In three races over the past week I’ve come in last, last and second to last.
This is what happens when you’re the designated pack animal for a young runner in training, the person who carries the water bottle, provides the motivational pep talks, and discreetly falls back as the finish line (finally) draws near.
The occasion seems to call for a handy self-effacing line to deflect the awkwardness of the situation. At Thursday’s 3K trail run at Loblolly Marsh, the swampy old stomping grounds of early 20th century naturalist and author Gene Stratton Porter, I tried out the obvious – “Sorry to keep you waiting” – as well as the humorous: “I think a few mosquitos came in ahead of us.”
By Sunday’s Waterfall 5K at Kokiwanee Nature Preserve, I was ready to ditch the last traces of embarrassment and fully embrace my role. The only problem was, we weren’t last. There was a very nice lady about 100 yards behind us. Periodically, during our walk breaks, she’d almost catch up, at which point I felt conflicted between trying to inspire my 11-year-old to do her best and offering to join forces with the lonely soul at the end of the line, who clearly was craving company.
Making matters worse, I led all three of us astray when we came to an unmarked fork in the trail, one of which was partially blocked by two downed trees. That, we later learned, was the path we were supposed to take. The tangent I led us on eventually rejoined the trail, but probably added an extra 10 minutes or so to our already humiliating time. (“Not that the time matters!” I feel compelled to add, in a cheery inspirational tone.)
Between the mud, the wrong turn, and Colleen’s fatigue from running up the early hills when she probably should’ve walked, I was horrified to see that our 5K time was nearly the same as my 10K time from last year’s race.
I was so focused on our post-race plan that had me going back to the car to retrieve a pack of veggie burgers – you know you’re at an intimate trail run when you feel perfectly comfortable tossing your own grub on the grill next to the official post-race food – that I missed the last-place finish.
But I later saw the lady walking dejectedly to her car, apparently skipping the cookout, and wished I’d stuck around to cheer her in. It would’ve been the sporting thing to do – it’s what ultramarathoner Scott Jurek does, and he finishes hours ahead of the stragglers. (Sadly, part of my regret had to do with simple curiosity: I wondere. d whether she had anything amusing to say about coming in last.)
The funny thing was, this race was so small that I wound up finishing second in my age group, with a pepper plant as my reward. Ben was even more shocked to discover he’d won his age group. Happily, race director Mitch Harper discreetly avoided reading off finishing times except for the very top performers.