There is a three-letter abbreviation that nearly every serious runner knows, and most will do anything to avoid having it attached to their names. But even though John Barrett had spent a decade competing for UC Davis and then the Aggies Running Club, the first time he heard it was on April 11, 1992. 

Barrett was licking his wounds after the Olympic Trials marathon in Columbus, Ohio, when he heard his Aggies buddy Mark Conover say it. Barrett had run 2 hours, 38 minutes, and 42 seconds for 55th place in Columbus. Six-minute miles for a 26.2-mile race is objectively fast, but Barrett was disappointed, having run much faster to qualify for the Trials. Conover, who won the 1988 Trials to make the Seoul Olympics and finished 10th in ‘92, made a light joke about Barrett being DFL. Barrett remembers not knowing what that meant, and Conover had to explain: Dead Fucking Last.

Now 60 years old, Barrett is a doctor in Denver; we spoke while he was on call. He looks back at his time as a competitive runner with joy, and is one of the hardy few who wears the DFL with pride. But to most, DNF (Did Not Finish) is preferable to DFL. Certainly that’s the case at the U.S. Olympic Trials, maybe the world’s most brutal marathon. A couple hundred of the nation’s best marathoners qualify each year, and only three men and three women (usually) make the Olympics. It’s a unique race, with a very small field by marathon standards. In the back, it’s lacking in weekend warriors or otherwise casual runners who the qualifiers are used to thumping locally. Up front, even some of the best pros are in over their heads trying to make the Olympic team. Just behind them, plenty of runners are going for broke chasing equally unrealistic results.

The result is a quadrennial massacre. A huge chunk of the Trials field either makes the choice to step off the course to avoid chancing a DFL, or physically cannot make it 26.2 miles. That was certainly the case at this year’s Trials, which took place in Orlando on Feb. 3. Fifty of the 200 male starters dropped out, and 33 of the 149 women stepped off the course. That’s in line with historical norms. The men started using a Trials race to select the U.S. Olympic marathon team in 1968; the women adopted the same system ahead of the first women’s Olympic marathon in 1984. Over the 15 men’s Trials marathons, more than 30 percent of the runners who showed up on the starting line have ended up dropping out. That number is about 17 percent for the women. By comparison, about 1 percent of starters drop out of the New York City Marathon every year.

Talk to the last-place finisher at most marathons, and you’re likely to get a cute or heartwarming story of some sort: the retiree who started running a few months ago in order to stay spry, the casual who is memorializing a deceased loved one, etc. The 26 runners who have competed at the Trials and come away with DFL hanging around their necks are a different sort, however. Sixteen of these runners spoke with Defector recently, including at least one man or woman from every Olympic cycle since 1980. Most of them were civilians grinding out 100-mile weeks at the crack of dawn before their day jobs. A few had already been to the Olympics—not the Trials, the no-shit Olympics—and a handful were decorated athletes in other sports who picked up running on a lark as adults. Some were broken by the experience, taking a long time to get over it. Others were thrilled to have run fast enough to have qualified at all, and overjoyed to talk about the race years later. A couple had higher hopes; the majority showed up at the starting line with an injury. One expected to be last and spent the months before the race coming to terms with it before the gun even went off. They all found the idea of quitting a race abhorrent. They all chose to be DFL.

Every time I saw somebody walking back to the finish line and dropping out, it just strengthened my resolve.

Joanna Zeiger

To understand the DFLs, it’s instructive to talk to a DNF. As it happens, Weldon Johnson, the co-founder of notorious independent running website LetsRun, dropped out of the 2004 Trials in Birmingham, Ala., and was in Orlando to cover the 2024 race.

Why do so many people drop out of the Olympic Trials? Johnson’s simple answer: They’re injured. Civilian runners go on full tilt just trying to qualify, and go well past what their body can handle. Banged-up pros show up hoping for a miracle, because the rewards of making an Olympic team are so great that it’s worth at least taking a shot. 

Johnson dropped out after 15 miles in ‘04 because of foot and knee injuries that ultimately ended his competitive career. “You sort of deceive yourself,” he said in the media tent shortly before the 2024 Trials race went off. “But you can’t run a marathon injured … maybe [Eliud] Kipchoge could, but I don’t think so.” Johnson correctly predicted that Aliphine Tuliamuk, the defending Trials champ, would drop out of that day’s race after she admitted she was dealing with a hamstring problem.

