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The Will to Lose

The unsung glory of coming in last.

When Usain Bolt ran the 200-meter sprint in the 2012 London Olympics in 19.32 seconds, the world cheered. And when Anaso Jobodwana finished less than 1.4 seconds later ... wait—Anaso who?

Precisely. Bolt’s a winner, and everybody loves a winner. Jobodwana finished last, and nobody pays the losers much mind. As the saying goes, winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.

That’s especially true in the United States, according to Francesco Duina, a sociologist at the University of British Columbia and author of Winning: Refections on an American Obsession. Americans find great value in competing and in winning—much more so than people in other nations, he argues. We’re even trying to “win at life” itself. Google the phrase and you’ll find hundreds of thousands of search hits to tell you how.

"Americans are much more likely to put the responsibility for being poor on the person and not on society or other external forces." But what if you work hard and lose anyway?

What’s more, we inject value into winning and losing, Duina has found. “If I win, my self-worth goes up. If I lose, it goes down,” he said in an interview. That attitude has to do with one of the bedrock principles of this country: If you work hard, you can pull yourself up by the bootstraps. Indeed, most Americans believe in the notion that hard work brings success, according to the World Values Survey, which tracks attitudes and beliefs around the globe. But this idea has a corollary. “You’re poor?” Duina said. “A large percentage of  Americans will say it’s your fault. Compared to other nationalities, Americans are much more likely to put the responsibility for being poor on the person and not on society or other external forces.”

But what if you work hard and lose anyway? We decided to explore that question. The marathon seemed like the perfect vehicle. It’s a grueling test of the human body and spirit; for the people who cross the finish line last or near last, it’s even worse. If you “lose” a marathon, you’ve been out on the course for six, seven, or even eight hours. Most of that time, your whole body hurts. There’s a barrage of mental challenges, too. For one thing, the course is likely being dismantled right behind you—or maybe even in front of you. You may be running in the dark.

Yet only a tiny percentage of people who enter marathons don’t finish them; most people just keep on running. “That’s the only way you finish, my dear,” one of the losers we interviewed quipped.

What does it feel like to “lose”? Not so bad, it turns out. All of our losers agreed that the races were physically hard. But they talked about little moments along the course—the glistening water, the breeze, the selfie taken with a son who had waited for hours on the sidelines. They talked about the running “tribe,” and the helpfulness of other runners. They found ways to put things in perspective, like the woman who at 91 years old came in last but still won first place in the 90-plus age category.

Not a single loser expressed regrets. They didn’t beat themselves up for being slow or having skimped on their training. Which brings us back to this American obsession with winning, and raises an important question: If you really want to win at life, what do you do? Run a marathon, climb a mountain—do anything, really, that you’re not very good at—and fail miserably. Then we’ll talk.

(Illustration: Graham Smith)

(Illustration: Graham Smith)

First-time marathoner, age 45 
2013 Seattle Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon 
Time: 6:55

At some point during the race, I noticed one of the officials. I said, “I’m the last person, right?” He said, “Yup.” I turned around, and they were picking up the cones. There was a van with comfy seats and water and music. They said, “If y’all need a break, we’re here.”

I was tired, but I wouldn’t say I was miserable. Of course the body gets sore. It’s a muscle. It’ll heal. You’ve got to practice this. We shield ourselves from feeling pain and failure. It’s no wonder that when stuff happens, we panic. You have to experience this early, when it doesn’t count.

I’ve been in counseling since I was six years old. I was in special ed from kindergarten through 12th grade—ADHD and learning disabilities. I was basically a guinea pig. They used to put me in a refrigerator box near my desk so I wouldn’t be distracted. They didn’t think I was going to be able to make it out of high school, but I did. 

I really wanted to be an engineer. The first couple years of school I had to take every course three times. I’d fail it, take it again, and get a D. I’d take it again and make a C. It took me 10 years. I got the lowest possible grade needed, but I’m an engineer.

