9/7/2021 Why Finishing Last Felt So Good
By Patrick Coffey, SkyRun Buyer and Nordic Nerd
Crossing the finish line, I managed to keep it together. I thanked the volunteers, nodded to a few folks I knew, grabbed some food and water, and then headed out. But by the time I got to the car, a wave of emotion overtook me and there was no holding back the tears. Despite having run a handful of ultramarathons, this half marathon was by far the heaviest race of my life.
At the age of 39, thanks to an infected prosthetic valve, I found myself quickly admitted to an emergency room only to be presented with two options - go in for a third open heart surgery or enjoy a week of walking around before my aorta tore away from my heart. Obviously, I went for the emergency operation.
Coming out of surgery, I was diligent with my exercise. I even set up a training plan that had me walking four times a day after two weeks. I was tasked with administering antibiotics through an IV Midline twice a day for six weeks. With a plastic tube hanging out of my upper right arm it was just one more reminder that life was not exactly business as usual.
Unable to lift more than 5 pounds meant no weight training and half-mile jogs seemed daunting. The progress was painfully slow, but very necessary to make a full and injury-free recovery. And since I had lost almost 30lbs due to being sick for months, putting the weight back on with easy exercise and plenty of milkshakes was also part of life.
I had my plan but I needed motivation to stay on track, which is when I looked to my love of trail racing. The mental strength it takes to finish a race and the comradery I have always experienced on the course are what draw me to this sport and these events. The day I cooked up this plan I put my five races on the calendar and then headed out for one of my daily walks. The ultimate goal was to build back up to being able to run an ultramarathon again.
Fifty miles was a very long way off at that point.
Seven weeks post surgery, I stepped up to the line (well, the back of the group) at the Round Valley Rambler Half Marathon in Park City. I was excited to be racing again but it was a different kind of excitement that I had never experienced before. The goal was simple - keep my heart rate down and finish. That’s it. I even had a few friends on the course doing their best to keep an eye on me since they were worried I wouldn’t be able to keep a low pace in a race environment.
With clear goals and expectations that had nothing to do with pace, time, body feel, or results, I found myself enjoying the experience. As I slowly plodded the course, I continually reflected on how grateful I was to be alive. Not in the metaphorical sense, but literally. I was alive and able to enjoy the beautiful weather, perfect trails, the company of friends, and most importantly, feel my heart beating in my chest.
Three hours later I crossed the finish line in dead last place.
The gratitude I felt was overwhelming. Towards my friends and family who guided me through these surgeries, the surgeons, cardiologists, nurses, and entire medical staff that saved my life and helped me heal. I could still vividly remember my first steps after surgery - a walk of about 50 feet while hooked up to a multitude of monitors and tubes, supported by two nurses to keep me from falling over.
After a year of illness and multiple surgeries, I had no idea how badly I needed this victory.
What was technically my worst finish at any race of mine, it was by far the one I am most proud of. We all have a story to tell and different reasons we train, race, and stay active. Those at the top of the trail running world are incredibly inspiring, but it might just be the person that finishes last at any given race that will walk away with the biggest win.