, 2005 646 01:01:10
Medium 10K Watford 10K 2nd May 2005 856 01:24:36
Medium 10K Legoland Prince’s Trust 10K 17th October 2004 705 01:35:00
Large 10K BUPA Great Manchester Run 22nd May 2005 16035 02:04:59
Small Half-Marathon Stevenage Half Marathon 7th November 2004 764 03:07:15
Medium Half-Marathon Windsor Half Marathon 25th September 2005 4558 03.25:46
Large Half-Marathon BUPA Great North Run 18th September 2005 38,006 05.00.50
Small Marathon Robin Hood Marathon 11th September 2005 1204 06:23:27
Medium Marathon Edinburgh Marathon 12th June 2005 4419 08:45:00
Large Marathon Flora London Marathon 17th April 2005 35260 10:06:32

Large 5K: Race for Life’s press office says they don’t keep records of results for the Race for Life series. It is entirely non-competitive, one of the reasons they want to keep the event women-only. There is always a clock at the start and finish for runners to record their own time.

Large 10K: Likewise the Cancer Research 10K series does not record finish times, but on average the fastest finishers are over the line in 40-45 minutes, the busiest finish times are between 1 hour to 1 hour 20 and the last come home in around 2 hours.


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Discuss this article

Thankyou RW
i have been last in SO many races-these days its ultras but you are right
you get a great welcome
Posted: 16/10/2005 at 23:24

Great article!! I am always amongst the last few across the line (never been last yet...)
Posted: 16/10/2005 at 23:33

Very useful article for beginners

I remember when i was trying to decide if it was worth entering a small local 10k when my practice time for the distance was 2hrs

eventually it become obvious that 1.5 hrs was about the limit in a small 10k but no one here really wanted to tell me that because they didn't want to put me off

it's nice to see that confirmed in print

But, i would also say, that on race day - i spectated having decided to pull out due to injury and slowness and there was a lady who was badly injured but ran because she had alot of local sponsorship riding on her
and she made it round in about 1h 45 i think

and she got a HUGE cheer coming over the line

Posted: 16/10/2005 at 23:55

Great article!

I came last in a race earlier this year, didn't care though as I ran exactly to plan and it was PB! The support from marshalls around the course and when I came in at the end was fab!

One suggestion - if you think you are going to be really really far behind the rest of the field, its always worth chatting to the race organiser in advance - they can advise you about whether it is ok to enter the race.

Oh and remember to say thanks to as many marshalls as possible!
Posted: 17/10/2005 at 08:43

Thank you. In two weeks I am particiapating in my first marathon,the NT Snowdonia.

My aim is to get round and finish healthy and happy . This article has given me a great psychological boost. I feel proud to be a plodder!
Posted: 17/10/2005 at 09:46

People you wouldn't think can come last (almost) do.

I had a dreadful marathon in Rotterdam, well up the field halfway, then had to walk more or less the remainder ... made the cut-off by 8 minutes. There really weren't very many behind me at all, and the organisers were getting ready to wind it all up.

Similarly I beat someone in a 5K who should have been miles ahead of me, he came second I think at the Roding Valley Half in 2004, but got an almighty stitch. Although he was nowhere near last, sometimes unexpected things happen!
Posted: 17/10/2005 at 10:13

Lovely article. I remember in my first race over 2 years ago, an 8 miler, coming in as one of the last few runners. But the cheers of everyone (marshals, spectators, other runners) was fantastic as I put on a mad sprint at the end.

My view on coming last in races is that you're never last, there's always the countless other people behind you who don't enter!
Posted: 17/10/2005 at 11:14

I just thought I'd tell you....about the time I ran a not funrun fivemiles and got overtaken by one of the speed walkers. How slowly was I going? And did I come last? yes,but I had the same experience, everyone was really friendly, no siggering,only me being irritated for doing so badly!

Finns det nagra fler svenskar har forresten?just out of interest!!

Posted: 17/10/2005 at 15:20


What about mid-packers?
Posted: 17/10/2005 at 15:23

up the plodders !! great article, i always worry about coming last,and i make a point of cheering on those behind me when i finish.. baz
Posted: 17/10/2005 at 15:37

I was so worried about being last in the first 10k I did this month, but I figured someone has to be last - might as well be me ;-)

As it was I wasn't last but I was near the back of a field of 4000 last 200 maybe - but I did it so I wouldn't have cared if I did come last. After all its the taking part that counts.
Posted: 17/10/2005 at 15:44

Great article!

Very well done to the author and the "model" on page 1....
Posted: 17/10/2005 at 16:20

Brilliant Article, and a good subject to raise to help encourage people to try a race.

