Letting Go with Guy Finley

A sports reporter for a large newspaper was assigned to cover an international marathon hosted each year by his city. From past experience, he knew that thousands of people would turn out to test themselves over the grueling twenty-six-mile course; he had also seen ten times that number of people line the streets to cheer them on.

But, as this was the umpteenth time he’d been asked to cover the race, he wanted to do something new. He had already interviewed most of the likely winners more than once and knew their backstories all too well. So he decided that he would cover the race from a different angle; this year’s story would be about the person who finished last.

As always, the day of the big race began with its official pomp and ceremony, including the usual confusion surrounding the runners’ registration booth. Soon thousands of runners wearing brightly colored jerseys with paper numbers pinned to the front and back lined up for the starting gun. And then—bang! They were off!

It was only a little more than two hours later when—setting a record time—the first contestant crossed the finish line to the deafening cheers of admiring fans. As the minutes and hours ticked off the official clock, more and more men and women made their way into the arms of family and friends who had cheered them all along, waiting for them to finish.

Slowly but surely, the throngs of people who had lined the streets faded back into the city’s background, returning to their homes, enriched and exhausted by the day’s events. The sun was setting by the time the last group of a few runners came walking, some limping, across the finish line. The reporter wanted to go home, but he knew the race wasn’t over yet.

It was still several hours later when he spied the last contestant making her way to the final checkpoint. Her body fairly shouted the pain she was in; clearly, every step was a struggle. A wave of compassion swept through him, and for a moment he doubted the wisdom of trying to interview the last runner in the race. Surely she was already suffering enough without being asked what it was like to finish dead last. As she drew closer, he strained to make out some of her features.

At first—due to the dim light cast by the city street lamps—he doubted his own eyes, but as she got closer and closer to where he stood, it looked like she was sporting a big smile across her face. Soon enough he could see that in spite of the occasional involuntary grimace of pain, she was, in fact, quite happy. In spite of being partially bent over with exhaustion, her eyes were bright; something about her spirit was standing there upright, undaunted. He couldn’t help but feel strangely drawn to her.

Grabbing one of the sponsor-supplied sport bottles with water in it, he jogged over to the spot where she crossed the finish line and, handing it to her, offered his congratulations.

Thanking him for his kindness, she took a couple long, deep swallows. A moment or two later, he introduced himself as a reporter and asked if he might trouble her with just a couple of questions. To his surprise, she showed no hesitancy, saying, “Of course. What would you like to know?”

Doing his best to make eye contact with her, he hoped she could see that he sincerely wanted to understand how she was feeling; it was important to him at this point—knowing the kind of question he was about to ask—that she realize he wasn’t judging her performance. He began:

“Did you know that you’re the very last person to finish this race?”
“Yes, that’s pretty much what I expected,” she said.

“Well, what’s that like? I mean, how does it feel?” Again he tried to convey through his eyes that he sincerely wanted to understand her feelings. “Do you have any regrets that out of the thousands who ran this race today, none of them took as much time as you did to reach the finish line?”

She looked down at the ground for a moment, and his heart went out to her; the last thing he wanted her to feel was that he was belittling her or her efforts. But the next moment she looked back up at him, eyes smiling, and said something that he would never forget:

“I’m at peace with myself. Do you want to know why?”

Very much surprised by her question, the reporter said, “Yes, please, by all means. I think all of my readers would like to share your experience here today.”

She paused for a moment, obviously collecting her thoughts, and said:

“I ran as hard as I could for as long as I could. So, you see, I have nothing to regret. Besides,” she continued, her eyes flashing a certain mischievous glow, “I’m sure I’ll do a lot better next year!”