The REAL back of the pack. From a regular resident.

If you follow running blogs and other running sites at all, I’m sure this week you saw Heather’s post about her experience at Runner’s World’s Heartbreak Hill Half Marathon. (Yes, she was an invited runner, so for her to critique it had to be bad, but… More on that later.) A race where she started sick, removed herself from the race, and then put herself back in, knowing that she was not in any kind of running shape. She admits she is a regular front of the pack person, and she decided to describe her experience visiting the world in which I live all the time.

Again, I note that she was SICK. She admitted she probably shouldn’t have even started. But she did. She pulled herself from the race at a medical tent, then proceeded to cry until she saw a friend who told her to get back in the race. Now, I know that DNF-ing is not fun. BUT sometimes you have to – if for nothing else than your health. I had my first DNF when I cut a 10K trail race to a 5K after tweaking my ankle earlier this year. Was it fun? No. But I did what needed to be done in order to keep myself healthy and able to run more sooner. I hope that Heather didn’t do serious damage to her health by continuing on – but I do know people who insisted on running sick and ended up with bronchitis or pneumonia as a result and were out of running for WEEKS. Really? Is it worth the risk just to not have a DNF?? I’m sure the people at Runner’s World would have understood – pretty sure I’ve read something like the times you shouldn’t run in their magazine before… Also, think about how you view things when you’re sick. Especially stressful things. It’s usually not with rose-colored glasses, but rather harsh, stark extra-vivid glasses. I remember when I ran the Wine and Dine Half at Disney. I wasn’t feeling well. Not really sick, but just not well. And I know that colored how I felt about the race – I’m now to the point I’d consider it again, but at the time it was “never again” because my experience was colored by how I was feeling.

Granted, I wasn’t there, and I don’t know from personal experience how it was, but I communicated on facebook with someone who was there, who knows Heather, and who was (in her words) no more than 20 minutes ahead of her at the finish. She admitted things could change a bit in 20 minutes, but even she expressed doubts they disintegrated that badly in no more than 20 minutes. Heather’s experience is Heather’s experience – but I have to wonder how much being sick and miserable figured into her overall view.

Today, through a facebook friend and fellow runner, I found this from other residents of the back. They get it, and they make great points. Not the least of which is that having a front of the packer (and invited blogger) fuss about the back has made people – hopefully those who matter (read: race directors) in particular – notice.

My experience in back-of-the-pack-land is slightly different from Amanda, April, and Patty, so I wanted to share my take as someone who has experienced the good and the not-so-good.

I’m fortunate enough to live in NYC where I have the opportunity to run races put on by New York Road Runners. Now, they have had issues with various things at times, but I can say this – I have never seen a water station broken down until AFTER the sweep/clean-up vehicle has come by. I have worked the Mile 24 water station of the New York Marathon since 2011, and I can say with certainty that yes, clean up has begun, but the station is fully functional until that vehicle blaring “After this vehicle, support will end” has passed. And even then, until the station is completely broken down, a few people continue handing out cups. In their smaller races, while there may be some issues with runners who have finished wandering aimlessly across the race course (really???? you know you would be pissed, but more on that later), there is support all the way through. I’m not saying they’re perfect, but by and large they do support well.

I’ve also had the opportunity to do some local races run by people other than NYRR.

The annual PPTC Turkey Trot is generally very well-organized and run – the primary issue the past couple of years being there was no monitoring of post-race hot chocolate so they were out by the time the back of the packers finished as the front of the pack helped themselves (and possibly their children and other supporters) to more than one cup.

I ran a race out on Far Rockaway that had a 5K or 10K option – the 10K being a second loop. The first loop had support and encouragement, but by the time I was partway through the second, the “fluid station” at the turn around point was gone as were the volunteers standing there. I was not having a good race, but I am proud to say I did NOT cut the course short by turning early, though I could have and no one would have known.

I ran the inaugural Rock’n’Roll Brooklyn 10K, and I can say that was a cluster in so many ways – not just for the back of the pack. I was not at all surprised to learn that they have “indefinitely postponed” the next installment.

I was not in the very back of the pack at Hartford, but I was close. On-course support was great all the way through – they even had volunteers whose job it was to cheer, so even if others packed up and left (whether from just being tired or having seen their runner)! I did get a medal, but I heard from friends who knew finishers not that far behind me that they ran out.

That’s sadly not an uncommon issue. Sometimes it’s legit – was it Marine Corps this past year where a box of them was damaged/broken? – but other times it can be attributed to delivery issues (Ok, if you know the race is sold out months in advance (read: not RnR which in most cases even allows registration day-of), why do you cut it so close with the delivery? Order the number of medals for those registered to arrive WELL in advance so that if there is a problem there is time to fix it!), bandits who take medals they did not pay for, people swept from earlier points in the course who take finishers medals when they did not in fact finish the race (thank you Grand Canyon Half for flat-out stating that finishers medals are just that and you get one ONLY if you FINISH the race), and, sadly, in some cases theft for whatever reason (sadly to sell them on EBay, especially in the case of Disney medals).

Chicago had things getting a little sparse in terms of support when I ran it. And the “finish festival” closed up early enough those of us in the back really didn’t get to enjoy it at all. The crowd support was definitely there all the way through to the finish line though.

