Nice Guys (and Girls) Finish Last


"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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