Road Races Look Different From the Back of the Pack

Road Races Look Different From the Back of the Pack

Latoya Shauntay Snell has run more than 200 races, and she knows where she will finish: near the back. So she expects to always be seeded in the last wave in multiwave races. But at the Brooklyn Half Marathon last month, she found herself in Wave 1.

NYCRUNS, which organized the race, had done something unusual: All runners expecting to run 12 minutes per mile or slower were part of the first wave, to give them more time to finish before the road portions of the course reopened to cars.

“I cannot tell you how relieved I felt as a back-of-the-packer,” said Snell, who wouldn’t have to deal with the pressure of staying ahead of course time limits.

Some races have taken other approaches. The Providence Marathon gives runners who expect to be running at about a 14-minute pace or slower an opportunity to start the race an hour early, but it comes with some caveats. Runners are warned that roads aren’t officially closed, aid stations might not be set up yet and the course marshals might not be in place.

As the running community has expanded, the average finish times for most race distances have increased. There are more runners finishing at the back of the pack, and the last finishers in races are generally slower than in previous decades.

Martinus Evans, who started the Slow AF Run Club, said road races will need to embrace those changes to survive.

Evans says that while many races are thinking about diversity in terms of race and gender identity, “size and speed diversity still isn’t front of mind.” One example was T-shirts, which he said often aren’t available in larger sizes.

“It helps everybody in the long run to be able to provide accessibility and size inclusivity, speed inclusivity to all the races,” Evans said.

Not every race is going to do that. The Boston Marathon, which famously requires a qualifying time to enter, made the decision years ago to use times to distribute bibs, said Dave McGillivray, the race director.

But he also owns an events company that puts on several races each year for organizations.

“From my perspective, if you accept someone in the race, you should leave the finish line open until that last person crosses the finish,” McGillivray said.

It isn’t just the finish line that matters, he added. Course support, medical tents, amenities and the course itself are all part of the package, and race directors need to make sure they’ve thought about those and how to best serve all participants.

Ted Metellus, the race director for the New York City Marathon, agreed. Several years ago, the marathon started a “final finishers” effort to make sure the runners crossing the finish line at night had a good experience. The pro runners come back to help hand out medals, and Metellus and the volunteers try to make the finish line a big party.

“They make the turn, and they come up the drive, and they hear something,” he said.

After last year’s marathon, Metellus said the New York Road Runners, which hosts dozens of weekly races in addition to the marathon, has tried to carry the same level of energy and celebration of the final runners to their other races.

Snell first noticed it at the Ted Corbitt 15K in Central Park in December.

“I was the last runner,” she said. “There were people who celebrated me. People stayed behind and cheered me on.”

Metellus said one change the Road Runners made was to hand out cowbells to the volunteers stationed along the course of each of their races. At the Newport 5K in Jersey City, N.J., as the last participants were in the final mile, the volunteers were ringing the cowbells and cheering the women on as the sweep vehicles trailed behind them.

Jill Grunenwald calls it “running with a police escort,” which is the title of her book subtitled “Tales from the Back of the Pack.”

“The thing with the back is that everybody’s kind of in that same position,” she said, calling it “kind of a club.”

And the back-of-a-race field is a club that has fun at races.

Metellus said if you stand at the start for multiwave races, trying to get the runners excited about being out there, the energy builds the further back in the pack you go.

“It goes from this quiet murmur, and it starts to build and build and build as the race goes on,” he said “It is usually those mid to back waves that are loudest.”

Talk to any runner who typically finishes toward the back of the pack in a race, and they’ll say the same thing: Check race time limits before signing up.

That’s one of several things that slower runners have to consider when choosing races. While everybody is on the same course, from Eliud Kipchoge to the person aiming to finish a marathon in six or seven hours, there are some extra things back-of-the-pack runners have to consider.

  • If you’re going to be close to the limit, ask race organizers what happens if you fall behind. Some races require you to hit certain spots on pace, and if you don’t, you have to stop. Some races allow you to keep running, but roads reopen and you might be moved to the sidewalk.

  • Find out when water stations close. You might need to carry your own water and energy gels, depending on the length of the race.

  • For races that allow runner tracking through an app, find out when they start to remove the timing mats along the course. If it might be before you reach that point, you can let friends and family know ahead of time so they aren’t wondering why it looks like you stopped.

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