Smart Girls Finish Last

Where do you get your inspiration? Generally, it comes in the form of Crest-white smiles, cheesegrater abs and golden sunsets. Icons of the unattainable and, all too often, unreal. The mediocre – or, worse still, the inferior – is offensive to our eyes, accustomed as we are to dazzling displays of the rich, young and Photoshopped.

Which is why this photograph of Dawn Nisbet, the last participant to finish during a park race in Oldham, brings a smile to my face as broad as her own. Dawn ran so slowly that park officials escorted her to the finish line, yet her end-of-race expression mirrors the artless euphoria of Olympic distance runner Mo Farah. The image has since gone viral on social media, as the unlikely inspiration to those faltering with their New Year’s resolutions.

‘I’m 41, overweight and quite shy, so to feel that I have inspired one person is just amazing. The messages I have received are wonderful and bring me to tears, some of them, but in my own little way, I have helped other people,’ Dawn told the Manchester Evening News.

Personally, this image struck a chord. Because, to be ‘imperfectly’ honest, everything I have achieved in my life has been not quite good enough. Even ‘successes’ are punctuated by failure: the asterisk left off of my A-grades; the job I lost out on at the final stage; the typo in the magazine feature I wrote. It’s all fertile material for that sneaky, persistent notion that I am a fraud. Nor do I imagine that I am alone in this ‘imposter syndrome’; I dare say I speak for a number of people – and many of them women.

Attending a highly competitive girls’ school, I was – unlike the wonderful Dawn – put off from basically all sport; because, if you’re not the best – and, frankly, not even close to average – then what’s the point? It took until my mid-twenties to realise that, even if I was – inevitably – the least coordinated in the advanced Pilates class, or one of the last to complete a running event, the cliché still rang true: it really is the taking part that counts.

I’m not advocating a lack of ambition. In the words of one of my favourite poets, Robert Browning, ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’ We all have goals and ambitions that enrich our lives, instilling them with meaning and purpose. What do we live for, if not to be our best selves?

Equally, it stands to reason the more you try, the more you open yourself up to potential, crushing failure. You might even enter a race and not only come last, but also go viral as a meme on social media. All too often, we only celebrate the people who came first; history is, after all, written by the victors. But Dawn was unabashedly proud of her achievement and took sheer joy in getting there – by the looks of things, every step of the way. And that is no less worthy of celebration.

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