Bringing Up The Rear – Why it’s better at the back… no, really!

The author running in the Isle of Wight (photo credit: Matt Hearne)

Kim Boursnell makes a convincing case for back-of-the-pack running.

In the course of researching for this article, I came across two film clips that each speak to the subject matter.  The first is a Nike TV spot from January this year, entitled ‘Last’. To the strains of Brenda Holloway’s ‘Every Little Bit Hurts’ we see the back end of a road race from the perspective of the very last runner. No cheering spectators line her route and the grey, wet, litter-strewn street stretches out ahead of her – her fellow racers barely visible in the distance. She looks done… finished, but then a look of determination crosses her face and she pushes on. The second clip shows Gunhild Swanson on the home straight and crossing the finish line of the 2015 Western States Endurance Run. Last finisher, Gunhild beat the cut-off time by just 6 seconds – she was also the oldest woman ever to finish the race. The din of cheering is deafening and spectators are running, alongside and on the track, encouraging her towards the finish line and a waiting crowd of well-wishers. In a post-race interview Swanson said, ‘I must have had the biggest smile on my face, I swear to God. It was just so exciting because everyone was shouting, I mean the sheer noise of having everyone in the whole stadium shouting for me!’

I am no stranger to back-of-the-field racing. I came second-to-last in our 2016 club championship 5k – ironically, running a PB – and have just returned from the Isle of Wight Fell Running Championships where I was the last Serpie in my two races. From personal experience, being at the back of the field is a mixed bag. You might be there through injury, because you’re new to running or haven’t run in a while, or perhaps because the field is small or faster than you’re used to. You might be at the back simply because you’re happy there, or you’re running in a rhino costume with a broader agenda than finishing first. Whatever the reason, I’m interested in how that feels – what keeps us on track when we can’t see our fellow competitors for dust. Can bringing up the rear feel as good as coming in first?

It’s not easy deciding to race when you know you are likely to finish at the back. I spoke to a number of Serpies about their experience with this. Blanche Armstrong shares her thoughts:

‘I’ve had a lot of experience running at the back of the pack, yet when the Summer track club championships came I thought more than twice about joining. I’m not sure what made me so   anxious about it: fear of making people wait ‘ages’ for me to finish, not being able to finish the race, feeling out of place on a track? Focusing on the inclusive club message – ‘all abilities welcome’ – and battling through my unhelpful thoughts, I eventually made it to some of the short distance club champs and it was such a great experience! Everyone was super cheery and supportive and the atmosphere was great. It reminded me how brilliant this club is and that at the end of the day, the concept of ‘slow runners’ and ‘fast runners’ is all relative. It’s all about how much effort you put in, how you overcome the things that hold you back. As a Serpie friend told me before: ‘It’s your race, so just enjoy and own it at the back or at the front.’

Liz Ayres during the London Marathon

Serpie Liz Ayres has much to share about the joys of racing at the back. At this year’s London Marathon Liz was running for the charity Whizz-Kids. I spotted her at the 13-mile point in her green fairy costume. She came through quite late and – I have since learned – was having a blast.

‘I was hoping to beat last year’s London Marathon time, but it was hot and so I decided I’m not going to kill myself. When I got to halfway I’d already been messing around a bit: kids were  shouting out, ‘It’s Tinkerbell!’ and I was saying ‘I’ve lost Peter Pan – have you seen him?’  I wasn’t expecting to see any cheering Serpies and was really excited to see you – it gave me a big boost.

From about mile 13 it became a party – I stopped off to have a dance. The Whizz-Kidz team were at mile 19 and the Run Mummy Run crew were right next to them – there are pictures of me dancing in the middle of the street! I saw a lot of dejected runners – I was shouting at the crowd to make some noise and encourage people. I didn’t care about my time at this point, I was just having too much fun. My wings were doing my head in and I was roasting, then someone gave me a Mr. Whippy ice cream. Some woman offered me a glass of prosecco at mile 17, which was perhaps a bit much!’

Although it was her slowest marathon time to date, Liz enjoyed it the most. At times like this our criteria for success shifts away from that PB we’ve been chasing or where we finish in the field. ‘I beat the rhino.. .and the dinosaur…’ says Liz, ‘…and unzipped a giant teddy bear to help a man get out of his suit – who else can claim they helped a man get half naked at the London Marathon!’

Liz started running in January 2017 and is now the London Ambassador for Run Mummy Run – an online running community for women. She also recently joined the London-based running group Backpackers, who state proudly that they are ‘leading from the back’. Their weekly club runs top out at 10 minutes/mile with four sub groups – walk, walk/run, joggy and joggier – and the ethos is to encourage people to enjoy exercise without the emphasis on speed or time. Backpackers now provide official pacers for the back end of races – most recently at the Hackney Half. In their own words: ‘Don’t feel sorry for us because we’re at the back. We like it there.’

Margaret Lang after the Brussels half-marathon (L-R Catharine Sowerby, Margaret Lang and Michelle Homden)

What if you’re not accustomed to being at the back though, and circumstances put you there on race day? As your training hopes and dreams of a PB slip away do you accept defeat and retire early to the pub – or can soldiering on at the back bring its own rewards?

