In what other sport is the crowd of spectators larger, and their resulting cheers louder, for the last finisher than any other finisher, including the first?
Gunhild Swanson finished the 2015 Western States 100 with six - six! - seconds to spare before the 30-hour cutoff.
And this phenomenon is not unique to Western States, 100 milers in general, ultras, or marathons. It happens at all levels of competition, with supporters, spectators, and loved ones cheering on every finisher, in every race, from junior high track and field to professional races.
Maybe it it is the party atmosphere that exudes upon the gathering of a tribe of runners. Maybe it is the knowledge that any finisher is a champion (hell, any starter is too - there is no getting to Western States or the start line of any ultra without paying your dues).
But I've been in Gunhild's spot, or at least close. I finished the 2011 Superior 100 with less than 32 minutes to go before the 38-hour cutoff. Here's what I wrote of one man in the crowd at my finish, where the party was in full swing:
One man, who had long, black hair and dark skin, was sitting on one of picnic tables. He was absolutely floored that I came in just over 30 minutes under cut off – his implication was that it was absolutely amazing that anyone was still coming in. I took from his wonderment that there was a magical finishing time during which finishing is no longer amazing.
I have been Gunhild Swanson. We all have, or we all should. It is a humbling experience, and brings a runner closer to the essence of sport. And we should be grateful to those who stuck it out to bring us home, and we should exude love, support, and adoration for every finisher - including the Gunhilds among us.