They walked not loudly — unless one counts their brightly-colored, tie-dyed shirts, peace-sign headbands and balloons — but most proudly, because finishing last was the goal.
Check that. Really it was their job.
Check that again for Wellborn’s Michelle Butler, because leading Saturday’s designated last finishers was a happy sacrifice.
She’s a runner and could have beaten a good portion of Saturday’s field of nearly 1,300 runners, but she knows how it feels to worry about being last. She worried at her first triathlon and learned, much to her relief, there was a designated last finisher.
That’s why she volunteered to be last Saturday.
“It just made me feel better, so I wanted to return that favor here,” she said. “There might be somebody who is doing it for the first time that was really worried they were going to be last.”
So Butler led a foursome including long-time friend Lisa Heflin and their daughters, Hope Butler and Alyssa Heflin. And that’s all she led.
Michelle Butler and her team — dressed to a 1960s Woodstock theme — lined up behind the 30-minute-and-over set at the starting line. Each toted five, helium-filled balloons and a handful of flowers.
Taking her job quite seriously, Butler flagged down anyone wearing a bib who wandered behind them at the starting line. Everybody had to be in front of her crew, she told them with a gentle smile.
When the starting gun sounded, the balloon ladies patiently waited for the mass of humanity in front of them to move.
And then the elderly gentleman in the University of Alabama running outfit began his race-walk gate.
And then the couple in camouflage shorts and long jogging pants was off, along with their dog.
And then Butler and crew put one foot in front of the other, determined to keep both feet behind the rest. Off they went to protect the pride of others and serve as Woodstock ambassadors, handing flowers and balloons to race volunteers and residents who cheered the field on.
“Thanks!” Butler’s team told them all, as they trotted to curbs and even porches. “Thanks for your support.”
“That’s so nice,” one woman along Christine Avenue said as she rose up from her lawn chair to receive her flower.
Said a small boy on Rocky Hollow Road, after receiving his balloon, “Wow!”
Stops to acknowledge Woodstock fans and volunteers meant that, occasionally, Butler had to pick up the pace to catch the back of the field. She showed her runner’s gate, much to the chagrin of her teenage daughter.
“I’m a band nerd,” Hope Butler said as she began to churn her legs down 11th Street. “I’m not supposed to run.”
Of course, a band nerd never knows who might turn up at such an event. Butler’s crew happened on a mother-daughter team at the Christine-19th Street turn, and 13-year-old Maddison Jones plays trombone.
Hope Butler plays clarinet. Small world.
Jones also rewarded the self-sacrificing last-place team with her story. A birth defect caused her to need surgery on both knees, and she was walking the Woodstock just three months out from surgery on one knee.
“What an inspiring story!” Michelle Butler said as she walked alongside Jones.
As the three mother-daughter tandems made their way around the Davis Avenue curve to the Rocky Hollow turn, they spotted an older woman walking the course in a bright green Woodstock shirt. Her knee and ankle appeared to buckle, and Michelle Butler showed her running form again.
She caught up and walked alongside the woman through the turn onto Woodstock Avenue and into the home stretch. Assured the woman was OK, Butler dropped back.
The finish line came into view, and the gallery provided encouragement.
“Looking good!” one woman told the designated last finishers.
Indeed, Butler’s crew was looking good and feeling good after living the DLF’s creed — no runner left behind.
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.