Serpie Margaret Lang was used to running sub-two-hour half marathons until she was faced with the choice of not competing at all or taking a different approach to her race.

‘In 2015 a group of us travelled to Brussels for the half marathon. For me, a pre-race sleepless night deciding whether or not to participate as I was recovering from plantar fasciitis. A plan was hatched to start at the very back of the field of some 8000 and take photos every kilometre. I calculated the slowest speed to reach the half way point within the cut-off time. On the day, my first photo looking back was of total emptiness devoid of a single solitary runner. Looking forward – photo no. 2 – a never-ending sea of heads. With no expectation I ran faster than anticipated overtaking all the way round and amazingly finished in the top 75 per cent. A very liberating and satisfying way to approach running, that I still do today.’

I followed Margaret’s advice for my first half marathon, positioning myself way back in the starters’ pen.  A good luck text received just before the race start said ‘Remember to enjoy it!’ and I decided to keep this in the front of my mind throughout my race.  As Margaret told me, ‘at the end of the run and in those post-race photos who cares where you finished – everyone generally looks happy and smiley with that medal around their neck’. She shows me a post-race picture taken at the Brussels half. ‘Look’ she says, ‘Any clues about each of our finishing positions?’ Indeed, there are not.

Sometimes a back-of-field finish feels better than whatever you initially set out to achieve. Serpie Pete Woolley looks forward to the London Duathlon each year. However, aiming for an improvement on each year’s time adds additional pressure.

 ‘On one occasion, I was thinking the night before about where I would come in the race and if I would be faster than the previous year. On the cycle I got a puncture, adding 15 minutes to my time. At that point I realised I was never going to get a PB and from that point, I started   enjoying the race! It doesn’t really matter at the end of the day what your time is, it’s all about enjoying the event regardless of where you finish.’

At other times, the back is precisely where you want to be throughout your race. Eddie Brocklesby took part in this year’s inaugural Big Half, with a team of 70 or so Nordic walkers who were racing for the charity Silverfit. With an average age of well over 65, the team received permission from race organisers to set off at the back of the field. Eddie said, ‘I brought up the rear with such pride – we ended up raising £27k!’

Silverfit aims to promote happier, healthier ageing through exercise, whilst helping people make new friends. For those new to running, the sense of camaraderie that exists back-of-field in runs and races is often the main driver for participation. Parkrun acknowledge this and have a tail walker at all their events – no one is left behind and those running a slower pace don’t have to contemplate coming last. Friendly banter and encouragement from fellow racers have got many a weary runner to the finish line when their legs, lungs or defeated mindset have given up. Sid Wills knows a thing or two about the challenges faced by novice runners who are anxious about being at the back, and believes that the social aspect is key during a run. He describes his Serpie beginners’ group as ‘run and talk’ and incorporates cultural pit-stops in the Saturday morning sessions. Recent stops have included an Art Deco cocktail bar and a gallery, to break up the run and encourage new members to chat and get to know each other. Enduring friendships have been forged in Sid’s beginners’ sessions, taking fledgling runners to marathon distance and beyond.  Sid ran his seventeenth Great North Run this year and has just signed up for the next three. In recent years his focus has shifted away from his finish time and he now sees the experience as a celebration of running, rather than a race.

Those of us embracing the back-of-field experience have many reasons for doing so. It is thrilling to see the front-of-field runners charging out ahead and to be part of that same race. At the Cross Country Nationals last season the men’s race caught me up and I was briefly surrounded by some of the fastest male runners in the country. As they thundered past it was like being caught in a buffalo stampede – exhilarating!  Arguably we’re partying harder at the back but still working towards our own goals – to beat the guy in the rhino suit or simply to make it to the finish and then on to the pub where we will all rejoice in each other’s achievement, regardless of finish time. We run to support our club or the team we’re representing – another driving factor for me during some of the XC races was that I scored a point for Serpentine, simply by taking part.

We make friends – often temporary but heartfelt alliances with strangers – and getting them over the finish line becomes as important as making it there ourselves. Back-of-field during this year’s Isle of Wight Fell Running Championships, I met and completed the final few miles with two London Frontrunners. At the final descent I tripped and mashed-up my hand. One of my new finisher-friends stayed with me and we ran the home stretch together. Last Serpie and sixth from last overall, it still felt great as I crossed the finish line. We remember why we started running in the first place, that we love the unfettered freedom of an open road/track/field whatever our pace. We run because we can and occasionally we run for those who cannot, raising money and awareness and directing our energy as a force for good. We put on a spectacle for those who turn out to cheer us on, and hopefully inspire others to get off the sofa and see what they can do. We have fun.

I imagine much of this is also true for those runners leading the pack, so the gauntlet is down for a companion piece – ‘why it’s fun at the front’.

Who says we’re not competitive back here…?

Kim Boursnell started running eight years ago and became a Serpie in 2015 where she has been adopted by the lovely ‘2.5 Parks’ group. She ran her first half marathon in 2018 and has recently embraced the joys of cross-country: mud, cake and beer.