On Sunday at Bath Half marathon the last 248 runners didn’t get a medal or t-shirt. The race had 15,000 entrants but ordered based on a dropout rate that assumes that at least 2,500 runners won’t turn up. A risky business, I assume to reduce overheads, increase profits and limit the risk of being left with excess medals and shirts once the race is other. My understanding is that some larger races use dropout rates for ordering and even course capacity and I’ve been saying for years that there will be an issue one day should every runner that has entered actually turned up to run but that’s a whole different article.
When races run out of something it is always generally the runners at the back who are short changed. Last year due to the amount of races I was running I spent quite a lot of time at the back of races and it was most certainly an eye-opener. I learnt a lot about other runners, what it means to be a runner, race organisation and ultimately about myself. I wrote down what I learnt a while ago but I thought it might be a good time to share so here you go. Here are the 9 things I learnt from running at the back.
- Be prepared for things running out.
Imagine this, you’re in the last 5k of London marathon and you run thought a tunnel filled with images of Lucozade. It’s actually known as the Lucozade tunnel. You could really do with a bottle right now but you won’t get one cos there is no one there but you, a handful of other runners and a billion empty Lucozade bottles at the side of the road. We were near the back of the pack but still well within the published time limit for road closures but yet they had still ran out and physical left the scene before we got there. I’ve heard similar stories from many of the people I’ve talked to at the back of races this year, basics like energy drinks and gels running out at many different races. Sometimes there isn’t even enough water. At mile 9 of Wirral half marathon last year we were given one small bottles of water between three of us. It was a pretty hot day. They had one bottle of water left and there was about five or six runners behind us.
I feel I should mention that it’s not always the fault of the race organizer. Sometimes people take more than their share, which is basically taking from the runners behind you. I’ve been at multiple races where the ‘help yourself’ goody bag becomes a sea of empty tables long before the final runner crosses the line.. At Rock n Roll Dublin half I stood near the finish tables watching people grabbing multiples of each item, sometimes handfuls, then later I saw the very disappointed people who didn’t get anything. For me it’s no different to stealing cos the runners behind you paid for what you’re taking.
- Get used to XL
I’ve done my fair share of race and can only think of two that give t-shirts and didn’t ask me for my size. My draw of large and extra-large t-shirts somewhat suggests that selecting that little ‘S’ on race entry makes no difference in some cases. It’s a shame really because it’s so easy to get right. Races like Mad Dog 10k and the Rock n Roll series across Europe (I’ve not ran any US Rock n Roll races, they might be good too) have it down to a fine art. T-shirt size printed on bibs, controlled t-shirt collection before and after the race and a number of shirt set aside for size swaps should you be unhappy with your own decision about what size you are. Sorted. It couldn’t be any more straight forward.
Yes, mistakes can happen but it seems like this mistake happens a lot. I’ve heard some stories where the race organiser will order you a correct size shirt after the race but I haven’t been lucky enough to find one. I’m still sat in my London marathon shirt tent waiting for a response. I understand it’s just a shirt but I don’t see why i should be punished for being at the back with clothing I can never wear when they knew how many shirt of each side were needed (people who take a size they didn’t ask for also share the blame here).
- People will vanish too
Sometimes you run past the finish line in the middle of the race. You see loads of people cheering and clapping, volunteers handing out drinks and support. It’s like an amazing finish line party atmosphere and there’s nothing quite like it. It generally doesn’t hang around for the last runners though and there can be times where you literally finish in silence. I know people have homes, children, pauraques, lives, so you can’t blame them for not staying until the end but it makes it a very different race experience where you need to be able to be your own cheerleader. If you can’t motivate yourself then you’re never going to cut it at the back because often there is literally no one to keep you going. Larger races also have a lot less volunteers at the finish for slower runners too and you’ll encounter unmanned water stations and empty marshal points. On the plus side it can mean shorter lines for bag collection, toilets (if they haven’t taken them yet), etc, but larger races such as London Marathon take all the bags off the bag trucks and dump them inside a small area so it can take a long time to find it in the pile.
- You might need a hard helmet
I hate barriers. I had to put barriers up once as a race volunteer, I hated it. I hate watching barriers being taken apart when I’m trying to finish a race even more. I also hate people carrying barriers or (worse) trucks collecting barriers blocking the way between me and the finish line. Seriously sometimes you’re heading in to that final towards the finish line but instead it’s like running towards a construction site.
I know everything has to be cleaned and cleared and put away but if your race has a published time limit time then sorry but you shouldn’t be touching the finish until that time is up. Leave the banner where it is, stop packing up and don’t get a head start because you’re bored and there’s less runners coming though. Quite frankly it makes runners feel like crap to see it, like we’ve take too long and you can’t be bothered to want for us any longer. Surely the people at the back deserve the same finish line experience that everyone else got? If time doesn’t allow for you to keep the finish area intact then change your cutoff or even just start by taking down every other banner, remove every other barrier, and keep everyone (including other runners who should know better) blocking the finish. Regardless of 6 or 16 minute miles, no one should have to run around people, trucks, pushchairs, dogs, etc, to cross the finish.