I’ve had 42 different job attempts since I was 18. Engineering jobs. Construction jobs. Outward Bound. Peace Corps. Sales. I’ve been a roadie for a band. I’ve been through bankruptcy. Slept on the street. I was arrested for DUI. I’m on food stamps and SSDI.

In the marathon, when a grandma would pass me, I didn’t mind. I thought, “If she can do it, I can, too.” The van probably came by a dozen times. It was enough of a bug in my ear to say, “Hmmm, it wouldn’t be bad to lie down right now.” But I couldn’t find a good reason to get in. My grandfather always said, “Don’t step on yourself, Jayson, because it’s painful.” If I had quit, it would have been stepping on myself. I mean, we fail at all kinds of things all day long, right? But I needed a win. Coming in last place was a win for me.

15-time ultramarathoner, age 67 
The Wasatch Front 100, a 100-mile trail race that takes between 18 and 36 hours to complete 
Time: 35-plus hours

I never really did well at Wasatch. It was always something. Sore feet, blisters, dehydration. Stomach issues were always a possibility. I guess I enjoy overcoming these obstacles. And I don’t mind taking my time to do so. I’m not trying to set any records, I’m just trying to perform admirably. Someone once said, “Finish with dignity. Be able to run.”

We’re not all going to be in first place in life or other things. But it depends on how you measure things. I started challenging myself to evaluate my performance not on how fast I went. In the days after a race, I would do an analysis: Am I banged up, is my knee sore, did I get blisters? I started realizing that if I ran slower, I would feel better. The mantra became: “Hang back. Take care of yourself.” Last place isn’t such a bad thing, you know?

Now that I’ve gotten quite a bit of experience, I love helping people who are struggling. It’s almost more rewarding to see them finish than to finish myself.

There are times I’ve just allowed myself to believe I was too tired to go on. A lot of times we drop out because of the symptoms. Are you tired, sore, hungry? It’s transcending those obstacles—self-transcending these micro issues that lead to a macro performance. 

It’s like life, finances or relationships or work situations. Just because a problem hits you in the face, that’s not a reason to stop. Whether it’s after a day or a month or a year, we get over it. So there’s a little spirit inside of us to keep on keeping on. The human spirit, it gets down to that.

At some point, the devil be damned in terms of your legs. You just have to go for it, so you do.

(Illustration: Graham Smith)

(Illustration: Graham Smith)

Four-time marathoner, age 58 
2012 Seattle Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon 
Time: 7:08

When I ran the Seattle marathon, I was running with the American Cancer Society. My sister had passed away almost one year to the day of the race. I had been grieving for a long time, and I wasn’t well trained for the race. I never thought I’d finish. I was hurting. I felt like my feet were broken and I was popping Tylenol like crazy. I started walking like a caveman at the end. But I got in the zone, and said, “They’re going to have to find me dead by the side of the road, because I’m not quitting.”

Here’s a funny thing: There was a man who, for probably 10 miles, was several paces ahead of me. For a long time, if one or the other of us would stop at the porta-potty, the other would pass. So we leapfrogged each other. When we got to the last little bit, he was really slowing down. My coach was saying: “You know, we could pass him. We could pass him and be faster.” I said: “No. I’ve been very last, with the SAG wagons on my tail, for 15 miles. I’ll be darned if I’m going to let him cross last. I’ve earned last.”

(Illustration: Graham Smith)

(Illustration: Graham Smith)

Two-time marathoner, age 37 
2014 Seattle Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon 
Time: 7:03

I hate running. But after my college buddy died of cancer, I signed up for Team in Training, which raises money for cancer research. I thought that I could put myself through the miles after all he went through.

I was running at a decent pace, then something weird happened. My body went into pain mode. From mile 12 on, I was in some of the worst pain I’d been in my life. It almost felt like my body was shutting down. By the end, I couldn’t feel my hands or my feet. This is going to sound very strange, but I almost felt like I was ... I don’t want to say slowly dying. I felt like I was almost kind of losing everything. Like I was depleting my body beyond fatigue.

