Respect the Back of the Pack


By Sheryl Rosen


Among running circles, there’s one group that doesn’t get enough respect: back-of-the-pack runners.

Sure, champions like Deena Kastor and Meb Keflezighi are great. Public glory is well deserved by the world’s best runners, but there’s something special, something true, noble and just plain real about everyday runners.

The best days for back-of-the-pack runners may be long behind them or just beginning. These ordinary runners may have never won their age group or finished a race without walking. They run race after race, often without trophies, grand prix points, or other carrots to lure them to the finish, but that doesn’t stop them from coming to compete like everyone else.

“I have no shame in being the last one to get to the finish line, because every train needs a caboose,” Charlie Yates said in his profile as a winner at the Tallahassee Senior Center’s 2008 Silver Stars Awards.

No quote better sums up the seldom-noticed contributions of the back-of-the-pack runner. What strikes me the most about the slowest runners is that they have the fewest apparent reasons to race – little company and warmer temperatures on the course, often no age-group awards left to claim, and a food table that’s ravaged by the time they finish.

Frontrunners, on the other hand, have so many external motivators to keep racing. We get awards, maybe our picture in the Fleet Foot, and plenty of congratulations from other runners. Yet the lack of external factors encouraging and rewarding back-of-the-packers doesn’t deter them from continuing to participate in the activity they love. Armed with an innate drive for running, they make their way to the finish line like the rest of us, with good reason to hold their heads high.

As for frontrunners and mid-packers, we can learn a thing or two from back-of-the-packers. If there’s one quality runners at the bottom of the finish line possess, its determination. What they lack in speed they make up for in spirit. They represent the essence of our sport and the goals to which we all aspire – to challenge our bodies, test our will, and try to have fun and make friends in the process.

Back-of-the-packers can also teach us about running our own race. They are better at going the pace that’s right for them, no matter how fast or slow others around them are running. They run races by their standards and no one else’s.

Another lesson the rest of us can learn from slower runners is to actually enjoy a race – an alien idea for many Gulf Winds members. Several back-of-the-packers have described to me the otherwise novel phenomenon of having fun during a race. When faster runners chase down PRs, medals, and grand prix points, we’re quite joyful and happy with ourselves afterward, but the actual races are events to be endured instead of enjoyed. The lure of a fast time is strong, but just once in a while we might benefit from savoring the act of racing, not just the result.

So next time you see a back-of-the-pack runner coming along after the frontrunners and mid-packers have called it a day, give a shout of encouragement for the people who are truly out there because they want to be and because they love running – at any pace.