It's Not the Same Race at All: How the Front of the Pack Differs from the Back of the Pack

3 years ago

This is not the recap I had planned on writing. I adore Runner’s World, that is clearly no secret around here. I’ve had nothing but fantastic experiences with them and their races. But the post I’m about to write isn’t just about the Runner’s World Heartbreak Hill Half Marathon. It’s about what I’m unfortunately going to assume is the reality of the majority of races out there.

Now, let me preface this recap and rant with the following stats:

I’m not a slow runner. I’m certainly no elite, but my half marathon PR is a 1:40:xx. I’ve run a 21:00 5K, and hell, the morning before this race, I ran a 24:xx minute 5K. I’m not headed to the Olympics, but I’m certainly a regular in the front half, if not sometimes the top 10% of races. I can hold my own, and I’m fortunate that it comes pretty easy to me (i.e. I don’t train like I should).

My finishing time for the Heartbreak Hill Half Marathon was a 3:31 (more on why below). I finished 3065 out of 3074 runners. I was 9 people away from being the very last finisher (chip time, not physically, but I suppose that doesn’t really matter).

I know what it’s like to be at the very front of the pack, and now I know what it’s like to be at the very back. And it’s not the same race at all. And for people who pay the exact same entry fee, who run the exact same distance, and who stay within the allotted finishing time and pace, to not have the same experience as the front of the pack makes me really sad, and honestly, kind of angry.

But let’s start from the beginning.

The second I woke up Sunday morning I knew I was in trouble. I was covered in sweat, my throat was sore, I couldn’t stop coughing, and my stomach was turning. It was only 5:45 am, but the sun was already glaring. I immediately started panicking: feeling like hell before a half marathon is never a good sign. But not being one to quit (in other words, I’m far too stubborn) I got out of bed and started getting ready. I yelled over to Katy & Theodora’s room, asking, “MOM, can I take cold medicine before a half marathon? Because I already did.” I worried about my liver and my kidneys, but knew I was hydrated and there was no other way I was going to get out of bed without some sort of medicine in me, so I took the risk. All of the girls assured me I’d be okay, so I bucked up and finished getting ready.

The entire way to the start line, I put on a happy face, but I had a horrible feeling. 13.1 miles isn’t a daunting task for me, but this morning, I was fearful.

(Though you probably couldn’t tell by this pre-race photo.)

Everyone had their own plan for the half marathon, but a handful of bloggers decided they were going to take it easy, and hover in the 2:00 – 2:15 corral. That worked for me, so I lined up with them. I don’t remember much about the starting corral, other than it was crowded (in a good way, what a great turnout for the inaugural race!), and before long we were running.

I immediately fell behind. I was surprisingly okay with that. There are times when I can turn off my inner-competitive self and just get work done.

Or so I thought.

The first mile was so hard, but I attributed it to the fact that it was the first mile, and sometimes you just have to suffer through it before your legs warm up and you fall into a comfortable stride. This unfortunately never happened. At about a mile and a half, I started getting dizzy. The sun was already pounding on me, and everything just hurt. For once in my life, the smart motherly part of my brain took over. Instead of harping on myself to suck it up and “STFU,” I started reminding myself that this was only a race. I was sick, there was no denying it, and running 13.1 miles was just a stupid idea. Why risk getting sicker? Why risk something even worse? I resolved to myself that I would make it the next half mile to the medic tent at mile 2 and pull myself from the race. And it would be okay.

So when I reached the medic tent, I calmly walked up to it. A kind man with a medic vest on looked at me and said “Can I help you?” to which I burst into tears.

Full. On. Sob.

I wasn’t expecting the emotions any more than the poor medic was. He looked panicked as he said “are you okay?” and I replied through tears “my boyfriends mom… she has the flu… and I’ve been sick since Wednesday… I might have it too… and I don’t feel good… and I have kids to take care of… and I know I shouldn’t do anything stupid… BUT I’VE NEVER DROPPED OUT BEFORE (sob sob sob).” The poor man sat me down, handed me a water bottle, and assured me that I was doing the right thing. It was ONLY a race and there would be plenty more in the future. Better to live to race another day. All true words.

He asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I should quit. He told me I could get a ride back, but if I felt up to it, we were only about 3/4 of a mile from the campus, so I could walk back. I said I would walk. I took my bib off, thanked him and started heading back, defeated. I could not get over how emotional I felt. I knew I was doing the smart thing, but it was such a kick to not only my ego, but the weekend as a whole. I immediately called Geoff, but he was still sleeping. (It was only 7:something in the morning.) So I did what social-media-lites do best: I got on Facebook and posted a status update. “DNF. Feeling like an asshole for crying but I can’t stop crying. ” I had made it about a half mile, when all of a sudden I heard someone call my name.

I looked up. It was Larisa and her friend Melanie. She asked me what was wrong. I told her between tears that I felt awful so I pulled myself from the race. She told me in her motherly tone to get out there; we were going to walk. I hemmed and hawed about how I didn’t want to ruin their race, but I really could not run. She said she didn’t care. She told me to put my bib back on and walk about a mile. If I still felt awful, THEN I could quit. Larisa has this fantastic aura about her: very authoritative, very motherly, and very fun. I had just met her, but I trusted her, so I did what she told me. I stepped back onto the road to a round of applause and “You go, girl!” cheers. This whole exchange happened in front of a huge crowd, and I immediately felt incredibly embarrassed.

But I un-quit the race.

And so we walked. Very leisurely at first, but picking up the pace as I started to feel a little better. We started talking, started laughing, and started acting silly. Melanie was battling a knee injury so walking was most definitely the only pace for us. Larisa and Melanie told me I could run on if I wanted to, but I knew that it was a bad idea, I’d only start feeling crappy again. I would walk, and I was okay with that.

