What if I’m last?

I have had the joy and privilege of being present while many individuals have begun their new journey. It is the very best part of being a coach. Recently, I have been involved with an initiative by the Ironman Corp to get more women involved in the sport of triathlon. After speaking to many women who were wavering on signing up for a triathlon for the first time, I found two common hesitations. The first was “what if I can’t do it?” Believe it or not, this fear is easily and relatively quickly resolved. After a few weeks of training and learning from their coach and others, they begin to see that they are capable of so much more than they originally believed. This is when the second fear begins to take shape. “But what if I come in last?” I’ve heard many coaches say, “Oh that’s not going to happen!” I rarely say that because it could happen. Sometimes things don’t go as planned. Weather conditions can change the race. Technical problems like a flat tire or lost goggles can cause delays. Physical problems or illness can alter an athlete’s ability. Sometimes just finishing is the only thing that can be salvaged from a bad race. Then other times you just might be the slowest person racing on that day. People tell you that the last finisher still beat everyone on the couch. Some say, “Do you know what they call the final finisher in a triathlon? A triathlete!” I can tell you that in the moment, these things do very little to make you feel better. I can tell you that because I have been last in a race. As an “adult-onset” athlete, I jokingly used to measure my success in a race by how far from last place I finished. At first it may have been less than 10 places from last, then 100 and so on as I became stronger and more experienced.  Now that I am a very solid “middle of the packer,” I want people to know that being last isn’t all that bad. It’s a character builder, a place to grow from.

There is a well-known retired professional triathlete who became a race director of all female triathlon race series. One of the key advertising promotions was that in her races, no one would finish last. No one would finish last because she (the race director) would always be the final racer. This was a great comfort to many of the women competing and I thought it was a compassionate gesture on her part- until I realized that she was not actually doing the race. One year I was there as a spectator instead of a participant. I watched as she started the swim with the last wave of women. She came out of the water with the last swimmers, but then as they went out on their bikes, she stayed behind. It wasn’t until a volunteer called in much later to let her know that the final runner was a mile out from the finish that she would run out to “be the final finisher.” While I admire this race director, this ruse struck me as deceptive. She wasn’t the last finisher because she had not done the race. I decided then that we would take a different tactic. On our team, the “rule” is that when you finish you come back to the finish line to cheer on your team mates. We try to gather about a quarter mile from the finish to wait for our final racer. When the last athlete arrives, they are greeted by the love and pride of their team mates. On our team, you might finish last but you will finish, and you will not finish alone.

Whatever your sport, join a team. Train with a team. You will find a greater joy regardless of your finish time.

Written by Cynthia Erickson, 2016 Fitness Ambassador