I’m a decent athlete. I’m a competitive guy. I went to law school. At first I was like, holy crap, I’m going to be last, that sucks. Around mile 13, a coach I had never met before—she was from San Antonio, I think—came up and said, “Are you all right?” She stayed with me the whole rest of the way. Three or four more runners joined us. The closer we got to the finish line, the more coaches were joining. It was like gravity, people were adding to the mass. It was pretty emotional.

As I started really thinking about how hard it was to keep going, and I looked around at how many people were around me, I thought, “I’m looking at this in the wrong way.” First of all, I didn’t go into it to try to win. As much pain as I was in, I did not quit. I thought, “First or last, this moment right now is something I will remember for the rest of my life.”

(Illustration: Graham Smith)

(Illustration: Graham Smith)

81-time marathoner, age 91
2014 New York City Marathon, last recorded finisher
Time: 9:50

When I was 64 I went to a clinic to help me stop smoking. They told me to get out and move, so I went out jogging. I just kept going a little farther every day.

Girls didn’t jog when I was growing up. On Saturdays, we mopped the kitchen floor, that was the exercise. Now I have a yoga class on Mondays and Thursdays. We have an aerobics class Thursday mornings at my church. Sometimes I pump a little iron on the machines.

It’s a lot harder and it takes a lot more effort now to do these races, but I’m willing to pay the price. I don’t want to be last, but I am 91. At 91 there’s not much of a possibility of getting faster.

I’ve done marathons in Dublin and Iceland. I just enjoy it! I’m in the Guinness World Records as the oldest person to have completed a marathon on each of the seven continents. It really doesn’t take that much out of me most of the time. I’ve done the Great Wall of China. The Mt. Everest Challenge. Antarctica.

This was my second time doing New York. I walk, jog, whatever. My favorite part? The finish line. That’s a story! My friend Sue and I were on the corner of 71st and Central Park West. This beautiful blonde—I have her name somewhere—she came up and said, “You need a cup of hot tea.” There was a restaurant there, a real high-class place. She took us right in, we didn’t have a chance to say no. As we went in she announced, “This is the oldest finisher, everybody!” Everybody wanted to say hello. The next thing I knew, the waiter brought crab cakes. Then he brought us some Mexican-like pastry. We just had a feast! They say New Yorkers aren’t nice? Don’t you believe that!

(Illustration: Graham Smith)

(Illustration: Graham Smith)

12-time marathoner, age 72
2013 New York City Marathon
Time: 8:38

I took up marathoning in 1990 and settled into an every-other-year ritual. In the year I wasn’t training, I felt like I was getting older. I kept feeling that something would snap, that I wouldn’t be able to do it. Then in the year I started training, it was almost a miraculous feeling. You feel this kind of rejuvenation, that you’re getting younger, stronger, faster. It’s a wonderful tonic, exercise.

My best time was 4:40, in 1994. With every race I would slow down about 20 or 30 minutes. Even though I was usually in the bottom five percent, I still felt part of the race. By the time I’d get to Central Park, there’d be this army of walking thirty- or fortysomethings. I’d be like the tortoise, age 50 or 60, and basically running, or trudging, through this dispirited army of people who had gone out too fast or hadn’t trained enough. So it was fun to be still running at an even pace in what looked like the aftermath of a military defeat.

But in 2013, I was basically running alone. When I hit First Avenue, groups were coming out of bars after thinking they’d finished watching the marathon. They would catch sight of me and start wildly cheering because they had discovered this relic, this living fossil, plodding along. It was very encouraging. I ran a very strong race, for me.

I kept running. I even had a kick at the end, trying to come in under 8:30. I’ve often thought of this paradox: The winners do it in three hours, but I’m a winner too, because I’ve run for more hours. So instead of this inexorable decline, you’re actually getting better and better, running longer and longer.


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