By: Jessie Brunett
Running is a mental game. You can train all you want, but you still won’t win if you’re not mentally prepared on race day. Great runners know this, from Deena Kastor to Usain Bolt. Being a great runner isn’t just about putting in the miles, and buying the right shoes, it’s also about being ready for a grueling finish and the inevitable pain face that follows suite.
Of course, pain faces aren’t always reserved for the end of the race, but they often happen in moments when we push our bodies past limitless expectations. As elite runners have proved to us over and over again, the sacrifices made in pushing beyond our limits are arguably the most inspiring part about the sport. It’s times like these that running is able to motivate the rookie and the veteran runner to believe that anything is possible.
So, in the off chance you’re currently training for a race or need motivation to sign up for one, here are The top 10 Most Grueling Finishes In Running History to get you to hit the pavement. After seeing these pain faces, you may feel motivated to pass the baton.
1. Billy Mills; 10,000 meters, 1964 Tokyo Olympics
An underdog in the 10,000 meters can be just as inspirational as the favorite-to-win veteran. Sometimes the most grueling finishes end in upsets, and we can’t get enough of this one. A Native American rookie was told that he couldn’t compete with Gamoudi and Clarke, the favorites to win. He was virtually unknown in the running world at this time, making it one of the greatest Olympic upsets in history. Yet, he found himself in the 10,000 meters pulling away with the gold in the last 200 meters.
The announcer’s commentary, chilling, “Look at Mills, Look at Mills!”, laughing and cackling as if he was witnessing a unicorn flying in the sky for the first time. Mills won the 6-mile race in 28:24 earning himself a gold medal at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Watch his historic finish here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5F5iCsymMj0
2. Constantina Tomescu; 26.2 miles; 2008 Beijing Olympics
Constantina is no stranger to comebacks. She’s known for her intensity in the running world, a Romanian athlete proving to be superior as a 41 year old champion of the marathon in the 2008 Olympics.
Dominating the race from an early start, no one could catch or keep up with her at the halfway point, not even the favorited veterans to win. Tomescu ran away with gold earning her historical acclaim as the oldest woman to win an Olympic marathon, ever.
Honestly, the entire race is insane to watch— especially when you consider the age of Tomescu, and the determination it takes to last 26.2 miles in the lead. But, you have to love her audacity to fight for the last half of the race and come away with gold unopposed.
Watch Constantina fight here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=39kAWaAA4nQ
3. Alberto Salazar; 26.2 miles; 1982 Boston Marathon
The name Salazar echoes something different for everybody depending on how you’re talking about him. But, despite recent doping claims at Nike, Salazar still holds a crown for an insane finish in the 1982 Boston Marathon.
Dueling for first place with Dick Beardsley the whole 26.2 miles, until Beardsley’s hamstring gave out, Salazar was able to create a gap so large that Beardsley could not catch-up. But, like any great marathon, time is on the side of the athletes and plenty of ground can be made up in the 26.2 mile race. Beardsley was able to catch Salazar once again. In a great effort for a second wind, Beardsley couldn’t quite pull off the win and Salazar’s finish was nothing short of historic.
Watch the duel for the win here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FmzljrUrwKE
4. Haile Gebrselassie; 10,000 meters; 2000 Sydney Olympics
We’ve seen it countless times throughout Gebrselassie’s career: a force to be reckoned with in the 10,000 meter race. However the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, provided Gebrselassie with a competitive challenge. Paul Tergat would go on to duel Geb and run one of the most jaw-clenching races in the history of the 10,000 meters.
Nail-bitingly close, in the last lap, Tergat picks up speed and Geb fights to stay on his heels. The last 100 meters are a chilling reminder that running is a fighting game. Terget and Geb match each other's stride and it isn’t until the last steps that Geb pulls away with the win. Distance running is made alive through Geb in one of the most crazy finishes in Olympic history.
Watch the fight for gold here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0dT-Ew9uhfo&t=1868s
5. Dave Wottle; 800 meters; 1972 Olympics
A hidden gem in Olympic history, Dave Wottle had an astonishing finish in the 800 meters. Known for racing with his signature golf cap, Wottle stunned the world after lagging in the first lap, and once passing the bell, signaling the final lap he approached the last 400 meters picking off the favorites to win: Boit and Arzhanov. Diving into the finish line to win the gold medal, an unexpected win.
Watch wottle’s brilliant performance here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5LHid-nC45k
6. Nick Symmonds; 800 meters; 2008 Olympic Trials
Maybe the 800 holds the most grueling finishes because the race is so short, and brutal. However, Symmonds makes the last leg of this race look easy. Sitting on the front runners the whole race, Symmonds rises to the challenge in the last 200 meters rallying to win this heart wrenching Olympic Trials.
Do you see a trend? Some of the most grueling and inspiring finishes go hand-in-hand within the last lap of the race.
Watch the grueling 800 meter trials here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OeIY_M7YJxk&t=121s
7. Kenenisa Bekele; 5,000 meters; 2008 Beijing Olympic Finals
Bekele makes the 5,000 meters look easy here winning in only 12:37 seconds for the 3.1 mile race. Leading in the bell lap, Bekele runs away with the win seamlessly whilst smiling and claiming the world record for the 5,000 meter run at the Olympics.
Watch Bekele lead here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVXsHej-OYU
8. Mirus Yifter; 10,000 meters; 1980 Moscow Olympics
Throwing it back to the 1979 summer Olympics in Moscow, Yifter collected gold medals in both the 5,000 and 10,000 meter run. In the final of the 6.2-mile race, Yifter sprinted into the lead the last 300 meters of the race winning by inches. This victory was so monumental to the sport because he was able to abruptly change his speed and was coined, ‘Yifter the Shifter’ for his infamous kick.
Watch Yifter shift here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X6bcZyurdK0
9. Sebastian Coe; 800 Meters; 1981 European Cup
Coe, discovered in 1977 at the European Indoor World Championships, has one of the best finishes of all time in the 1981 European Cup. Every runner has their style, a strategy to their race. Coe is known to lead the pack and pull away. The final was won in 1:47, flying in the last 200m in 24.6 seconds. Coe edged out the competition and ran away with the win.
Watch Coe run away with the win here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCEYmHcs2so
10. Bernard Lagat; 5,000 Meters; 2016 Olympic Trials
Lagat, a standout runner in the 1500 and 5,000 meters, is known for his sit-and-kick strategy. In this race, he looks comfortable and poised. A great feat for the 41-year old who clinched the win in the last lap. Incredibly, he ran the last lap of the 3.1 mile race in 52 seconds, swinging from 6th place to first in a matter of seconds. Lagat was not the favorite in a stacked field that included Rupp, Shrader and Kinaid. He sat patiently on the field and did not take the lead until the bell lap where he ended upwining in 13:35.
Watch Lagat’s thrilling kick here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BNUEO-kjZe4
Whether you’ve signed up for a race, or you’re just starting your running journey, watching grueling finishes can inspire even the most inexperienced runner. It doesn’t matter what race or what year the race was run, running is and will always be a sport full of upsets, surprises and inspiring moments.
It takes great strength, determination and perseverance to come away with a win in distance running, and while 10 spotlighted athletes is not enough to cover an entire history of inspiring finishes in the sport, it’s a great motivator for any athlete looking for inspiration.
So with that, to quote John Trautmann, “Everyone in life is looking for a certain rush. Racing is where I get mine.”