Many of the athletes interviewed for this story either showed up at the Trials with an injury, or had their training compromised by one. But they had world-historic levels of dog in them, sometimes to their own detriment. Jeanne Sapienza, last at the 1996 race in Columbia, S.C., remembers having such severe pain in her hamstring that she spent the last eight miles crying. The hamstring injury bothers her to this day. But nearly 30 years later, it’s clear how alien she finds the idea of dropping out.

“I’m not ashamed of it. I mean, I finished,” Sapienza said. She remembers seeing plenty of runners drop out late in the race, which she called “baffling.” Sapienza is now 57 and a chiropractor in Louisville, running a cleaning business on the side. She was sweeping construction debris off a driveway when we spoke on the phone. Her daughter ran collegiately at Vanderbilt; Sapienza tried to impart on her that “if something’s wrong, don’t run through it.” But the lesson didn’t take; her daughter once raced on what turned out to be a stress fracture. “I really tried for her not to be like me,” she said. “But I don’t think I succeeded.”

Jaymee Marty showed up in Houston for the 2012 Trials injured, although hers wasn’t nearly as bad as she was briefly led to believe. She told me a story about getting an X-ray that turned up a spiral stress fracture in her lower leg, a result that made no sense given that she had run 16 miles earlier that day. Doctors put Marty in a cast, and she went along with it for a day before deciding it was ridiculous, and cutting the cast off herself. Subsequent testing determined that a technician possibly left a hair on the X-ray film; whatever the case was, she certainly did not have any bone injury.

Still dealing with other physical issues, Marty went straight to the back of the race in Houston with two women she knew were also injured. “We just formed this little triad and just hung out at the back and soaked up the cheers and just had a great time despite our pain,” she said. One dropped out early; the other ran away from her late. Marty remembers that there were a few stragglers out there clapping for her, “but it was definitely clear that things were wrapping up and I should finish.” She had been gunning hard to qualify for the Trials in her early 40s, and recalls crossing in last as an emotionally loaded moment. “To have some notoriety as DFL was a big deal, too,” Marty said in our conversation. “It’s like, OK, if you’re not going to be in the top three, being last is also noteworthy.”

Now 54, Marty works as an ecologist in Sacramento. She is one of a handful of women DFLs who picked up running on a lark in her 30s and discovered she was quite good at it. She struggled with so many injuries in her late-blooming running career that she made a rap video about it.

Jaymee Marty pictured running a race in Eugene, Oregon in 2013. (Courtesy of Jaymee Marty)

The list of DFLs who came in injured or badly overcooked is long. Shirley Durtschi, who came from a family of ski racers and picked up running after college after suffering a serious injury from skiing, racked up three stress fractures in her tibia while training alongside Athletics West athletes in the 1980s. Durtschi was spiraling down the injury-sickness-overuse doom loop when she bumped into her friend Alberto Salazar, who was cross-training at the same swimming pool in Eugene, Ore. Salazar was later banned from the sport for his abuses as a coach, but as a runner in the 1980s, he was dealing with serious health problems that had derailed his promising career. He suggested Durtschi get her thyroid checked out. Though testing made it clear she needed treatment for hypothyroidism, she showed up to the 1988 Trials totally broken as a runner, dealing with what she described as depression, weight gain, and fatigue. The disastrous race soured her on running, changing the arc of her life and career, but she said dropping out was unthinkable.

“There was a finish line, and I was going to cross that line,” Durtschi said from Alaska, where she is now 71 and a counseling psychologist. “There was nothing that was going to stop me.” She also said that there was nothing untoward about any of her interactions with Salazar, and they never discussed any medications. “I am sorry about the road Alberto took. He was a quiet, disciplined, and focused athlete,” she said. “Somewhere along his path, things changed.” (The many allegations against Salazar include having athletes abuse thyroid diagnoses to get purportedly performance-enhancing medications.)

Durtschi gave up on running after that day in Pittsburgh. She eventually began work toward a psychology degree and returned to her first love, skiing. (Her nephew is the well-known skier Tim Durtschi.) Oddly, the Trials were not her first brush with the Olympics. She was Oregon’s representative on the Olympic torch relay to Lake Placid in 1980.

