As a collection of Kenyans, Ethiopians, Americans, and a Belarusian led the women’s Olympic marathon in Rio on Sunday, Saudi runner Sarah Attar ran in last place, juggling being both a spectator and a competitor.
“On the coast where we ran a 10K loop three times, I was able to see the lead pack on the other side,” said Attar, who spoke to Runner's World on Monday by phone from her hotel in Rio. “To have an eye on the women’s Olympic marathon while also being in it was surreal. They are the best in the world. I kind of just wanted to watch, but I was running, so I kept my eye out for the leaders.”
With a personal best of 3:11:27, one of the slowest in the field, Attar, who is a citizen of both Saudi Arabia and the United States, gave no thought to being last. Her goal: no collapsing at the end.
Rio is only the second time Saudi Arabia has sent a female delegation to the Olympics, and Attar wanted not to just finish, but to finish strong. “My participation is bigger than myself,” she said. “Finishing strong would speak to the importance of women’s presence in the Olympics, and the strength anyone can have.”
Her message of participation was highlighted in the London Games in 2012, when Attar finished the 800-meter race in last place to a standing ovation. This year in Rio, Attar expected to be last again. What she hadn’t anticipated, however, was that this year she’d have company at the back.
Attar started the race with Neo Jie Shi of Singapore. Caught up in the excitement, the pair held pace with the rest of the field for a short distance before falling to the back. Later, when Neo—whose PR is 90 seconds faster than Attar’s—edged ahead, Attar chased.
“Her pace was a little quicker than I’d planned, but it was pretty cool to have someone to keep in the line of sight,” she said.
The two runners played leapfrog, trading last place and second-to-last multiple times. “It kind of felt like we had each other’s back,” said Attar.
With no other competitors around them, Attar, who usually runs ahead of the mid-pack in marathons, experienced what might be the beauty of the back of the pack—space. There was no jostling for position at water stations, no sidestepping runners who stop suddenly. “I compared it to running Boston where there is madness at every water stop,” she said. “In that sense, the Olympics were pretty relaxed for me.”
Just before 30K, Neo passed her for a final time and Attar settled into her place in the rear, running, she said, what felt like any of her other nine marathons. She focused on pace, getting her fluids, taking in the ocean views—until the presence of the motorcade or the sight of the elites reminded her she was running the Olympic marathon.
Sometime during the final 10K loop Attar spotted a lone runner ahead with a different stride than her de facto teammate Neo. The heat had taken its toll on Nary Ly, a 44-year-old biologist from Cambodia who was coming back to Attar. Attar passed and shouted, “Good job!” as she gave the struggling runner a thumbs-up.
Sandwiched between two runners whose performances were also a symbol of the Olympic spirit of participation—like Attar, Ly and Neo had not met the qualifying standard and were participating with special exemption—Attar felt far from alone on the course. The three had created a race of their own, helping each other to finish.
The inevitable marathon tough spot came for Attar at mile 24. To keep going, she repeated the mantra, “Everything forward,” a phrase used by her coach, Andrew Kastor. She pictured Deena Kastor, the American marathon record holder and her training partner, winning the bronze medal in the Olympic Marathon in 2004. And she thought of Cariman Abu al-Jadail, her Saudi teammate who competed in her first Olympics this year in the 100 meters.
“Cariman came up to me at the Boston Marathon two years ago and said she was running because of what I did [in London 2012],” said Attar. “That right there is what this is all about.”
Fifty-two minutes after Jemima Sumgong became the first Kenyan women to win the Olympic marathon, Attar crossed the finish line in 3:16:11 relieved to be done. She and Neo hugged, and someone passed her a Saudi flag, which she held while turning to watch Ly run toward the finish.
The Cambodian runner entered the final stretch and officials closed the gates across the road closed behind her, signaling the 133rd and final finisher had passed. Flanked by a police escort, Ly blew kisses to the thinning crowd.
Across the line, the two women hugged and smiled and went their separate ways. Attar answered a few reporters’ questions, but with the novelty of being Saudi’s first female runner having passed, she left the finish area quietly. No reporters stopped her as they had in London. No photographers held cameras high. With the satisfaction of having done what she’d come to do, Attar grabbed her bag, found her family, and caught the bus back to the Olympic village.