The final finisher: The inspiring stories of last-place marathon runners
Posted November 4, 2018 12:00 a.m. EDT
(CNN) — When Simon Kindleysides crossed the finish line at the Virgin Money London Marathon this year, what followed was a blur -- but he became a "superhero" to his kids, and he set a world record in becoming the first paralyzed man to complete the race on foot.
He was the final finisher.
When David Fraser crossed the finish line at the TCS New York City Marathon last year, it marked his 10th time completing that race, using his toes to push his wheelchair to the finish line.
He was the final finisher.
When Amina Abdul-Jalil crossed the finish line this year at an inaugural half-marathon in Atlanta called The Race, she never felt more proud. She accomplished something she didn't think she could with asthma, but because of her history of depression, running has been a "lifesaver."
She was the final finisher.
Lisa Jackson has run 110 marathons and ultramarathons around the world. After each, she has a tradition of sleeping with the new medal around her neck to celebrate her accomplishment.
In 25 of those races, she was the final finisher -- and she revels in coming in last.
The world often hears the inspiring stories of elite athletes who finish first after running 26.2 miles in marathon races. For instance, Olympic medalist Shalane Flanagan broke the finish line tape at the New York City Marathon last year, becoming the first American woman to do so in 40 years. This year's marathon is scheduled to kick off Sunday morning.
Yet there are equally inspiring stories among the athletes who make up the back of the pack. As Peter Ciaccia, director of the New York City marathon, puts it, "for every runner, there's a story."
"They have their own reasons why they're doing what they're doing and they're putting in all that time and energy to train," he said. "Every one of those folks that crossed the finish line are inspiring, from the first to the final finish."
On average, it takes bout 4½ hours for men and women to complete a marathon, Ciaccia said, but that time can vary drastically among racers.
Ahead of Sunday's New York City Marathon, where more than 50,000 people are expected to travel through the five boroughs, here are four inspirational stories from the last racers in half- and full marathons.
One thing they have in common: They never gave up.
'Even when I was able-bodied, I took plenty for granted'
As Simon Kindleysides, 34, took his first steps in the London Marathon in April, it felt as if magic was in the air.
"As we were walking toward the first mile, we actually started blending in with all the runners," he said. "Everyone was on the streets, cheering, and that was a magical moment."
As time went on, the crowds and other racers dispersed. Kindleysides and his team of eight supporters continued walking.
Kindleysides, who is paralyzed from the waist down and typically uses a wheelchair, was equipped with an exoskeleton to help him walk. His supporters walked with him to change the batteries in his exoskeleton so he could keep moving.
"I can walk up to four miles consecutively on one charge of the battery," he said.
In 2013, Kindleysides was diagnosed with a brain tumor -- a benign glioma -- that was growing in a way that pressed on certain nerves, leading to him losing feeling in his legs. He was told he would never walk again.
Before his paralysis, the London-based singer and dancer had "always wanted to run a marathon," he said, but he never made the plans to do so -- until this year.
"Even when I was able-bodied, I took plenty for granted," Kindleysides said. "You realize the time you wasted on things you didn't need to waste your time on."
During the London Marathon, the last two miles were the hardest.
"At that point, I was exhausted. It was freezing cold, and I was hurting and emotional," Kindleysides said, but he kept going.
"I guess I didn't want to let people down. I had a team of eight of us, and I was raising money for The Brain Tumour Charity," he said. "I didn't want to let them down, myself down, and I thought if I'd get this far, I'd have to continue."
So he continued and made history as the first paralyzed man to complete the London Marathon on foot.
Once Kindleysides crossed the finish line, a live news crew interviewed him, and "I said, 'I need a full body massage and a Jägerbomb.' I pinch myself. Why would I say that on live TV? I don't know. I wasn't really thinking," he said. "My brain went mashed potato."
Then, recovering at home, he shared his accomplishment with his three children.
"I was called RoboCop, Terminator and every superhero you can possibly imagine," Simon said.
"They used to say I'm the only dad in their whole school who's in a wheelchair, and now they say I'm their dad, the only one who has walked a marathon," he said. "It was amazing, emotional, just to think I'd done it and to prove anything is possible. ... There's no such thing as can't."
Kindleysides is training to complete three more marathons next year, including the London Marathon again.
Meanwhile, a final finisher in the United States is preparing to run his 11th New York City Marathon on Sunday.
'Every year, I run the race for my wife'
David Fraser, who was born with cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, had competed in the New York Marathon before. Racing wasn't new to him, but being the final finisher last year was -- and he enjoyed the moment.
Fraser said that last year he was focused on his personal training company and didn't devote as much time to training for the marathon as he normally does.
"My wife and my kids were there. They meet me at the end of my race every year, and they couldn't believe I was the last one, because I had done many races. I had done 5K, I had done half-marathons, I had even done ultras -- but never have I done that," said the 51-year-old New Yorker who owns a company called Nightwarriors Fitness.
"But you know what? They were happy to see me complete it," he said of his family. "At the start of every marathon, I have one goal -- and my goal is to complete it. I don't care about time. I care about completing the race."
Cerebral palsy, a group of disorders that affect muscle coordination and body movement, impacts much of Fraser's body -- but that hasn't stopped him from pursuing his love of fitness.
Before 2007, he spent much of his free time weightlifting and bodybuilding, but that year, his co-workers challenged him to run the New York Marathon. He took on the challenge and completed the race.
He has set out to finish it every year since.
"That next year, 2008, my wife developed stomach cancer, and now every year, I run the race for my wife," said Fraser, whose wife still attends his races.