Barrett, the doctor, postponed medical school for a year to train for the ‘92 Trials. He lost two months of training after needing surgery for a bowel obstruction that his father, also a doctor, found so obvious that he could diagnose it over the phone. “By then, the race was preordained,” Barrett told me. “That’s why I was DFL.”

John Hill, DFL in 2000, had such severe extensor tendonitis that by the day of the Trials, he could barely bend his right foot. He was already coaching at Bellevue High School at that point, and was motivated to finish the race for his teenage athletes. He had to walk several times in Pittsburgh en route to running 2:52:11, but he remembers telling his high school runners that if they ever quit a race, it would just make it easier to do so again in the future. “And I didn’t want to take that option at that point,” Hill, now 55 and Bellevue’s athletic director, said. “Especially since all these kids were excited for me and they still were happy that I was there and they weren’t upset that I came in last, necessarily.” Hill’s daughter is a legitimate prodigy, having run 4:48 for 1600 meters and winning a Washington state outdoor title in the 3200 last year as a freshman. It’s early, but Hill said his daughter tells him that she “wants to destroy anything that I ever did.” 

Even though I was in a lot of pain that day in Los Angeles, I didn’t want to drop out … the worst feeling in the world is when you defeat yourself and you step off.

Chris Barnicle

Chris Barnicle was a prodigy, too, breaking Salazar’s quarter-century-old New England high school boys record for the outdoor two-mile back in 2004. His running career then took several twists and turns over the following decade. Barnicle was an All-American at the University of Arkansas and the University of New Mexico, but struggled with nerves in big races and Crohn’s disease. After college, he had the talent to keep going, at one point training in Kenya under Renato Canova, the Italian who has coached countless world champions and record holders. By the early 2010s, though, chronic soleus and hamstring issues had reduced him to a shell of his former self. But Barnicle still had a Trials qualifier from a fast half marathon (64:29) in 2013, and his decision to race in Los Angeles in 2016 generated more headlines than the rest of his running career combined.

I called Barnicle eight years ago this month to check on two rumors that were rattling around the running world: that he ran the Trials marathon after consuming edible marijuana, and that he submitted PBR for his fluid stations. In a widely circulated interview with the headline “World’s Fastest Stoner Talks After Trials DFL,” he gave a winking no-comment to the first and knocked down the second. 

Reached eight years later, Barnicle had a question for me: Was he the slowest Trials runner ever? His 3:45:34, averaging over 8:30 pace per mile, would be the slowest women’s time ever. But a handful of men at the first Trials—held at 7,500 feet of elevation in Alamosa, Colo.—ran slower. None have since. 

Barnicle’s life has changed drastically since that day in 2016, but his feelings about running and the race haven’t moved an inch. At the time, he was trying to make it in the cannabis industry in California, working various jobs including grower, broker, and delivery man. The attention Barnicle got from the Trials briefly helped with a line of edibles he was producing with two of his Arkansas teammates, but the venture fell through later that year. Barnicle relocated to his native Boston, where he is now married with two young children. He was working as a ESL teacher for several years before the pandemic hit, and recently took on a job as a mail carrier for the overtime pay. When we spoke on the phone this month Barnicle was working his mail route in the South End of Boston; at one point, he stopped and spoke Portuguese with some locals while trying to figure out why one woman hadn’t been collecting her mail. 

“If anything, what I regret from my running career are the times that I did drop out of races,” Barnicle said, recalling when he was flat-tired early in a 10K at the NCAA outdoor championships and eventually lost his nerve. “Even though I was in a lot of pain that day in Los Angeles, I didn’t want to drop out … the worst feeling in the world is when you defeat yourself and you step off.”

“I’ve tried to make a couple of comebacks. I had another similar experience to the Olympic Trials at the Cape Cod Marathon when I was going for my BQ,” he said, referring to a Boston Marathon qualifying time. “I was doing good training going into it, where, I’ll be very honest with you, I was microdosing LSD every Sunday for a long run. And then when I went for the actual marathon, instead of microdosing, I had a pretty sizable dose, and it ended up not going so well to finish.” Barnicle still ran 3:03:24 in 2019, over 40 minutes faster than his Trials run, and he’s not sure if it was the drugs or his own lack of “patience” that felled him in Cape Cod.

