When I first started racing mountain bikes professionally, I lived with a constant, paralyzing fear of being last. Before every race I would scan the start sheets and try to identify people I could beat. If there wasn’t anyone slower than me on the list (which was a frequent occurrence) I would secretly hope for someone to have some sort of mechanical, just so that I wouldn’t have to see my name at the bottom of the results sheet. I’m pretty ashamed of this behavior, to be honest, but I doubt I’m the only one who’s thought this way. In fact, I know I’m not, because I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people say some sort of rendition of “I don’t care how I do, as long as I’m not last,” or “my only goal is to not be last.” This is usually accompanied by a nervous laugh, like it’s a joke, except it’s pretty obvious it’s not. Now, after two seasons of racing professionally, and racking up a pretty impressive resume of DFLs (but only one DNF, I might add), I cringe whenever I hear this. Cut it out, I want to tell people, please, pleeeeease come up with a better goal.
We’re conditioned from an early age to think that being last is the worst possible thing that happen to us. You don’t want to be the kid picked last in gym class, you don’t want to be the bottom of the curve. We’re constantly judging and critiquing ourselves based on the people around us. And while sometimes that can lead to improvement, being preoccupied with failure is almost always counter-productive. So I’m here to tell you this — don’t ever, ever (even just in your head) set a goal of not being last. It will not make you faster, and it will certainly not make you a better racer or human being.
Unless you’re racing against every single person in the world, “being last” doesn’t mean much, other than that you were the slowest person who showed up (and finished the race). There’s really no shame in that. None. All being last tells you is this — you showed up, you finished, and everyone else went faster. You will never do well and achieve your goals if you don’t show up or if you don’t finish, so you are 2/3 of the way to successful race. (And those are the harder parts, I swear.)
Here’s an incomplete list of what being last DOESN’T tell you — Whether or not you had fun, whether or not you raced better than last weekend, or last year. It doesn’t tell you if you improved, if you learned something, if you overcame something really challenging.
Being last in a bike race is hardly the worst thing that happen to a person. Living in fear of being last, however, can be actively harmful to both your well-being and your results. For starters, “I just don’t want to be last” is the best way to cultivate a big-fish-little-pond mentality. No matter how slow you are, you can probably find a race where you won’t be last. That won’t change the fact that you’re slow. Likewise, unless you’re the best in the world, no matter how fast you are, you can probably put yourself in a situation where you will be DFL. It’s all relative. If you consistently seek out situations where you’re DFL, you will get faster. You may still be DFL, but whatever.
“I just don’t want to be last” is the equivalent of wanting someone else to fail, instead of wanting yourself to succeed. It’s the whole “you don’t have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun your slowest friend,” thing, which is a horrible saying for all sorts of reasons. Over the past few years, I’ve realized that, at least as far women’s enduro racing goes, it is not a zero-sum environment. One of us does not have to fail for others to succeed. We share lines, we give each other tips and pep talks, we help fix other people’s flats, and we remind everyone to open their suspension before the stage (I have it on authority that the men do NOT do this last one). I’m friends with almost everyone I race against. This doesn’t mean I don’t want to beat them — it just means I want to beat them when they’re at their best.
I’m not saying you should be happy about being last — I’m just saying it shouldn’t determine how you think about a race (or whether or not you race). I have some races where I was last because I totally and completely dropped the ball and raced like an idiot. I’m not proud of those. I have other races where I was last because I dragged my broken body and/or broken bike across the finish line, through some really shitty circumstances. I wouldn’t say I’m happy about those results, but I’m still proud that they don’t say DNF.
So the next time you catch yourself thinking “I just don’t want to be last,” pick a different goal. Pretty much anything is better. Choose to have fun, do your best, avoid major mistakes, etc. Most importantly — choose your own success, not someone else’s failure.