Confessions from a back of the pack athlete

Over the years I have entered a lot of “races”. I put the word races in quotes because while other people compete for position or time, my “race” is to make it to the finish line before the event organizers pack up their gear and leave.

At first glance you might be impressed by the list of races I have completed, which includes: two 140.6 mile Ironman Wisconsin triathlons, twenty 50K cross-country ski races, two marathons, several 100 mile bike rides, a half-dozen half-Ironman distance (70.3 miles) triathlons, another half-dozen half-marathons, a few 2.4 mile swim races, and numerous 10k and 5k runs and triathlons of various lengths.

Impressed yet? Well if you saw my finishing times or places in these races you might instead wonder, “Why do you do that to yourself?” In any case I know I ask myself that question at least once during each race.

Perhaps a childhood memory of mine has something to do with the answer to that question. It was the 1970s and jogging was starting to grow in popularity with the masses. My Dad joined in and signed up for a 10k race, went for a few short training runs and declared himself ready. He took me with him to the race, which consisted of two laps of a 5k loop.

I remember cheering for my dear, not yet so old, Dad as he was running near the front of the pack on the first lap. He waved and smiled proudly at me as he ran past. I also remember looking for him on the second lap and wondering if I had missed him. Just about the time I was starting to question if I had been abandoned he slowly came shuffling along with a pained expression on his face. No wave or smile this time, but he nevertheless persevered and finished the race.

A few weeks later his first letter to the editor of the Washington Post (we lived near D.C. at the time) was published in response to Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David Broder’s criticism of then President Carter for entering a 10k run and collapsing near the end of it. Let’s just say for my Dad Broder’s criticism was personal and he could relate to President Carter’s pain.

Perhaps my Dad barely finishing that 10k race inspired me to enter some of the dozens of races I have barely finished. To be fair my Dad is a pretty good athlete and that first race was more of an exception than the rule. Now in his 70s he continues to inspire his friends and family and is still running (and frequently beating me) in local races such as Crazy Legs and the Berbee Derbee. He has also completed around 25 Birkebeiners and is still going strong and is finishing near the top of his age group. Me? It is much easier to find my name if you start with the last place finisher and work your way up than starting with the first place finisher and making your way down.

The main reason I “compete”, and I feel compelled to also put that word in quotes, is because signing up for a race forces me to get up off the couch and move a little bit.

Paying exorbitant race fees can also be motivating. Sure in theory I could just train for and go out for a long run or bike ride on my own or with friends and save a lot of money. But I have found that if I pay someone $50, $150 or even $750 (in the case of Ironman) to periodically hand me water cups that were likely filled with a garden hose I will be much more likely to get out and train. Maybe it’s because I have some “skin in the game” and don’t want my cash outlay to come to nothing. Paying your race fee also gets you a complementary race t-shirt that when worn communicates to your neighbors and friends, who really don’t care, that you finished xyz race.

So why else do I compete? Perhaps you are thinking us slow boaters have more fun than the over-stressed and over-trained contender class? One would think that there would be a little extra camaraderie amongst us back of the pack athletes but one would be wrong. Most of us are in pain and singularly focused on getting to the finish line before an important part of our bodies shut down. A few extroverted optimists will smile and say something encouraging like, “Keep going! You’re not dead yet!” as they shuffle past you.

Being a back of the pack athlete can certainly be a humbling experience, and for me this is especially true in triathlons. I am actually a decent swimmer and usually finish with the front of the packers on the swim. The problem with this is that I am definitely a back of the pack biker, which means that I am immediately and continually passed by hundreds, and in bigger races thousands, of people on the bike portion of the race. Want to guess the number of people I usually pass on the bike? Yep you guessed it, zero! On the run most of the parade has already passed me by and I might even get to pass a few who are experiencing injuries or whose nutrition didn’t work out and are throwing up on the side of the course.

Of course there are a few perks to being a back of the pack athlete such as when the aide station worker takes stock of your condition, looks both ways, and then offers you a “shot of something stronger” instead of the usual Gatorade.

After the race is done I usually try to connect with my front of the pack friends who likely finished hours ago, had their celebratory beverage(s), showered, changed, had a bite to eat and maybe even taken in a movie while I was still out on the course. They kind of know the score but may slip up and ask me how I did. When that happens I usually say something like, “I didn’t notice my finish time” which is code for “Please change the subject.”

Upon sharing with someone who didn’t do the race that I completed such a race they usually also ask, “How did you do?” to which my pat answer is, “I got my money’s worth”. This is meant to communicate I was out on the course a long time without specifically saying I came in 4,223 out of 4,320.

In this modern era of instantly posted race results anyone who wants to know how I did can easily find out, and I must confess that I check on the fellow racers that I know from time to time. To them I often don’t even mention that I have done a race because I know many of them would look up my finishing place and have a good laugh.

My Dad is starting to find his way to podium finishes (top 3 in his age group) in some of his more recent races. I asked him what his secret was and he said that he was “winning the war of attrition”. He told me that if you keep competing long enough eventually all of the people who used to beat you will either drop out of racing or die. So I guess in the long run I have that to look forward to which is nice.

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