After Barnicle’s death march in 2016, the 2020 race in Atlanta implemented cutoffs for the slowest finishers. Reached for comment in 2024, Atlanta’s race organizers said that the cutoff had nothing to do with Barnicle, and that the roads could only stay closed for so long that year. This year’s race in Orlando did not have a cutoff at the back of the pack, and let runners take as long as they needed.

Barnicle may or may not have been a bizarro Wilt Chamberlain, getting the rules changed to prevent someone from running so slow, but he was not the first last-place Trials finisher to go viral. That would be Lea Finck, whose run at the first-ever women’s Trials in May 1984 was heavily covered by news media at the time. Finck, then a 28-year-old stay-at-home mother with two young children, showed up at the race in Olympia, Wash., while six months pregnant, along with another runner from Minnesota, Michele Davis. (According to Finck, Davis also completed the entire Trials marathon at six months pregnant, but finished well after the cutoff when the roads had to reopen, an account confirmed by newspaper stories from the day. Finck got the official DFL, while Davis got no official time.) 

A photo of Finck's ID badge from the 1984 Trials.
A photo of Finck’s ID badge from the 1984 Trials. (Courtesy of Lea Finck)

Forty years later, Finck remembers having a “ball” at the ‘84 Trials. “Michele and I were as much celebrities as Joan Benoit,” she said. Benoit was the best marathoner in the world at the time and would go on to win both the Trials and Olympics that year, but was an object of major curiosity at the Trials because she had just had knee surgery. “She was very famous, and there were several others who were getting a lot of press, but because we were pregnant, we were getting a lot of calls to meet with reporters and do interviews,” she said.

One of those interviews appeared in the Tacoma News Tribune after the race. “I came mainly to be part of it, and because my way was being paid,” Finck said then. “But I also came to show something—that pregnancy is a natural condition. It’s not an injury. If I can scrub floors, I can run a marathon.” (In a race preview in the Philadelphia Inquirer, she said that running a marathon was “much easier” than giving birth.)

Today, this is a widely accepted view—plenty of women have run recent Trials while pregnant, including Maegan Krifchin, who I watched receive massive cheers in Orlando when she stepped off the course around 18 miles in and seven months pregnant. But it was much more of a novelty in 1984. Finck remembered that she had a bicycle escort and a ton of crowd encouragement for the final three miles. “When I finished, they took me to the medical tent, and found the baby’s heartbeat,” she told me. “And they put it out on the loudspeaker so people could hear.”

Finck only got better at running after having her third child, finishing eighth in the Boston Marathon in 1987 and 15th at the ‘88 Trials. She also won the prestigious Manchester Road Race on Thanksgiving Day 1986, where one of her prizes was a gold chain necklace that “I still really cherish to this day, because of the meaning behind it.” She described her running career as entirely “accidental”—she took up running in her 20s after reading several books about training, and says that discovering the sport completely changed her personality. “Running just gave me a lot of inner strength that I felt I didn’t have before,” she said. Finck, now 68, is a retired dietician living in the Berkshires.

At least one other last-place finisher was front-page news. Terry Heath was DFL at the 1976 Trials in Eugene. Four years later in Buffalo, he led the 1980 Trials as late as 19 miles into the race. On the August 1980 cover of Runner’s World, Heath is leading the race. He hung on to finish 39th in Buffalo.

Pregnancy is a natural condition. It’s not an injury. If I can scrub floors, I can run a marathon.

Lea Finck

Although Weldon Johnson dropped out of the ’04 Trials, Chad Worthen stuck around to finish last. In the DFL club, Worthen holds several distinctions. His 2:37:49 is the fastest last-place time by nearly a minute. And he and Marty, who have known each other from the Sacramento running scene for years, were the only two DFLs I spoke with who said they had commiserated with each other about the experience.

He vividly remembers the Birmingham Trials, which he entered “injured and out of shape.” Accustomed to grinding out occasional 140-mile weeks in the Sacramento heat, he was baffled when he saw white stuff falling from the sky in Birmingham. “Being in kind of a marathon fog at that point, I wasn’t sure what was going on,” he said. “I thought it was dust falling off of the top of the buildings.” It took him a mile or two to realize that it was snow.