I remember my first race, a 10K in which I was worried about being last - I didn't really know how far 10K was as I had only been timing my runs and not measuring distance. As it was I was about two thirds of the way back through the pack, but have a lasting memory of Marshalls cheering me on and clapping etc that made it a brilliant expeience and it wouldn't of mattered where I finished with regard to anyone else - it was a victory for me regardless.

This year I entered my first triathlon and came 3rd from last. It was an absolutely fantastic day though and it's hard for me to judge which race 'made my year' the tri or the FLM which I did for the first time this year too. Being very nearly last just made me more determined to do better next year.

I enjoy running, but it is entering races that keeps me going - It stops me inventing excuses to 'not run today' which can easily turn into weeks of not running.
So I know it doesn't matter where I finish in a race it's much more important that I'm there. And as Byronic pointed out 'You've beaten everyone who was didn't enter.'
Posted: 17/10/2005 at 17:38

I've started right at the back to avoid going off too fast whilst recovering from injury - that way I never get passed by people and as I get into my stride I get to pass a few!.

To be fair about the 1 hour plus for the 5K "LungRun " in the list - I was at that run and many in the 5k were walking many with small children and pushchairs.
Posted: 17/10/2005 at 19:00

What a great article.

When I first started running about 14 years ago and before I smashed up my knee by skiing I had the honour of finishing last in a 6 mile race which took me 60 min to complete with a unstructured run/walk method.

The reception was fantastic and it was only a small race (mainly populated by a martial arts club and I wasn't even a member of it)!
Posted: 17/10/2005 at 19:40

Yep, thanks RW from another slow plodder
Posted: 17/10/2005 at 21:45

At our club 10k race earlier this year the woman who came in last got a bigger cheer and reception from the crowd than the race winner.

Unless your a competitive front runner I think that you can have a better time at the back of the pack, theres more friendship and fun when you are plodding along with other 'slower' runners

I'm a back of the pack person and I dont worry about times or being at the back as long as I've enjoyed the run.

Posted: 17/10/2005 at 22:03

I am nearly always last i my local races
off road they are for clubby types
but i always have a lovley welcome at the end and a nice sweep peep with me
feel like 7 sacks of sh!te for being so rap
well Stourbridge-you treat me right
Posted: 17/10/2005 at 22:08

I've been second to last in a small race in Chester on Boxing Day - can't even say alcohol was an excuse - I'm just slow. I only beat a lady about 30 years older than me!!
Posted: 17/10/2005 at 22:11

If no-one was prepared to come last every race would only have one runner and wouldn't that be boring. Its the runners at the back that make the whole sport possible.

Posted: 17/10/2005 at 22:16

event THAT far at the back?
Posted: 17/10/2005 at 22:35

i've stumbled on this by chance and it is SO encouraging - both the article and all the posts

cheers all plodders
Posted: 17/10/2005 at 22:37

Michael Watson came once last in FLM, but his own run had more meaning for himself and others than time or position.
Posted: 17/10/2005 at 22:45

oh yes
I remember that
havent got that ecuse though
Posted: 17/10/2005 at 22:46

I came almost last in this year's Plymouth Half and it was bloody awful-the marshalls had packed up-there was noone to steer us in the right direction as we went up the final bit of the Hoe and in the last bit we went wrong several times and had to retrace our steps. The photographer had gone home-I felt stupid and really really let down. As a slow runner I appreciated that the roads would reopen but to not have anyone to direct people in the final bit was ..rap.That having said once I had crossed the line there were smiles from the goodie bag people, nice food in the tent and the experience has made me more determined to train harder so it doesn't happen again next year.
Posted: 18/10/2005 at 09:57

I have to agree its not necessarily a nice feeling being at the back of the pack. I competeted in my first ever half marathon, my local one with just about 600 runners - again mostly club runners.

I was 4th from last with a time of 2:37. The marshalls who were supposed to help us across a busy road had left and there was no one there to show us where to go down the finishers tunnel. There were actually picking up the cones!!

