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Winning the New York City Marathon is easy. Bill Rodgers has done it four times and Grete Waitz three. No one, however, has been durable or quite savvy enough to finish last even twice. I know, because I've tried.
Winning is the usual route to fame; one might even say it's boringly conventional. On the other hand, losing—and receiving acclaim for losing—is really something to be proud of. For all the thousands of runners entered in the marathon, only one can finish first and only one can finish last. The recent record shows that the latter may be more difficult.
On Sunday, Oct. 26, 1980 I set out to come in last in the marathon. In the 1979 marathon I'd come close to attaining that goal. When I submitted my race registration forms that year, I truly believed I could make myself undergo an intensive 12-week training program designed to prepare my mind and body for running a reasonably competitive marathon.
However, my devotion to training rapidly evaporated in the heat and humidity of the summer. Nonetheless, I somehow convinced myself that I could crawl out of bed in the wee hours of marathon Sunday and miraculously complete the 26 miles and 385 yards in 3:30 or less. This fantasy persisted despite a total lack of training until I attempted a long run two weeks before the marathon. After 12 miles I ran smack into the so-called wall. It finally dawned on me that it might be a wise idea to hang up my New Balances.
But when I learned that a local TV station intended to present a feature on the last finisher in the marathon, my interest was instantly rekindled. Suddenly I again felt equal to the formidable task of running the race. But I decided to have some fun and try to finish last.
That Sunday I started very slowly and made it rather easily to the back of the pack. No serious competition was in sight. I was creeping a beautiful race through the first 20 miles until I met a middle-aged man whose blistered feet made his pace even slower than mine. He posed a great threat to my quest. I couldn't allow him to fall behind me lest he somehow summon the wherewithal to finish the race.
I began faking great pain and walked with him for a while. We stopped for pastrami sandwiches and lemonade. After that interlude he pulled ahead of me near the finish line. Then, feigning pain and suppressing guilt, I limped heroically across the finish line 6 hours and 54 minutes after the start of the race.
As soon as I hit the tape, a microphone was thrust in my face. Celebrity status was mine!
"How does it feel to finish last?" the guy with the mike asked.
I innocently looked around. "Rodgers get here yet?" I asked.