Worthen is now the track and cross country coach at a Catholic high school in California. So is Tom McGlynn, who ran three Trials and put his DFL on the board in New York in 2007. McGlynn, who also coaches private clients, said that his DFL comes up in conversation with his athletes. “This is a sport where you’re pretty much always getting beaten,” he said. “If you don’t like losing, it’s the wrong sport.” When we spoke right before the 2024 Trials, McGlynn told me that he still follows the sport relatively closely. “There’s always going to be a loser,” he said, “and there’s always going to be the biggest loser … two people will finish exactly DFL on Saturday, so they’ll have to go through it. I would just say it’s OK, that it doesn’t diminish anything.”

“There was a finish line, and I was going to cross that line. There was nothing that was going to stop me.

Shirley Durtschi

Most of the DFLs are regular runners, people with families and jobs who are well-respected in their local running worlds but found themselves hanging on for dear life in a race as competitive as the Trials. Louis Calvano, now 70 and a chiropractor in Manhattan, stumbled into the locker room after a bad day on May 24, 1980, in Buffalo. Those were the only Trials that weren’t really a Trials: It was already known that U.S. athletes were not going to that year’s Olympics in Moscow because of Jimmy Carter’s decision to boycott the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. 

“They were trying to revive me,” Calvano said. “They were trying to ply me with Gatorade and sugary drinks.” He remembered the real cure 44 years later: He demanded French fries and a chicken salad sandwich “with lots of mayo.” That worked, and Calvano was well enough to go to a post-race lunch, where he recalls legendary Oregon coach and Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman being the “worst public speaker I’ve ever heard.”

More than 40 years later, Calvano uses a phrase from This Is Us to describe his running career: “Pittsburgh Good.” On the show, it was a withering line from a record executive to tell Mandy Moore’s character, an aspiring singer, that she didn’t have what it takes. While Calvano was certainly Long Island Good, the point stands. Most of the runners in this story are proudly Pittsburgh Good.

But there are a few athletes who stumbled into the club despite being much, much better, whether in running or another sport. DFL, already a strange land to the Pittsburgh Good, was a completely alien world to them. The most decorated runner to finish last in a Trials marathon, by far, is Dan Browne.

Browne was a major figure in American running in the early 2000s. He was among the earliest runners for the Nike Oregon Project, and a double Olympian in the marathon and 10,000 meters in 2004. He was 12th in the 10,000 in Athens and 65th in the marathon nine days later. Browne stayed in the running industry after his racing career, coaching several prominent athletes—including 2016 Olympic 5,000 silver medalist Paul Chelimo—as part of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program. (Browne was the only runner to break four minutes while a cadet at Army and only very recently retired from the Oregon National Guard.) He still has a few irons in the fire, working at watch/heart rate monitor company Polar and working on a project to qualify athletes for the 2028 Olympics in the modern pentathlon. He ultimately declined to participate in this story, saying his 2012 last-place finish was a “very personal story” that he hoped to cover, maybe in a future book.

While Browne was easily the most accomplished runner to DFL, the most accomplished athlete to do so was Joanna Zeiger. Feb. 13, 2016, was Zeiger’s seventh and final Olympic Trials across three different sports. In 1988, the summer after she graduated from high school, she competed in the swimming Trials in the 400-meter intermediate medley and the 200 breaststroke. In 2000, she finished 30th in the marathon Trials in Columbia, S.C., before locking in her true sport: triathlon, where she qualified for the Olympics in 2000, finishing fourth overall at the Sydney Games. 

Zeiger’s elite triathlon career ended in 2009, following a gruesome bike crash with after-effects she still feels today. While defending her Ironman world title over 70.3 miles in Florida, she ​​grabbed for a water bottle, and the volunteer didn’t let go of the bottle. Zeiger flipped over her handlebars, breaking her collarbone and several ribs. The structural damage she did to her ribcage has never fully healed, leaving her in chronic pain in the years since. 

Though biking was out of the question following the crash, Zeiger felt she could handle running, and got back into it while working full-time as a researcher. She ran a Trials qualifying time in Sacramento in 2011. When she got to the marathon Trials in 2012, her body wasn’t ready. The bike crash had done “severe damage” to the intercostal nerves in her rib cage, requiring several surgeries over the years to reduce her chronic pain. “Some of the surgeries were successful, some weren’t,” she said. But as she insisted to doctors for years, there was something else going on beyond her rib damage. The pain was too great, and she dropped out of the race after 20 miles.

But Zeiger was back at the marathon Trials again in 2016, and that’s where she became a DFL. The previous four years had been physically and emotionally painful, which helped her develop something in common with her fellow 2016 last-place finisher, Chris Barnicle. She said she has never discussed it with him, but is aware of it.

