You still won!
I hear this a lot: "I won, but..." . "I came 3rd, but...". Usually it continues with "there were only so many people in the race" or "this or that happened to someone else who was ahead".
In the last year, I learned a very important lesson. It was hard to embrace it first, but I think it is extremely important. THERE IS NO BUT! There shouldn't be, there can't be!
Winning a race is about two things: who shows up at the start and who is still there at the finish. It is not about who is the fastest, who can go the longest, etc. No, it is about that particular day and how it plays out. And anybody who tries to belittle your success saying there were only this or that many at the race or this or that happened to someone, should seriously look into themselves.
It first happened to me when I won the North- and Central American World Masters Athletics Championship in the 10km race for my age group. Actually both of the above mentioned "BUT"s happened in that race. There were 3 of us that showed up at the start. One faster than me one slower than me. So everyone was going to podium.
Then about 2.5km into the race, the fast girl dropped out because of an injury and not wanting to risk her New York Marathon a month later. So I won. Out of 2. I still won and got a gold medal.
Then in the 5km event at the same race, I got bronze. I make a conscious effort to never add "but there were only 3 of us". Yes, I came last. But you know what? I won a bronze medal and I'm going to own it! It was the North-American Championship!
Some people's first question will be when you say you won or came 2nd or 3rd: "but how many started". Guess what, it doesn't matter! Just because only X number of people think they can do that particular race, that distance, on that day, it doesn't lessen your achievement.
At the Hungarian Long-Course Triathlon National Championship that I won this year, there were only 42 women. Yes, there were people who told me "I bet you would get more runners at a marathon". Sure. More people think they can finish a marathon than an Ironman-distance triathlon. It actually gives the achievement higher value if anything. Definitely not less.
In 2019 at the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii there was only one finisher in the men's 80-84 age group. Is his gold medal less of an achievement because he was the only one who finished the race? Three of them started. There were only three 80+ -year-old men in the world who thought they can finish that race within the cut-off and only one of them did. I think he deserves the same respect as the winner of any other age group if not more.
To me it is about self-confidence, to be able to stand up and say, I won that race without justification, without "but". Nobody except the world record holder can say they are the fastest. Yet, the world record holder doesn't always win the Olympics. He doesn't always win the World Championship. Have you ever heard an interview with an Olympic Champion where he tried to justify his win? Where he said "oh, but so and so wasn't there"? No, because you need that self-confidence to be a champion. If he didn't believe he was worthy of being an Olympic Champion without having to justify it, he would have never gotten there. I think if you keep saying "but" with your achievements, it actually holds you back.
My point is this: whatever the race is (little local 5k, sprint tri with only 2 in your age group), don't belittle your own result. Own it! You were the one who got to the start line, and you were the one who crossed the finish line! It doesn't matter who didn't show up but could have. Or who would have been faster had they finished. You won and be proud of it. Out of 1? So what? You still won!