Would coming last in a race really be so bad?

‘Oh boy,” I thought, watching a tiny figure descend through the mist towards me. He was heading back towards the fork in the path where I knew he should have turned right. “That guy is in trouble.”

I was about a third of the way round the Scafell Pike trail marathon but he, it turns out, was not. He wasn’t in trouble. He was Ricky Lightfoot and he had taken that right, done a loop of the summit and was now heading swiftly back down in perfect accordance with nominative determinism. He was about two hours ahead of me –going by my speed, not his – and well on his way to setting a course record for the race we were both (supposedly) running.

I trudged on up through the mist. I had trained hard for this event: I’d banked plenty of quality miles, run shorter fell races and got in a fair whack of hill training. It wasn’t enough.

As I clomped up the severe, boulder-strewn flank of England’s highest peak I reflected on the steep, technical training that West Yorkshire hadn’t offered me and my failure to seek it out elsewhere. This was my fourth marathon, and it was not going well.

A year or so earlier, I was running the Edinburgh marathon, a race that has a kinda-sorta out-and-back route, watching people go past me in the opposite direction. I was somewhere around mile 24 and on track for a respectable but thoroughly unremarkable sub-four-hour time. They were somewhere around mile 11, and already walking.

It stuck right in my craw. I had trained hard, put in the miles, stuck to a plan and made a proper go of it. These day hikers clearly hadn’t. They hadn’t respected the distance, hadn’t felt the need to train properly and weren’t looking great for finishing inside the cut-off. I felt blearily indignant, personally affronted that these people thought they could just saunter through an event that I had trained hard for.

As I blundered down Scafell Pike, now more than two hours after my Lightfoot sighting, I considered the fact that if I just relaxed a little along the tough, technical descent, I would probably roll an ankle. There would be no choice: I would have to drop out and I wouldn’t have to tell anyone that I just wasn’t up to it. I really wanted to not be running. I didn’t relax, though.

Yet another few miles along, the route left the lake shore to swerve up another hill. Purely, I think, to round the mileage up to the required 26.2. I cursed the race planners and fought the urge to throw my pack on the floor in a hissy fit.

When I finally tramped over the finish line I had been out running for seven hours and 40 minutes, almost double my fastest road marathon time. The annoying, radio-friendly house music the organisers had been playing at the finish had stopped by this point and there were just a few people left milling around. I was not quite the last, but I came 128th in a field of 154 finishers and was one of the few runners in that back 50 who didn’t fall into one of the senior categories.

It took quite a while for me to draw a line between those mile-11 Edinburgh runners and myself, but I got there eventually.

I am quite proud of my seven-hour, 40-minute Scafell Pike marathon. It was the best I was able to do at the time, somewhere out beyond the limits of any endurance event I’d done previously. But along with those mile-11 Edinburgh runners, I knew was part of a group you might call undertrained and underprepared; or who you might – if you were feeling more generous – consider to be stretching ourselves and redefining what we deem possible. It might depend on whether we have had the self-awareness to stand well back from the start line where we can’t get in your way.

The Scafell Pike race was my last marathon. As I hobbled past that mercifully silent sound system, though, I learned that I could run for well over seven hours. That knowledge eventually led me to guess that I could probably run 100km, which in turn pointed me towards my upcoming attempt at 100 miles, a distance that was utterly incomprehensible to me a few years ago. I will almost certainly finish at the back of that pack, too. If there’s a crap DJ who’s already gone home by the time I stagger over the finish line, that will be fine.

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