For anyone who has ever been a spectator at a marathon, you know that the excitement of the crowd when the lead runner or lead pack passes you is remarkable. Everyone is so excited to catch a glimpse of the elite runners who are comfortably running at a pace that most people cannot even fathom sustaining for a city block, let alone 26.2 miles. The excitement continues as more and more runners start passing the spectators on their way to the finish line. However, as time goes on and hours pass, the runners become more spaced out, the pace of each runner becomes slower, and the spectators on the sidelines of the racecourse slowly start dwindling away. This is where you will usually find me, pounding the pavement many hours after the winners and large packs of runners have passed.
My name is Rachel Barger, I am one of the 2022 Grambassadors for Grandma’s Marathon and I am the definition of a “back of the pack runner”. I have finished four full marathons, seven half marathons, and endless shorter distance races. Regardless of the number of bibs, medals, and finisher t-shirts I have acquired in the eight years since my first marathon, I have yet to cross a finish line of a major race while the “electric crowd” is still there to cheer me on.
The great Dick Beardsley has said, “when you cross the finish line, it will change your life forever” and while I have found this to be 100% true, what Dick’s wise quote does not account for is how much your life will change before the finish line. How much your life will change with every step you take on the racecourse. My experiences in the back of the pack have made me stronger, wiser, and more resilient than I ever thought possible. I am excited to share with you a few of my experiences…
First, every single person who is in the back of the pack has a story. I once ran eleven miles with an older man from Europe who told me it was his life goal to run that particular marathon. He couldn’t stop talking about how amazing it was to be on the course, how beautiful the scenery was, and how happy he was to be there, regardless of his finishing time. Just last year at Grandma’s Marathon, I ended up bonding with a woman who had run the Boston Marathon four times when she was younger and now, years later, is coming back to the sport that she loves. I have countless stories of the people I have met along the way, each of them teaching me something new that I did not know I needed to hear in that moment.
Next, there is something so special about putting one foot in front of the other for hours on end. I often say that no matter what your time is, when you finish a marathon, you are a champion. Although this applies to every single person who crosses that finish line, I think there is something to be said for the runners in the back. They might not have run the fastest, they might not be able to ring that “PR Bell”, they might not be coming through the finisher chute when the crowds are still around, but they found the inner strength to keep putting one foot in front of the other for hours on end. Watching the faces of people who finish a marathon in five, six, even seven+ hours is something you will never forget. They sacrificed so much to be on that racecourse, they may have overcome personal challenges that they have been battling for 26.2 miles, and they overcame all of the obstacles and all of the challenges to just cross that finish line.
Lastly, being a back of the pack runner has taught me that I have more resiliency in me than I ever thought possible. A specific race that comes to mind is Grandma’s 2016. For those of you who were not at Grandma’s that year, it was very hot and humid with no wind and no cloud cover. I vividly remember standing at the starting line during the National Anthem and feeling sweat drip down my back. On top of this, I was in nursing school at the time and my training did not go as I had planned. In the eyes of any runner out there, I had no business being at that starting line. As the race went on, this became more and more prevalent. At mile 13 I felt like I had given all I could give. I followed another runner who I had been with for a few miles into the medical tent. I was overheated, sore, and my mind had given up. I remember laying on a cot in the medical tent trying to cool off when a race official said, “the drop-out bus will be here in five minutes”. When I heard those words, something clicked in my brain. I thought “wait a second. I don’t want to be done yet”. I asked the race official if I could get back on the course and keep going. They were reluctant at first, due to the fact that I was already in the back of the pack when I entered the tent, but he eventually gave me the go-ahead and I was back on the course. I continued to slowly put one foot in front of the other for another 13.1 miles. I even sat under a tree at the bottom of lemon drop hill and cried for a couple minutes. BUT I made it, I finished that race barely under eight hours. My family often describes this race as the race where I “rose from the dead”. Am I proud of how long it took me? No. Am I proud that I walked almost the entire last half of the race? No. But I am dang proud of the fact that I found the inner strength to keep moving, the mental toughness to will myself forward, and that despite how long it took me and how painful it was, I will be able to forever say that I finished that race.
Although this race was by far my slowest, it reminds me daily that my mind will give up a lot faster than my body will. The cool part about this story is that at any point in the race, I was not alone out there. After I left the medical tent, I met so many amazing people on the course who were struggling just like me. A woman who had run 50 marathons and was just coming back from injury. A group of about seven runners who were rallying around one of their friends who had just beaten cancer. A man who had trained hard was ready to run a sub-four marathon but was having the worst race of his life. The best thing about all of these stories is all of these people were doing it! They were in the back of the pack, they were going to cross the finish line many hours after the large groups, but they were going to do it! They also found the strength to just keep moving.
It is not always easy being a slow runner. Being in the running community and feeling like you can’t relate to the faster runners, hearing people talk about their quest to qualify for Boston, or hearing someone that runs a ten-minute mile calling themselves a “slow runner”, none of this is easy. But the amazing part about running is that you don’t have the be fast to be a runner, you just have to get out there and keep putting one foot in front of the other. Am I overly proud of saying that my full marathon PR is over six hours? No, not necessarily. But I am EXTREMELY proud to say that I have crossed both the starting line and the finish line of every race I have started. I have truly “found myself” in every step of every race I have ran. I have somehow found a way to just keep moving, under any circumstances. The coolest part about a marathon is 26.2 miles is 26.2 miles, regardless of if you are the first runner or the last. Both the first runner and the last runner across the finish line completed a challenge that only 1% of the U.S. population and 0.01% of the world population can say that they have done. They just kept putting one foot in front of the other and found a way to be a champion.
So, if you are a “slow runner”, if you find yourself feeling left out when you hear others talking about their fast races, if you find yourself in the back of the pack… I hear you. I see you. and I am SO proud of you. I will cheer you on every step of the way! and no matter how long the race takes you, when you cross that finish line, nothing else that happened on the course matters. You are a marathon finisher.
Rachel is one of our Offical Grambassadors for the 2022 Grandma’s Marathon Weekend. Meet the rest of the ambassadors here.
Follower Her on: Instagram
Favorite Grandma’s Marathon Memory: JUST ONE?! This is a tough question, but I’d have to say Grandma’s Marathon 2014. This was my first ever marathon, after going to Grandma’s for years and watching my family members cross the finish line since I was a little kid. To make it even sweeter, this race came a year and a half after I was in a car accident that left me with a very shattered ankle. My orthopedic surgeon and physical therapists told me I may never walk without a limp again, let alone finish a marathon a year after my second surgery. After hearing this, I was even more determined to follow in my family’s marathoning footsteps. I trained through my freshman year of college, skipping the 10k, half marathon, and all other “less crazy” distances and went right for the full marathon. I will never forget the feeling I had crossing the finish line in 2014!!! And as they say… the rest is history. This was the start of MANY more amazing Grandma’s Marathon memories, and many more to come.
I won’t run outside if: It takes quite a bit, I’ve stocked up on running gear for all conditions (mostly because I despise the treadmill!). But maybe when there is too much snow for me to make it out of the driveway or if there’s a chance I’d get struck by lightning; I might make an exception.
Pre-Race superstition: I always cross the starting line on the far-left side of the chute, and I ALWAYS say the same little prayer as I am crossing that starting line.
2022 Running Goal: A 26.2 PR!!!