“As a former professional athlete, I was very anti-cannabis,” Zeiger said. But she had serious pain and nausea and was struggling to sleep and eat, and her husband was encouraging her to try it. When cannabis was legalized in Colorado in 2014, she tried it. “Oh my gosh, this stuff works,” she said. “I slept, and it increased my appetite, and it helped a bit with pain … it didn’t take me off all the medications I was on, but it really eased my suffering and allowed me to do more than I was doing and just have a brighter outlook on life.”

It inspired Zeiger to pivot her academic career, previously focused on epidemiology and addiction research, to cannabis. She started a cannabis research nonprofit in 2018 so she could improve the quality of research into the drug.

Zeiger has the easily worn humility about her running that comes with being a star at another sport. She told the Denver Post ahead of the ‘12 Trials that her Olympic odds that year were “probably zero unless the top 100 people go off course or they get food poisoning or somebody does a Nancy Kerrigan on them.” But 2016 was on another level. One of the many surgeries that she’s had over the years was having her xiphoid, a small bone just below the sternum, removed in 2012. But it grew back, and she found out that she would need it removed again as the 2016 Trials were approaching.

“I knew it was going to be a horrible day on many levels,” she said of her mindset heading into the race. “I mentally prepared myself to be last. Said, ‘It doesn’t matter, you don’t have to be embarrassed about it. It doesn’t matter what people think.’”

In the buildup to the ’16 Trials, Zeiger said she could barely finish a half marathon, so she knew it would be ugly out there. “I didn’t care if I had to walk the whole thing,” she told me. “I didn’t care if it was dark.” 

It wasn’t dark—she ran 22 minutes faster than Barnicle did that day—but she did get lapped on the course. With a six-mile lap to go, she could tell that the women’s winner was coming to the finish line, and she decided that she wanted to see who it was. A photograph from the day shows Zeiger giving props to Amy Cragg, who had just won the race, while Zeiger had six more miles to go.

The heat, and a mismanaged race by the local organizing committee, took their toll on the field, where 49 of the 198 women who started dropped out. Zeiger remembered being so hot that she “crawled” into a fountain on the USC campus at one point, but she wasn’t quitting. “Every time I saw somebody walking back to the finish line and dropping out, it just strengthened my resolve,” she said. For Zeiger, finishing the ‘16 Trials was “one of the proudest moments I’ve had in sports.” This is from a woman who has won a world championship and finished fourth in the Olympics.

Zeiger cherishes it even more now. A systematic issue she long suspected was causing her so much pain was finally diagnosed in 2018 as familial Mediterranean fever, an autoinflammatory disease. Her symptoms have gotten worse with age, and a long Covid case did not help. “Running really has taken a huge backseat,” she said, as her chronic health problems stacked up. (Our phone call was delayed when she had to spend three days in a Boulder hospital getting treated for a kidney stone.) “I appreciate running in a much different way than I used to because it’s so much harder than it ever was,” she said. “And as I look back on 2016, I’m just so glad I made the decision to tough my way through it.” She recognizes that for some, a DFL would be “humiliating,” but for her, it’s a “badge of honor.”

It’s in the Schunk blood that we will finish something we started. So there was no question that I was going to fight through the pain for that.

Sofie Schunk

I’ve interviewed plenty of athletes, red-faced and sweating, just minutes after a race or game, and dealt with the awkwardness of talking to someone when they still haven’t had time to process a low moment. But talking to people minutes after what had to be one of the worst races of their lives, blowing up in the unsparing Florida sun for three full hours, was a new one. 

Sofie Schunk crossed the line in Orlando and burst out in tears when she found her family on the other side of a security barrier. Approximately 90 seconds later, I asked her for a short interview. It’s unfair to compare the feelings of Schunk and Matt Rand, the last-place men’s finisher in Orlando, to the other members of the fraternity who have had years or decades to consider their DFL finishes. The other members mostly knew a reporter would be calling them to ask about the Trials. Schunk and Rand did not.

Though I found them in the “mixed zone,” where reporters have a chance to speak to athletes post-race, the mix by that point was essentially just us. Schunk, who was seriously hurting, was accompanied by a USATF staffer, who seemed understandably agitated when I asked Schunk if she could stop and chat for a minute. The rest of the media horde had gone back to the workroom to write their stories about the new Olympic teams. Rand was five minutes behind 149th, and Schunk was nine minutes back from 116th, a place occupied by former Oregon Project runner Tara Welling, who would have become one of the best-known DFLs if Schunk had dropped out.

