I should start this story explaining that I’m not really a runner. If I were to make such a claim it would be an insult to my amazing friends who really are. I admire their dedication, stamina, and abilities so much and would love to be considered one of them. I try to run once or twice a week and I actually really enjoy it, but a real life, distance-tracking, medal-winning, marathon-training runner I am not.
Despite my being a “just for fun” runner, a couple years ago one of my real runner friends talked me into signing up for a 5K. We trained every morning for weeks until the big day. My adrenaline was pumping as I scanned the crowd of racers that morning. My friend and I took our places behind the start and nervously bounced up and down. The gun fired and the race had begun. back in high school I ran cross country, so I vaguely remembered the drill. Pace yourself. Start strong, but don’t wear yourself out the first mile. Keep your mind focused. I fell into the line of racers and tried to think about the pancake breakfast waiting at the finish line.
It felt great to be out on a crisp, spring morning hearing nothing but the steady breath of runners all around. During the second mile I caught up to a small group of fellow racers. They were decked out in fancy running shoes, fanny packs with water, and those “real runner” spandex shorts. They seemed to be pretty serious about this racing business. As we rounded a corner an 8, maybe 10-year-old boy sporting a number 67 on his race bib Came into view. His arms were pumping, head bobbing, and eyes straight ahead. He was determined. With each step, however, his legs looked more and more like jello and his course less straight. as we gained on him, those runners just ahead of me became visually agitated at this young boy for taking up so much of the trail with his awkward form. “Ugh. ExCUSE me!” I heard one lady breathe as she slipped past the boy. Another man yelled, “YOU need to learn to stay in your own lane!” As the two racers continued on, I overheard them say to each other, “Someone needs to teach that kid some running etiquette!” I’m sure the boy heard. His pace became just a little slower, his head hung a little more. But he raced on. My heart hurt for the boy. A part of me nagged to go give those big bullies a piece of my mind. Maybe even trip them and race on (I know, I know. That would have been really mean!). But they were three, maybe four times his age! The extra two seconds it took them to navigate around him didn’t loose them any gold medal… they were going the same pace as me for Pete’s sake. So his legs were all over the trail. He was only 10 years old (if that) and had just run two miles! I can think of a hundred things a 10-year-old boy could be doing at 7:00 on a Saturday morning. Sleeping. Watching cartoons. Playing video games. But he wasn’t. He was running a race. He was pushing himself, working hard, doing something worth being proud of. And despite the negative comments from others who should be encouraging a budding runner, he ran on.
I didn’t listen to that nagging desire partly because I’m a bit of a chicken when it comes to confrontation with mean, angry people and partly because my legs were a bit jello-y too and didn’t feel much up to sprinting to catch up. Looking back I wish I would have been more bold. A few minutes later another runner passed the boy. Instead of more condescending snares, the man slowed as he approached number 67. “Great job, kid. You’re on your last mile! Hang in there. Try to keep your form. You can do it!” and off he ran. that seemed to lighten the boy’s load just a bit. His speed picked up, his form became more straight, and his determination was back. I passed him a few seconds after and breathlessly sputtered, “Almost there! Good Job!”
As I rounded the last corner and sprinted the 100 yards to the finish, I heard my boys’ little voices cheering me on. Those boys that I’ve tried so hard to help them know that they are capable. That they can work hard and finish strong. That if they want to do great things, all they have to do is put their mind to it. During those short 3.1 miles I was reminded that this life is full of people ready to take you down at every turn. To tell you you’re not good enough. That you aren’t doing it right and are just in the way. That day I understood first-hand that I can’t just teach my kids that they have the ability to work hard and finish strong…I have to teach them to work hard and finish strong EVEN (or maybe especially) when others tell them they can’t. When those runners passed the boy and criticized his efforts, he kept running. He could have walked. He could have sat down and cried. He could have said, “Wow, I’m going home to play video games. this running gig is NOT for me.” But he didn’t. He ran his jello-y awkward legs to the finish. Something worth being proud of, no matter what the other runners said. I hope that my boys can take criticism and learn from it, but not let the negativity define them. And more than anything, I hope that as they get into positions of trust, that they can be the ones to tell others who look up to them, “Good job, kid. you’re on your last mile. keep your form. You can do it!”