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Beginner’s Luck: What Happens at the Back of the Pack?

What happens if you are last? Then what?

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Question: What advice do you have for someone who is always at the back of the pack in a race—or DFL (dead effing last)?

I have a great little group that has hunkered down with me to help me get the word out about Triathlon for the Every Woman, my best-selling book which is being completely revised and updated and released in the spring (huzzah!). One of the gals in the group, Marie, suggested that I write about this topic, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t yet.

The above is such a great question, and such a massive fear for triathletes—beginner and seasoned.  What does happen at the back of the pack? What happens if you are last? Then what?

I constantly remind my athletes that triathlon is not a master to serve—it is a sport that should be glad to have you in it. We should always think about swim, bike, and run as activities that add to our lives—not take away. If we are getting tremendous value, health, and fun out of the sport, then the sport is serving us—and rock on! Woo-hoo!

However, when race day becomes something terrifying, then it’s not helping us. That includes back-of-the-pack fear. Jitters and nerves are one thing, but when anything we do begins to suck our souls dry, it’s time to reassess.

At the same time, if we are working on our Inner Hare and yet the Tortoise is who always shows up, then there is a challenge being presented to us: How tough are you? Because finishing fast may be tough—mentally and physically—but finishing in the back is too. You are out there the longest, there are fewer spectators, there is less to look at, the snacks are less than stellar, and sometimes they’ve forgotten about you entirely.

In those moments, you are the star of our own story.

That is the only way to look at it. This is your story, and you are the only one left in the story of this race to tell the tale. That makes you the hero or the heroine, by the way.

Why? Because you are there and you changing your life every single day in training. With every race, you are changed—and so are people who witness your hard work. Spectators are often inspired to be better because they see someone who “looks like them” out there. I can’t tell you how many times I have been flagged down (while racing) by a spouse or significant other (also racing) who says, “I need to show you to my wife!”

I’m like, “Huh?!”

But they will say, “You look just like her! She could do this! She would love this! You are great!”

And I just scream: “Swim Bike Mom!” and think, “Of course she could do it, dude.” And I want to roll my eyes. But. I am out there proving that normal people can do it. That’s the thing to always remember about the back of the pack.

The back of the pack is made up of the real people who show other real people how to do this stuff. 

The back of the pack is where hard, real stories often happen—the moms who never got to train as much as they wanted because they are “doing it all” in day-to-day life. The fast triathlete who suffered a crash or injury, and is experiencing a dashing of dreams (yet, they keep going—proving that quitting is not an option). The back is where we will often find new-to-fitness or straight-off-the-couch athletes who bravely show up to wear spandex and run in wet clothes like amazing and crazy people. That is some true bravery.  The athlete who keeps coming back, season after season—bringing up the rear and encouraging others.

The back of the pack is where nothing is certain—and nothing is taken for granted. Speed, health, mental toughness—none of those things are lost on the back. For anyone who has raced in the back knows the tremendous amount of strength, toughness, humility, and bravery that it takes to finish the race—and when you are last? You are indeed a hero of the story. Sometimes you may feel like you are forgettable back there—but I assure you, no one who sees the last finisher ever thinks anything other than: That is amazing.

And that, you are.

Meredith Atwood (@SwimBikeMom) is a recovering attorney, motivational speaker and author of Triathlon for the Every Woman: You Can Be a Triathlete. Yes. You., being re-released in 2019. She is the host of the podcast, The Same 24 Hours, a show which interviews interesting people who make the best of the 24 hours in each day. You can download a free triathlon race day checklist here. Meredith lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children and writes about all things at In addition to Triathlon, she has another book due out Fall 2019.