And so the three of us, we had FUN at the back of the pack. We did this:

photo credit: Running Skirts

And this: (fast forward to 1:35)

And while WE had fun at the back of the pack… the back of the pack was NOT fun.

As the race dwindled on, the supporters were all but gone. There was no one cheering for those of us at the back of the pack, and there were about 50-100 of us bringing up the rear.

The volunteers started to dwindle as well. At one point we came to a questionable turn and had no idea if we were heading in the right direction, and there was no one there to tell us which way to go.

A group of us hovered around while one went to scout further up the course (it was a blind corner, so you couldn’t easily see other runners up ahead).

At another point, a woman came barreling down the street in her car. The course was closed, but there were no volunteers or police officers around to stop her. Many runners yelled at her to slow down and tell her she was on a closed course, but sadly all she did was yell back. How dare we walk/run on her streets (sarcasm).

We came to a few corners where bands were packing up. No music, no cheering, just packing up their instruments.

Every single cameraman we came across told us to “run” for the picture. I finally started telling them “No, I’m not running this race, I’m walking it. For a reason.” I wasn’t going to fake it, and at the same time, their tone was not motivating. It was almost insulting, as if we were doing something wrong.

We had to stop at many an intersection to wait at least a minute or more while officers let traffic go by. We were reminded that this was not a closed course, but I couldn’t help but wonder how many intersections the lead… or even mid-pack runners… had to stop and wait at.

During the last few miles, course officials were packing up cones and directing us to sidewalks. Keep in mind, we were still WELL within the limits. As stated in the official race guide: “The half marathon finish line will be open for 3 hours and 30 minutes after the race start. Runners who are traveling with a clock time of 3 hours and 30 minutes or longer will be asked to move to the sidewalk to complete the race.”

I initially crossed the starting line 30 seconds after the actual start of the race, and finished with a chip time of 3:31… thus I can assure you that somewhere around 2:50-3:00 after the race start, they were already packing up. (It should also be noted that my overall pace was indeed below 16:00/miles on average. However my finishing stats show longer as it takes into account the time I spent in the med tent and walking back towards the start.)

At one point, a passerby asked a police officer if there was a race going on. He replied there was, earlier, but it was already over.

But it wasn’t over… there were still a good 100+ of us out there.

Now I personally didn’t care. I was out there to finish what I started. I could have finished significantly faster, but I didn’t want to take the risk. I was having a bad day. It happens. But some of these people around me, they were busting their asses. They were RUNNING. Granted they were running slowly, but their effort was a 10 out of 10. They were pushing to the best of their capabilities, but it seemed their effort didn’t matter to the race as a whole. If anything, I’d say some of these people are pushing and struggling even harder than some of their counterparts in the front half of the race.

At one point after we finished, Larisa asked two of the women who finished right behind us how they felt about the whole situation, to which one woman replied “Honestly, I don’t know any different.”

My heart hurt hearing her say that. I told her my story. I told her that I wasn’t trying to brag, but I’m a faster runner, and the experience I have and the experience she has at the exact same race are not the same. I told her while I experience huge crowds full of screaming spectators making me feel like I’m a kickass person, she experiences silence and feeling like she is an inconvenience to the staff and the locals. And it’s not right.

Now, I’m sure I’m going to have countless readers and internet-elites saying “well if they don’t want that experience, they should run faster.” And to that, I will call bullshit. If a race states a specific pace guideline and finish time cutoff, then anyone who stays within those limits deserves to be there, 6 minute mile pace or 16 minute mile pace. Everyone pays the same entry fee. Everyone covers the same distance. And EVERY SINGLE ONE of those athletes deserves to have the same experience: to have the cheering, and the bands playing, and the volunteers not standing around looking bored and ready to go home.

I also realize that everyone runs for their own reasons. Finishing is not about medals or cheerleaders; it’s about the personal accomplishment. But the difference between running the race in the front half compared to the very back… it was night and day. It almost didn’t feel like a race at all, instead just a slightly more crowded group training run.

We finished our race. Thankfully, there was still a great finish line crowd out, and the emcee was still doing a great job announcing everyone coming in. In fact, we danced the last 100 yards to the finish line. It was hilarious, and I’m highly anticipating those finish line photos. I am forever indebted to Larisa and Melanie because they made sure I finished what I started and that I finished safely.

Hat Trick Finishers!

Thankfully, there were plenty of volunteers handing out medals, and tons of food left over.

Hat trick: complete.

I don’t want this to be a post blaming Runner's World nor the Heartbreak Hill Half Marathon Festival staff. If anything, this race was fantastically executed, from course marking to the weekend events (read more about it here and here). I would absolutely, 100% recommend this race series to anyone.

Unfortunately what I learned this weekend is that the experience I had is often the norm for back of the packers. I can’t help but think about what an eye-opening experience this was for me; from now on I will be sticking around to the very end to cheer everyone in, every time I possibly can. So in closing:

Race directors: if you state a specific finish time, then you need to ensure the race continues, completely, for the entire duration of that specified time. Everyone who follows the rules and maintains the designated pace deserves the same experience, no exceptions.

Volunteers: I know you are tired. We are so grateful to have you come out to help us do what we love! But please, don’t make the back of the pack feel like they are an inconvenience. I assure you that 99% of them are doing the best that they can.

Spectators: if you can, consider sticking around until the very end. You have no idea what a difference you might make for some of those in the back.

Front of the Packers: Congrats on your race! I know you are tired as well. But if you can… consider sticking around to cheer on ALL of your fellow runners. I assure you they will appreciate it.

Back of the Packers: One foot in front of the other. Keep being your kickass selves. I truly admire you.

Adventure may hurt you... but monotony will kill you.

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