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The Unexpected Experience of Finishing Last In Marathon Race

14th May 2023, Leiden Marathon race day. I was well-prepared, confident, and felt great. The overall conditions were optimal. Nevertheless, I crossed the finish line as the last one (around 800th place). What could possibly go wrong?

I would have never thought what an experience was coming my way when I stood on the starting line of the 2023 Leiden Marathon. It was my first time participating in this event that occurs every year in the central part of the Netherlands.

In recent years, I have participated in multiple running events including marathons and half marathons. I went through ups and downs, and I have had good but not-so-good races as well. But it has never happened that I would cross the finish line as the last one.

It is probably because I have always put proper effort into my marathon training. I would never come and attend the race without doing my homework. And the same was true even this time.

What is my average marathon finishing time?

Usually, I would always aim to run a marathon under 4 hours. For me personally, a 4-hour limit is a kind of divider between a solid marathon performance and running under my potential.

My plans for the Leiden marathon were no different in 2023. I felt so good knowing I have done well in my marathon training that I was secretly hoping I could run under 3:45.

But then, the unexpected happened.

My Dutch friend

The reason I chose to run the Leiden marathon this spring was not only due to the beautiful scenery of the Dutch countryside.

Months ago, I motivated one of my Dutch friends, Paul, who is a very active and sportive person (as most Dutch people actually are) to run a marathon with me. For him, running a marathon was not supposed to be a huge issue. Even though he is mostly a cycling guy, he is also a regular runner plus he has already completed an under 2-hour half marathon in the past.

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I knew that marathon is a whole different discipline though, therefore I advised him to take the marathon training seriously. And I guess he did. He ran multiple half marathons, including the quick pace one, and also over a 20-mile training run.

Physically he was ready to go. But he had one huge disadvantage – he had almost zero experience with long-distance running.

Experience and race strategy

In a race like this, experience is an important factor. Many marathon runners have blown up their first marathon. It is because there is a whole list of things you need to figure out to be able to finish those really long runs.

Choosing a proper race strategy does not only mean how quickly you should run the first half or the second half of the race. It includes nutrition the day before, the morning before, or during the race. It includes hydration as well. And not to forget, it means taking the weather into consideration.

A couple of bad signs

With my friend, things seemed to go wrong since the morning. We woke up late, so we were in a hurry. That resulted in a series of bad morning decisions.

Me, I usually don’t eat before the marathon and it works great for me.

My friend though, started his day with a huge baguette followed by an energy drink less than an hour before the race. Combined with the stress that the first marathon inevitably brings, his bowels were on the move. He had to answer the call of nature multiple times, all just a couple of minutes before the race. That left him dehydrated and weaker.

Not a good start at all.

Starting too strong – usual running mistake

Nevertheless, he did not want to negotiate his running goals. As the most fellow runners, he made another usual mistake. When the race started, he got too excited and went quickly ahead. I did not accept his tempo knowing how long the race was and that I would eventually catch him up later.

In the morning, it was quite chilly but that quickly changed. Unfortunately for all of us, the sun started to show up strong and it quickly became hotter than we expected. Half of May in the Netherlands usually brings mild temperatures of around 70°F (20°C), but on that day, it was about 80°F (26°C). All runners could feel that and had to adjust.

I felt great though. My first 10 miles went all according to the plan, and nothing unexpected happened – until at about the 11-mile mark, At that point I have seen Paul for the first time after the start – running slow and looking confused and tired.

Getting to the finish line

I asked him what went wrong, but he could not say. He had claimed to have sore thighs and could not go on running. The pain was strong plus he seemed to be completely out of energy. He needed a break. I knew exactly what happened here – he simply burned out too soon.

At that moment I decided to slow down and help him out. It was actually me who brought him here in the first place so I felt responsible. I gave him some of my snacks and water to fuel up and push him a bit. It did not help much though, we were alternating slow running and walking, while all the runners made it in front of us.

To cut a long story short, we eventually made it to the finish line just under the six hours time limit and we were both equally happy. Me for the unusual experience and Paul for crossing the finish line and getting some medical assistance 🙂

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Be smart in the first 20 miles

I guess this is a lesson for all beginner marathon runners out there. A marathon is a long-distance race, therefore you need to make sure you don’t burn out early on. The earlier you “hit the wall”, the more it is going to hurt your body and mind.

Be smart in your first 20 miles and for the last few miles, give what you have left. Don’t get too excited by seeing other runners getting in front. Start slowly, stay hydrated and if you feel good, you may try to speed up in the later stage of the race.

By the way, running the second half of the marathon quicker than the first one means, you are running so-called negative splits.

Everybody can finish a marathon. The real art is finishing it while not slowing down during the whole race.

Tomáš Labanc

Overall experience

My overall experience of finishing last in the marathon race was, unexpectedly, a very positive one. Not only because I was able to help my friend to get through the course completing his first marathon race within the time limit. But other unexpected things have happened along the way.

The support and cheering from the crowd

When people see you struggling in the back of the race, I guess they tend to cheer for you more. The amount of support we have received, not only from the race organizers but also from random observers was extraordinary. Multiple situations like that left me with goosebumps.

You get to enjoy the beauty of the race course

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During most of the marathons I have ever completed, I rarely got to enjoy the race course much. I never had the time for it because of how focused I was. But Leiden 2023 was different. Running slowly in the back, I had plenty of time to enjoy the beautiful Dutch countryside and could even actually make some pictures. Lovely experience!

You don’t get tired

After my usual marathon, I would feel drained. Not this time! Aerobic running at a slow pace did not really take away too much of my energy. I felt I could go on and run/walk for hours. My legs felt great and I enjoyed that feeling a lot. If nothing else, my marathon race turn into a great aerobic training session!

Another side effect of finishing last in the marathon – your family might wait for you way too long. But in the end, they will forgive you anyway 🙂

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