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ADVENTURES IN FOOD AND FITNESS

The fine art of finishing last

Monday, September 1, 2014 - 12:01 am

It happens every race: Somebody has to be last.

But what if it that person turns out to be you?

What if you're so far behind that everyone's packing up and the postrace goodies are gone? Is there any way to save face?

If you've signed up for your first race and are worried that the unthinkable might happen to you, here are some tips from some seasoned last-place finishers, myself included:

– Scout out your race ahead of time: Is it advertised as a run/walk? Some events are more geared toward walkers than others. It's not like spectators will jeer if you choose wrong, but it can be awkward if there's a humongous gap between you and the next-to-last finisher.

– Stay positive: Just because you're last doesn't mean you're a loser. Years before DeKalb County's Diana Schowe, 49, became a USA Triathlon All-American, she was an overweight straggler who reluctantly signed up for her first 10K only after a friend's prodding.

“It was a race where everybody got a medal,” Schowe says on her website seedianawin.com. “And we did it -- we were the LAST people to finish. We came across the finish line holding our hands up, just proud as punch because we got a medal and finished. That's all we cared about.”

– Take up a charitable cause: It will instantly transform your race into something much more meaningful than your finishing time.

Bonnie Gerstung, who spent a big chunk of last year's Fort4Fitness Half Marathon in last place, was raising money for Race4Peace, a project supporting war victims in the Congo.

“Even if I'm last, I know I didn't give up,” said Gerstung, who finished in 2,512th place, 15 seconds ahead of two others, with a time of 4 hours, 13 minutes and 3 seconds. “The people of the Congo just really inspired me. They endured so much. It made me want to go the whole distance.”

--Bring a buddy: Showe clearly benefited from having a friend along to help keep her motivated in her first race. Gerstung walked alone, but was cheered by several Race4Peace participants from her church. One jogged back to walk with her after he finished the race; another ran with her once she got to Parkview Field.

“It was nice,” said Gerstung, who plans to walk again in this year's race Sept. 27. “I really appreciated having all that support.”

– Use a self-effacing line to deflect awkwardness: “Well, at least I'm ahead of all the couch potatoes” works well.

During one memorable stretch this summer, when I finished last, last and second to last in three straight races as the designated “pack animal” for a young beginner, I tried gratitude -- “Thanks for your patience” -- as well as humor: “I think a few mosquitos came in ahead of us.”

– Be a good sport: It's OK to have a competitive spirit, but there's no need to alienate others in the back of the pack.

“I'm not particularly proud of the race that ended with me and the second-to-last finisher sprinting to the finish line, each trying not to be last,” says former Fort Wayne resident Andrea Muirragui Davis, who embarked on a 5K-per-month project after losing 140 pounds.

“Since our time was something like 54 minutes, I'm sure the timekeeper thought we were insane,” added Davis, who now lives in Indianapolis.

– Don't glare at the motorcycle cop: Sure, it can be embarrassing to have a police vehicle on your tail, but they're just doing their job, protecting you and the other participants from overzealous drivers.

Gerstung chose to see the humor of the situation during last year's Fort4Fitness.

“It was actually kind of funny,” she said, “because the traffic cops at each intersection knew we were the last ones and their job was done, and so after a while we had a trail of police cars behind us.”

--Finally, maintain perspective: “Whether it's 6 minutes a mile or 16 minutes a mile, it's still a mile,” notes Chad Ware, who sometimes brings up the rear in shorter races during his run/walk ultramarathon training.

Davis, who finished last on more than one occasion during her 5K project, now says much prefers that fate to a life devoid of exercise.

“Even if I'm last, even if I finish after the timing system has been packed up and the celebratory pizza is gone -- which happened on a 5-mile trail run -- I know I finished ahead of the countless people still sleeping off their Friday night,” she said.

“And eventually, I decided it wasn't terrible to finish last if I could help some other slow soul avoid having to be last.”