He even developed a strategy: "Ninety percent of the race, I do backwards," he said. "Because when I go downhill, I go forward, but when I go uphill and when I do even terrain, I go backwards. ... I always run that way."
Overall, Fraser said, "The thing that's the most difficult part of running a marathon is not the physical. The most difficult part is the mental. The reason is because when your body gives up and you are done, really done, you now have to talk yourself back into it."
Fraser is preparing to complete the New York Marathon on Sunday, and he's looking forward to the race.
"All runners are out of their minds," he joked. "Think about it. Who gets up early in the morning to run 26.2 miles? But we love it."
As for one runner in Atlanta, not only does she love it, it has been a "lifesaver."
'There's nothing I would change'
Amina Abdul-Jalil started running last year, around the time her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"I realized in that time, I don't think it was even the whole month, that I had gained 10 pounds, and I was just stressed, and I thought, 'I need to do something now, or this isn't going to end well,' " Abdul-Jalil said.
So she joined a running group called Black Girls Run.
"To be completely honest, it's been a lifesaver in a very real way, because I have major depressive disorder," she said.
Regular exercise such as running can help curb symptoms of depression, something that Abdul-Jalil said she noticed firsthand.
As she continued running with the group, an opportunity arose to join in an inaugural half-marathon in Atlanta called The Race, but Abdul-Jalil was hesitant. Then she saw a video clip of ultramarathon runner Mirna Valerio, a runner with a body type similar to her own.
"I was like, 'she runs like me' -- and that was a big moment for me," Abdul-Jalil said. "So I was like 'maybe, maybe, maybe I could pull this off.' "
Then she registered for The Race and trained for 12 weeks.
Abdul-Jalil and I both ran that half-marathon last month. Watching her finish the race is what inspired me to seek out the stories of final finishers. She told me that she ran the race simply to see whether she could do it.
"Running is something that I didn't think I'd ever be able to do because I was a kid with horrible asthma," said the 41-year-old mother, who lives in the Atlanta area.
"And I'm not FloJo-built," she added, referencing late track-and-field athlete Florence Griffith-Joyner, who holds the 100-meter and 200-meter dash world records for women.
Over the 13.1-mile course, Abdul-Jalil listened to a playlist that included songs like Twenty One Pilots' "Ride" and Outkast's "B.O.B."
Around mile three, a medical director approached her, indicating that her pace was such that the finish line might close before she got there. If that were to happen, Abdul-Jalil might not receive medical assistance if she needed it, the medical director said.
In that moment, Abdul-Jalil felt discouraged.
"I wanted to cry and quit, and it took maybe another two miles to get that out of my head," she said. To keep her going, she thought about the running group, Black Girls Run.
"I literally went back to conversations that I've had," she said. "Every time I said I can't do something, there was at least one or two other people that said I could."
So she kept going.
"By the last two miles, it was just me," Abdul-Jalil said.
Then, during the last mile, a race administrator and volunteer met her on the course and ran with her to the finish. They even posted a live video of her finish on Facebook, to celebrate her as the last runner.
A couple of days later, Abdul-Jalil watched the video, which has gotten more than 2,000 views.
With her depression, Abdul-Jalil sometimes replays sad experiences or picks apart moments in her life -- but after watching the video of her finish, "that's one external replay or something that has happened in my life where I don't pick it apart," she said. "There's nothing I would change."
Before the race, "I had given myself a really hard time -- 'Oh, my God, what if I'm the last person?' -- and now it's something that I would do again," she said. "You don't have to fit X mold to be great and to be celebrated. It's validating."
Being the final finisher is something that one runner in London not only would do again, but has done 25 times.
'It's not about the time you do but the time you have'
Lisa Jackson loves being the last runner.
"I think it's a special place in the race," said the London-based author of the book "Your Pace or Mine? What Running Taught Me About Life, Laughter and Coming Last."
"When you're last, it's a sense of occasion. People really admire you for your grit when getting there," she said.
Jackson, 51, was "incredibly unathletic" as a child and ran her first marathon when she was 31.
"After the indescribable feeling of accomplishment and joy, I thought, 'I have to experience this feeling every year, at least once,' " she said, and so she set out to run at least one marathon annually.
"When I first started running, my biggest fear was coming last," Jackson said. "And it was actually my 31st marathon -- the South Downs Marathon -- when I was the final finisher for the first time."
Jackson ran the South Downs trail marathon in the UK in June 2012. The course was hilly, the summer heat was grueling, and she wanted to give up -- but she kept running.
Jackson realized that she was the last runner when she saw a man on a bicycle taking down the distance markers along the course, she said. They spoke as she continued on her way, and she made a friend.
Next thing she knew, she was approaching the finish line, where other runners and race organizers gave her a standing ovation.
"I no longer have any fear of coming last, and if there's a risk of coming second to last, I try to drop back a little to ensure I'm in last place as we cross the line," Jackson said.
After all, in that moment on the South Downs, she realized that when runners are not stressed about their time, the people they can encounter and the relationships that form can make a race that much more worthwhile.
"My philosophy with running is that it's not about the time you do but the time you have," said Jackson, who went on to run the New York, Boston, London, Chicago and Rome marathons, among dozens of others.
"I think it's really funny when people feel sorry for me for coming in last. ... I think, 'well, how many races have you run?' " she joked.
"When you do something that is not easy and you think you're not cut out for and you succeed at it, it gives you so much courage in other aspects of your life," she said. "Running is really the most life-affirming, energizing thing you can do. Don't let the fear of coming last put you off. Every race needs a winner and a loser, and it might as well be you."