Sofie Schunk runs past supporters at the Orlando Trials.
Sofie Schunk runs past supporters at the Orlando Trials. (Courtesy of Sofie Schunk)

Schunk knew it was going to be a tough race because she came in dealing with shin problems. And she struggled in the Orlando sun, slowing to a 10-minute mile between miles 21 and 22 before coming in at 3:22:26. “To finish the Olympic Trials is something to be proud of,” she told me right after the race. Schunk qualified for the Trials with a huge seven-minute PR three months before the race, and that took everything her body had. “I might never get this chance again,” she said of why she stayed on the course. “I’m confident that I can, but you never know.”

With some time to reflect after the Trials, Schunk said that overtraining and over-racing was the root of her fatigue and shin pain. She raced marathons in October and December in a successful last-ditch attempt to qualify for the Trials, and is a full-time engineer living with Type 1 diabetes. (She was also a goalie on the Marquette women’s soccer team that made the Sweet 16 in 2012.) “It’s in the Schunk blood that we will finish something we started,” she wrote in an email. “So there was no question that I was going to fight through the pain for that.”

Coming out of the Maine winter, Rand was dreading the heat—his only acclimation for the Florida heat came through the coincidence that his treadmill was in his stuffy basement—and said he was “proud to finish” his second straight Trials. (The former Division III runner was 108th in Atlanta four years ago.) He called the idea of dropping out at the 18-mile mark, right near the finish line and presumably family and medical support, “very tempting.” But he didn’t. “Long-term, I knew I would regret that,” he told me. “I don’t want to cheat the experience. It’s a special feeling to cross the finish line.” Between his two Trials, his wife gave birth to a son, who is now 15 months old. Rand’s usual day is probably typical of many DFLs, and many Trials qualifiers: primary run at 6:00 a.m., 30-minute lunch break run, actual lunch while working, come home to his young family. He called the 2024 Trials one of his “gutsier” performances, mentally. “Physically, I feel horrible, and will for several days.” 

Some achieve perspective, and others have it thrust upon them. In 1980, Louis Calvano “catastrophized” his race. Two of his close running friends would die of brain cancer in their 30s, reminding him that “life could be a lot worse than what I went through.”

It’s not that finishing last doesn’t hurt. Even being Pittsburgh Good means that you have maybe never finished last in a race in your life. Pittsburgh Good is still good. Worthen, the runner confused by the snow in Birmingham, remembered seeing a photographer at the finish line and shrugging his shoulders in a picture because he didn’t know how to react. Joanna Zeiger knew she would be last in 2016 and still said it was “hard” to see volunteers already breaking down the finish-line area when she finally got there. Erica Marrari, last in Atlanta in 2020—on February 29, days before the pandemic sunk in—called her marathon that day “the most humbling experience of my life.” Marrari, then and now an executive at a small consulting firm in Dallas, is another woman who picked up running almost by accident in her 30s, only to discover she was sitting on a gold mine of talent. 

Jackie Dikos, last in Boston in ‘08, was proud of making the Trials and finishing, but felt the sting 16 years later. “When you feel that police escort behind you, it’s a hard swallow when most of your life you’re at the top of races,” she said. “That was something that sat with me like you wouldn’t believe.” That feeling motivated her to train and qualify for the next Olympic Trials in 2012, where she finished 109th and ran nearly 20 minutes faster than she did in Boston. Dikos gutted out a bad hamstring injury in Boston, but doing that didn’t break her physically. Instead, tasting last place made her realize that “you can throw whatever you want at me and I’m still going to push through it.” In addition to being a brewery owner and author, Dikos is now a dietician in Westfield, Ind. She said she is “extremely proud” of her DFL and wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Reached on the phone a week after the race in Orlando, Rand said that the warm temperatures in the forecast had him dreading the day despite relatively good fitness. Early in the race, he realized he was facing a terrible choice. “After a few miles, I knew that it would either be my first time ever dropping out of a race, or my first time ever finishing last,” he said. But each passing day has only validated the decision he made. “I’m glad that I chose 40 minutes of pain over a lifetime of regret.”

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