I am a runner.
I am an athlete.
And it is true that I have never come first. Or second. Or top ten.
It is also true that this last statement does not invalidate the first two.
Sometimes a win doesn't look like a gold medal. Sometimes it doesn't take form in a personal best or a podium finish. Sometimes a win looks like an ugly cry at the finish line because you pushed yourself so damn hard that it doesn't matter at all how many people finished before or after you, what your time is, where you placed. Sometimes a win is just doing it. In fact, that's exactly what a win is.
This is me at the finish line of my very first Ultramarathon. 11 hours and 39 minutes after leaving the start line. After running 60km up 10,000ft and back down. After dry heaving twice, dancing once, crying three times, vomiting once—hard, and consuming an impossibly large amount of potato chips and running gels.
I was not first.
In fact, I was 164th out of 189 people who finished the race and ahead of a dozen or so others who DNFed in the end. So back of the pack.
And it felt like breaking tape, baby.
It was the moment I was the most proud of myself I had ever been in my whole life.
Here's the thing: I've spent two decades running. Because I really stinkin' love it. I'm not particularly good at it in terms of breaking records, I guess. And I used to think that this "not winning" meant I wasn't really an athlete. So when people asked "What are you doing this weekend?" and I answered "I have a race," I'd quickly qualify that with something like: "I'm not going to win. I'm a really slow runner. Like back of the pack." I wanted to put myself down before they did. I wanted to set the bar l-o-w.
Which was a lousy way to go about things, because I am runner. Not a slow runner. Not a chubby runner. Not a back-of-the-pack runner. Just a runner. Putting one foot in front of the other in the forest because it feels good and it feels right and I love it.
And my time at the back of pack over the years has taught me some beautiful lessons in athleticism and in humanity. These three are my most favourite:
Endurance running is difficult. And it is beautiful. It's also the most challenging. How fast or slow I am en route to the finish line doesn't change the fact that I am conquering. Sometimes races hand me my ass on a platter. And sometimes I slay those vertical gains like a boss. If I'm running at the back, it simply means that I am not at the front. It's not a commentary on my ability to run far in wild places at all. No matter what speed I am going, I am still going.
Back of the pack runners are giving it their all—just like the podium finishers and every one else in between. The difference? They're out there for doubly or triply as long. I finished the Golden Ultra over four hours after the winning female.
That's true grit. Don't ever doubt that the person who comes across that finish line last isn't as strong as the one who came across it first. They're both beasts.
A back of the pack runner can always move up. And chasing that tiger is all sorts of fun.
Everything is progress, baby. And no matter where you are in the pack, you're in the pack. And that's one helluva win.
Side note: My friend Kiley supported me through the Golden Ultra in 2017 like a mother hen and she made this video of the race weekend. This day remains a highlight of my life. And she was kind enough to document it. Everyone needs a friend like her.