Overall my experiences with runDisney races have been superb, but there have been a couple of things… At the aforementioned Wine and Dine Half, they ran out of ice at the finish area medal tent – assuming you could even get anyone’s attention to find that out. In some places, I get it – the transport thing. But in this case you are not that far from restaurants where there are ice machines. I limped my way back to the UK pavilion with my sister and friends and was able to get some from the medical tent set up close to there. After my first or second full at Disney (it was before they went to the post-race boxes which, say what you will, at least they have them for everyone), they were out of most of the food and sodas at the tents. And this past year, I believe I mentioned in my write-up the BioFreeze issue. Heading towards the Wide World of Sports, the medical tents were out of BioFreeze. The people working them would say “the next one will have some”. Only the next one didn’t. Nor did the one after that. Nor the one after that. FINALLY the one as you approached the Boardwalk – within a couple of miles of finishing – had some, and either people just went on figuring “forget it!” or we stopped and with no shame put it wherever it needed to be applied right there. Lesson learned: I shall be getting packets to carry from now on.

I choose to carry my own nutrition because a) I know what works – and beverage-wise I cannot take the heavy stuff like Gatorade or PowerAde and b) I know it will be there. The 10K on Rockaway, carrying my own stuff was the only thing that saved me on the second loop. I would do that if I was faster too because of those same reasons.

Now, yes, as the three ladies in the rebuttal post pointed out, us back-of-the-pack residents often deal not only with resources and support issues. We also hear about it from our front-of-the-pack brethren and sisteren. “Just get faster!” – I’m actually happy with my pace…I could stand to be a little faster, but I like running for running’s sake, I like having fun with it. Granted, feeling like death after a hard run might indeed be “fun” but it’s not where I am. As a run-walker, I also hear about it from some runners – that I’m not a “real” runner or that I shouldn’t call myself a marathoner because I do run/walk. (To that I’d like to reference a) Olympian Jeff Galloway (though how he does 15 seconds/15 seconds I have NO idea) and for further elaboration b) John Bingham.) So even within the running community, there is pressure and discrimination.

There is also some amazing support! One of my running club teammates is wicked fast – she’s been top 3 in a lot of NYRR races, and I think she’s even won one or two – but she is also wicked supportive of those of us in the back. Other teammates who are quick are also supportive (there are always exceptions – and to be sure there are some in my running club). It’s not just limited to clubmates though.

When I ran my first 10K, I was struggling. It was a looped course with 2 or 3 different length loops (I forget exactly now) – but one of the times I was approaching the start/finish line which we had to pass at least once before actually finishing, I heard them saying over walkies “First female approaching!” I knew they weren’t talking about me, so I moved over to give her plenty of room. Sure enough, she passed me and crossed even before I got there, but she immediately turned around and began cheering me on. And that race I finished something like 4 people from last – and 2 of those were a little boy and his mom who was staying with him.

Those of us in the back have fun and support each other. Granted, I’ve never been in the front or near the front of the pack, so I don’t know if it goes on there, but in the back, we encourage each other. We might chat to make the miles go by faster. We’ll share nutrition if needed. We are our own little community. I may whine about the “poo brown corral” in NYRR races, but we are a pretty cool bunch. 🙂

And at least in half marathons that are double loops of Central Park where there are elites, being slower can allow you to have the experience of running side by side with an elite if only for a few strides. Happened to me in the 2013 More/Fitness Women’s Half. I got to be next to Deena Kastor for a few strides. Some of my clubmates who are in the front half didn’t get that experience as they were close enough behind her they never got lapped.

So can the back-of-the-pack be a rough place? Of course. Nothing is perfect. But for those of us who are residents of the back and not visitors slumming because of illness, it’s home and a pretty nice one at that – though like all homes, it could use some improvements.

I would just encourage race directors who are serious about making things better for the back to talk with those of us who actually reside there. We’re the ones who see and experience it race after race. We’re the ones who don’t have the superior conditions those in the front apparently have, so rather than hearing comparisons, you can hear reality. We want to continue to have the opportunity to race (and for those faster ones, as the trio pointed out in the other back residents’ post, we help keep your race fees down because we usually get fewer resources than you do as you’ve used them all up) your events, to continue to achieve in our own ways. We’re more than happy to talk with you – just let us know.

Hopefully this made some sense – it’s mostly the rambling thoughts I had on it while I was out on my run this afternoon.

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2 thoughts on “The REAL back of the pack. From a regular resident.

  1. I am a regular back of the packer and am glad that Heather made the post she did to draw more attention to the issues of being in the back of the pack. I figure, who better to show the differences than somebody who has seen both sides of it? And your friend who said that they don’t think things can change that much in 20 minutes? Well, I did a race where the people who finished 5 minutes before me had the full finishing chute and cheering squad, while I had maybe 1/2 the finishing chute and few people to even see me and the family member I ran with finish. I don’t race for the cheering or the free water at aid stations (ok, not free, since we pay for it with our race fees) but it is something I feel that every racer is entitled to. We all deserve the same treatment for paying the same price…. obviously those who win deserve something extra, but everybody beyond that who participates should have close to the same experience. That’s what I feel Heather was getting at, that those at the back of the pack deserve to have volunteers around with stocked aid stations, spectators who stick around to cheer even after their family/friends cross the finish line, and (in your own personal experience) BioFreeze when you need it.
    I personally don’t care if somebody always finishes first and suddenly is at the back, or is always at the back; any info we can spread to race directors and spectators/volunteers is good with me. I don’t get the point of making a blog post acting like it’s a big deal that she isn’t always at the back. Heather was at the back and what she experienced was her own experience. You almost make it sound like she is exaggerating to make herself sound like some sort of martyr and I don’t find that to be true at all.

    • Thanks for reading. I am not and did not say we all don’t deserve the same experience. I am just saying that it is not always hell on earth.
      Yes, I am glad that people are paying attention now, but they should talk with those of us who live there and learn the reality all the time.

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