I was glad to have finished but I do understand why people go for big halfs like GNR becasue there are most definitely going to be lots of people behind you.
Posted: 18/10/2005 at 10:22

This article gave me a real feel good feeling! I completed my first 10k at Althorpe park the Sunday just gone, I couldn't have cared a less whether I was the very last person, all that mattered to me was that I ran all the way. People were stopping and walking and then running really fast past me but I kept running all the way which I felt was more important.
Everyone should feel proud to have taken part and successfully completed it. I feel absolutely fantastic!!
At the end of the day, you've got off your bum and trained, raised money for charity and most probably felt great about yourself....whose the looser? We're winners all round!
Posted: 18/10/2005 at 13:02

Mrs DB says I should try to come last, can't do it, I'm so competitive.
Posted: 18/10/2005 at 13:45

I start off every race thinking, RIGHT this time I will NOT be last or second to last or third last but as we set off and I think 'oh sh*t here we go again' its not long before I am plodding along all on my own. Once I accept that Im going to be last or nearly last I settle down and just do my best and once I get that medal....well everything is forgotten. The marshalls, supporters and paramedics are fantastic. At the 7k mark at Reading 10k I had the sweeper, 3 marshalls and the paramedic with me :o Afterwards I went to find all the ppl that had helped me along the way, one of the marshalls gave me a huge hug and told me that she was really proud of me for not giving up, awwww I could have cried. Anyway Im off to do the Denmead 10k this Sunday and I reckon I will be last again, I'll let you know :o)
Posted: 18/10/2005 at 15:56

Eternal Plodder, good luck next Sunday. I did the Abingdon marathon on Sunday, it took me 5hr 53mins and 5 people finished after me, it finished on a running track. It was very hard and lonely for me I run 18 miles on my own, I am really proud of myself for that. One of the marshalls gave me his mars bar. I stayed to see the last runners finish which was great.
Posted: 18/10/2005 at 16:56

My Mum has been last in all the races i can remember her entering, except Cardiff half mara (she is nearly 60 & quite short & doesn't run much).
But she enjoys it & usually gets a big cheer, & i am really proud of her for doing it & always jump up & down & cheer.
Posted: 18/10/2005 at 17:03

I was recently last (I think... not sure...) at my first event, the Great Gorilla Run. I didn't feel too positive about it at the time, but it's been growing on me.

Anyone who doesn't know, it's a 7km fun run with everyone in gorilla suits raising money for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

A few weeks before the event I'd badly sprained my ankle (in fact it's not fully healed now), so I did the run on a crutch. I didn't think I'd be last, as when I was out and about even on a crutch I found I'd be passing people (my natural walking pace is fast...). But I'd figured without doing the run with a load of runners I guess, because after the first km I found myself struggling to keep up with the back of the field.

I don't know if they have sweepers. I was terrified I'd get left behind and get lost! They don't close the roads so it seemed very possible. I was on my own too. But luckily some of the other back markers took pity on me and hung back a bit, so I had people to walk with all the way. And of course there were the marshalls.

There was one point I got behind a bit as I talked to some tourists. As I hobbled along as fast as I could on my crutch to catch up I heard anouther group of tourist burst into 'awwwrrrrs' behind me! Guess 'gorilla on crutch' has an 'awr sweet' factor. LOL

By the end I was seriously overheating. I'd heard in previous years people took up to 2 hours to do the course, but I got in in about an hour and a half (didn't time it properly and they don't time you). I'd have taken longer if I hadn't been scared of being left behind! I'm not actually sure if I was last: the group I did the last section with thought some others were behind, but we didn't see them again! So don't know what happened to them.

At first I was sheepish about being at the back, but everyone was great about it. And at least I had a good excuse with being on the crutch! And now it makes a good story. It's true, last is the only place that matters after the 'winners'. I'm actually quite into being last now!
Posted: 18/10/2005 at 17:32

I came last in last years Legoland 10K (which turned out to be les than that - thank god) the two much younger and fitter friends running with me din't leave me behind and kept me going I thought i would be deeply embarassed but i was relieved to finish and everyone was very kind. I am running in the NY marathon in three weeks and i am not so terrified of being last but of not finishing.
Posted: 18/10/2005 at 19:20

But last again and again gets humiliating
Posted: 18/10/2005 at 20:16

humiliating least you have the medals....and can eat a mars bar without feeling guilty. anyway coming last is different you aren't one of the crowd :)

Posted: 18/10/2005 at 20:54

er no
im still fat
Posted: 18/10/2005 at 20:54

and never been one of the crowd
not alwyas a advatage
you ready for new YOIK
Posted: 18/10/2005 at 20:55

you kidding? ready for New york?
buggered my knee by being too clever and getting custommade footbeds for shoes...just revocering from that having missed my most important long run. am taking half a day of work tomorrow to do it and see if knee holds out. got my race pack today and am sh**t scared. boyfriend says everyone is scared but i think imight die of fright before i get there...
Posted: 18/10/2005 at 21:00

and another thing...........i thought all this bloody running was supposed to make you thin...just makes me bloody hungry
Posted: 18/10/2005 at 21:01

Ive done 26 maras ad im still fat
there you go
But theres nowt like your first
Posted: 18/10/2005 at 21:01

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