Back-of-the-pack runners’ story goes viral, internet freaks out, forgets kindergarten lesson on manners

My Story

Screen Shot 2014-06-14 at 8.10.20 PMI am a part of a number of running-related Facebook groups which means when something goes viral – it goes VIRAL on my social sites.

This week was no different when Heather Gannoe posted on her blog about her disheartening experience at the Runner’s World Heartbreak Hill Half and Festival in Boston. Long story short: Usually a front-halfer, Gannoe was sick and instead of dropping out, opted to run with a friend in the back of the pack. She finished 9th from last and was appalled to see what a different experience the half marathon was for slower runners.

She writes, “I know what it’s like to be at the very front of the pack, and now I know what it’s like to be at the very back. And it’s not the same race at all. And for people who pay the exact same entry fee, who run the exact same distance, and who stay within the allotted finishing time and pace, to not have the same experience as the front of the pack makes me really sad, and honestly kind of angry.”

She notes volunteers packing up, cars driving on the course and police having already fled the scene, bands packing up and no spectators left to cheer the last runners on.

What felt like only minutes went by before response posts started flying. Perhaps most Reddit-notably, Patti Holliday’s post on her blog an “Open Letter To Race Directors From the Back of the Pack.”

Holliday notes her fury that it took a front of the pack runner to complain to get the back of the pack runners complaints heard.

She writes: “This issue isn’t new. It isn’t isolated to this Runner’s World race. And for farks sake, it isn’t fair! It’s been voiced before. It’s been talked about in blogs before. Runners email and write letters to complain. Crickets. But then a faster runner speaks up and it’s like… whoooaaaa… maybe we should get on that.”

Like most things that make it onto Reddit, the world pipes up with everything from support for back-of-the-pack runners to arguments that they shouldn’t even be allowed on the course.

One commenter writes: “My viewpoint is that this is running, and this is a race. If you’re not going to train to a point where you can run the race, or at least do something around a 13-minute mile in a half marathon, you SHOULDN’T BE IN THE RACE.”

Another searched Gannoe’s 10k and half marathon race results from 2013 and 2014 to “show that she has taken LONGER THAN THE CUTOFF TIME to finish in 9 out of 12 total races.”

We even got a little of this: “I have two words for the author. Run more.”

It’s a battleground out there.

But, unlike the debate over the 2009 New York Times article in which Adrienne Wald, the women’s cross-country coach at the College of New Rochelle, said that slow runners have no place running a marathon, (Remember Julia Given, 46, who said: “I always ask those people, ‘What was your time?’ If it’s six hours or more, I say, ‘Oh great, that’s fine, but you didn’t really run it,’”) this issue seems black and white to me.

Race directors need to have what they advertise they will have. That means if you say you have a 3-hour cutoff, you gotta account for those runners coming in at 2:59:59. Don’t like the slower runners? Shorten your finish time. But if you offer a race, do what you say you’ll do. That means properly stocked food, water, medical personnel and security. It’s not up to race directors to make spectators hang out after their runner has finished, but the basic needs – gotta have ‘em.

I know we will see no end to the debate over “how slow is too slow” – that Times article reappears every few weeks on my timeline – but I think there is something we can agree on: only offer what you can supply. If you can only stock a 2-hour half marathon – advertise it. Your pool of runners will shrink, you might make less money – but you’ll only be held accountable to that standard you set.

As for the runners, let’s be kind to each other. Everything is more efficient with respect. Runners to race directors, runners to runners – we are a small – albeit growing – community and we gotta keep it together. My kindergarten teacher once told me “be nice to people and don’t hit.” My kindergarten self imagines those rules apply to the internet. (And my mother says so.)


6 thoughts on “Back-of-the-pack runners’ story goes viral, internet freaks out, forgets kindergarten lesson on manners

  1. Well said. Its amazing how it exploded, but like everything, you’ll have crazies on both ends with the rest of us in the middle trying to have an actual discussion.


  2. I fully agree! We should all be aware and respect slower runners at the end of the race as well. I have come in back of the pack and there was no food left. Not because there wasn’t enough but because runners who came in earlier filled bags and box tops as if they were doing their grocery shopping. OK so maybe getting a bagel isn’t a big deal but when I see someone that has a dozen bagels, apples and bananas in a plastic bag as they walk toward their car it really gets me. Thank you for writing this!


  3. I think you are absolutely right, Natalie. If the race has a 3 hour time limit, all runners that finish in 2:59.59 should have medals, food, medical, etc. They should not allow cars, etc. I have always thought that it is WAY harder to run a 6 hour marathon than a sub-4 hour marathon. I can’t imagine being out there that long. I cheer on everyone who tries. To people on both sides of the argument, there is only one thing that I can think of…. everyone is on his own journey and we don’t know what it is, so we need to treat each other with respect.


  4. I’m not fast…but I’m not last either…the more I run the faster I get but I ALWAYS remember where I started…it’s a shame some so-called “front runners” forget…my local running club had a discussion about this last summer when we had some newbies talking about being left behind during a training run….that made me show up to MORE training runs to run in the back of the pack because no new runner should be left to train alone….I occasionally apply that to my races too…no race is that important to me that I can’t encourage the back of the pack to keep going the best they can so they can be finishers…and I also remember to thank the volunteers along the way for being there because if it wasn’t for them….I probably wouldn’t be running that race either


  5. The last runner deserves the same support that the winner gets. They both paid to participate. The person who comes in last just had to work harder to get to the finish.
    I’ve been at races as a spectator and cheered on the last runner. They put a lot of heart into getting to the finish line.


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