Being a lead cyclist in a foot race isn’t easy. While the physical exertion on the bike isn’t exhausting, the stress from doing a good job takes its toll. After everyone crosses the finish line, however, there’s a sigh of relief and a great feeling of accomplishment for all the runners.
In general, volunteering to be a bike pacer isn’t a difficult job. You really only have to memorize the route and make sure you are far enough in front of the runners so they don’t draft off you, but also not too far so that they lose you. Still, anything can happen during a race. During one race I slipped on ice and couldn’t pace and on a different occassion I led the front two runners down a wrong turn (they only lost about .2 miles of the total race distance). Those mistakes are unacceptable for any race but when it’s a Boston Qualifing race, the stakes are very high—runners depend on running a qualifying course and getting the right distance.
As stressful as that can be, leading runners to their goals is worth it. I’ve paced plenty of races for Queens Distance Runners over the years and every time we’ve had so many thankful runners. We’ve held 30k (18.6 mile) races before where one or two runners would tell us aftewards that that race was their first race! We’ve had so many runners tell us how they got a new personal best by so-and-so amount of time. Our races are fast and plenty of runners enjoy the competitive fields.
But let me tell you about the last finishers of every race. Being with the last runners has given me different experiences and perspective. I tend to go back after finishing leading the front runners to make sure everyone is safe along the courses we host. Once the majority of runners finish, I seek the last few runners to keep them motivated and also to let all volunteers know when they can start wrapping up.
It’s difficult to approach the last runners. You don’t want to make them feel pressured or ashamed that they are last. You can’t be leading in front of the runner because that creates pressure for them to hurry even though they may need a walking break. Just let them know you are there for company and to make sure they’re doing well. It’s hard. Not everyone is cheery, of course, during a race that they might be struggling in.
I usually greet them with a simple, “Hi”. After that, everyone tends to say “oh, am I last?“. Everyone seems to know that they are last. That, however, doesn’t ruin the experience for them. Some of the best bike pacing memories are from chatting with the last runners. At one race in Forest Park (in early March 2020 before the pandemic started), the runner was telling me how her daughter got her to run to be healthier and that she was waiting for her to return from college so they could run together. This was an exceptionally hilly course and I had to get off to walk alongside her. During that time, we got to know each other better and her determined attitude made the morning even more special to me.
There has never been a race where the last runner acted negatively towards being last. For the most part, to them it’s a challenge but not necessarily a new one. Some runners tell me how they were faster then they were younger but then life got in the way - children, old age, etc - so just being back in a race was itself an achievement. For longer races, some tell me that it’s the longest distance they have ever run. These runners don’t go out fast and hit a wall; from the start they know they need to take it easy and that they will be out for a while. To them, they just want to finish before the cutoff time.
For the past few weeks, Queens Distance has hosted the QDR Half and Queens Marathon. I can’t say I’m a big fan of hosting events during a pandemic, but Kevin and Maria organized them with much care and safety in mind. These past few races have shown me how much racing means to many runners. Personally, I was fine with running and racing alone in time trials, but I know for some the social aspect of meeting with the team, of running with a pack, and getting a medal means so much. Every race is a personal story from start to finish and that’s true for everyone, from the winner until the last finisher.
When we’re all out again at races, make sure to stick around until the end to cheer everyone on. You don’t know what they are going through (personal struggles outside of the race) and how much finishing the race means to them, but being along the course cheering definitely means the world to them.
Cover photo courtesy of Horse and Duck Studio.