- You don’t have to say cheese quite much
If you don’t like so many official race photos then the back is the place for you. I understand why it happens and this really isn’t a criticism (well mostly not), but it does need to be discussed. When races only have a small number of photographers then they have to cover multiple locations including the finish line. They of course have to get back to the finish before the runners start well finishing and so they will generally miss the back runners at midway points. Some photographers will follow the runners along the course and will miss those at the back multiple times as they keep making. One race, Liverpool 2 Manchester Ultra (which I hate to complain about because they really ae one of the best at looking after their back runners in all other aspects), didn’t have one single official photo of the runners at the back of the pack. In mostly cases the only people really missing out are are the photographers, less people to but their photos (using race photos without paying is stealing but thats a whole other blog post). Some races though offer race photos for free, they’ve already paid the photographers and it’s ‘sold’ as a benefit of race entry. So if you’ve already ‘paid’ for your race photos as part of your race entry then it seems unfair that you’re paying for photos that you won’t get for no other reason than being slower than everyone else.
- You’re likely to get heckled at some point
If you want to do a study on the effectiveness of spectating under increased intake of alcohol then London Marathon is the place to go. The poor guy next to us at mile 22 was shouted at so much by drunk idiots that it reminded me of a night out in the North East rather than a sunny Sunday afternoon running one of the world’s most iconic marathons. London Marathon spectators move around the course and so you see the same faces over and over again. We literally saw the side spectating getting more and more drunk each time we saw them and towards the end their shouts weren’t quite as supportive. I would think it can be quite intimidating (I was running next to a a kick ass lady Copper so was fine) and it’s not something i would every considering being a part of my first London marathon experience. Sadly it is not unique and they don’t just involve drunken fools, I’ve heard many horror stories of hecklers making fun of runners for being at the back. If you’re going to put the time and effort into shouting from the sideline then why not just make it nice, shouting about people’s size is beyond cruel and even telling people that they should be running or running faster is up there with “You’re almost there” at the first blumming mile maker. Just don’t do it.
- It’s not all bad
There are a few races that really try to celebrate their last runner just as much as their first. At runDisney races people have been known to hold out for the last place position so that Mickey and Minnie will run with them across the finish line. The Disney way of course but other races do an amazing effort too, gathering all the volunteers and staff remaining to create a tunnel for the runner to pass through, or a standing ovation or running the last lap with your last runner (track race obviously) are such simple touches that mean the world because it shows that you care about them just as much as the person who won. These races will always be on my favourites list.
- Running slow is a skill, it’s not any easier than running fast
Running slow (let’s say like 12 minute miles plus) is a skill. To run slow you need to train, just like you would train to run fast. It’s not as easy as you would think and I know many a faster runner who is not capable of dropping the pace. I’m not sure what the best advised way to learn is, there’s not that many guides out there to teach yourself to come last instead of first, I pretty much did the opposite of what I would do when trying to run fast. To pace the 3 hour halves at Rock n Roll Liverpool and Dublin I had to get over 13 and a half minute miles so I just went on training runs with a large amount of layers whilst carrying as much as I could to slow myself down. I can say will full confidence that running a 3 hour half marathon was not any harder or easier than running my 2:02 half pb. It’s just very different and it’s not easy. I think the best runners I know are the ones that can go off and run fast times for themselves but also slow down and run to help others much slower than their own pace (If you’re a Tourist then I’m sure you know the amazing guys I’m talking about). To me that’s the definition of a successful runner.
Running slow uses different muscles for sure (I don’t know which ones but the top of the thighs kill) and a much shorter stride but it’s so much more in the head than anything else. You seriously have to be mentally strong to keep yourself going and that takes just as much training as dedication.
- You will meet the mostly amazing people
I consider myself very lucky to have gotten to meet the runners at the back of the race that I met last year. They may never run a 4 minute mile but who cares, the runners who fill the bottom page of the race results are heroes to me and I think should be celebrated as such. I would challenge anyone who thinks that being at the back is easy to actually run a few miles, a race even, in their shoes and you’d soon see that they are no difference in the amount of hard work and effort they have to put in. The stories that some have to tell you about how and why they are there will inspire anyone that doesn’t have a Grinch heart and you can learn so much from the about perseverance, dedication and never giving up. It can make you into a much stronger runner (and much nicer person).
It’s hard therefore to not be a little angry when you get a little taste of what the people at the back often experience. They pay the same money and so surely every effort should be made to try and give them the same experience right?
I know I whine a lot (I honestly try not to) but I hate injustice. The way runners at the back are treated by race organisers, spectators, other runners, feels somewhat unjust to me and a lot of it is very easy to fix. Just have realistic time limits, treat your last runner like your first, order the right amount of stuff, don’t take more than what you should, be nice and don’t think that slower runners have to easier. At the end of the day a 6 minute mile is exactly the same distance as a 16 minute mile so respect and treat them both equally and we’ll be fine.