Why Being the Last One to the Finish Line Isn't Losing at All

by Karen Weese
Originally Published: 

The windows are down, the radio’s cranked up, and the air wafting in smells like warm mud and sunshine — the first time in months the outside world doesn’t smell like the inside of a freezer. As I turn the corner, there’s another sign of spring — the middle school boys’ track team, out for their first practice.

It’s been two kids and a lot of years since I ran on a track team, but it turns out some things never change.

Out front, the first group of runners is silent and serious — eyes front, feet pounding, in fluorescent nylon shorts and pricey sneakers, not talking because they’re too busy calculating split times in their heads.

The next group runs in a jostling clump: They’re the all-around athletes who play other sports, and don’t have so much riding on their track-and-field success. They’re talking and joking; there’s shoving, and laughter. Spitting — in the grass, on the sidewalk, on each other — is a major form of entertainment.

And then there’s the last group. There is almost no talking; the sneakers are not as cool. Occasionally someone makes a joke, but it’s hard to laugh much when you can’t catch your breath. There are wistful comments about water breaks, and about stopping at the Dairy Queen two streets over on Elm. The mood is much less cutthroat, much more “no man left behind.”

I drive past them all with a half-smile of recognition. Then, two blocks later, I realize that wasn’t the whole team. There’s one more kid.

You could forgive him for walking — he can’t even see the other boys up ahead. A big kid in slouchy socks and beat-up sneakers, sweat sliding through his oversized t-shirt, it is clearly taking every ounce of his determination to keep going. But he’s still running — just very, very slowly.

As I watch him disappear in my rearview mirror, I wonder what will happen when he makes it back to the gym as the last one. Will there be snickers and nudges, enough that he doesn’t come back tomorrow? Or a matter-of-fact “good job” and light punch in the shoulder, while someone hands him a water bottle and makes room for him on the weight-room mat?

I wonder if one day he’ll mournfully tell his therapist about this misery … or if he’ll recount it someday with a wry grin to his own son, as they warm up together for their first father-son 5K.

And I wonder, too, if he realizes he isn’t the last kid in line, not really. There are two hundred kids from his own school he’s ahead of: Every kid who rode the bus home today instead of showing up in the locker room, every kid who hunched at home behind his electronics instead of lacing up his shoes. It would have been so much easier NOT to be here, but he is.

In a way, he’s already won.

He has, right? Of course he has. If he were my son or yours, that’s what we’d tell him, as we rumpled his hair and threw his practice clothes in the wash. You won, buddy, because you were OUT THERE. That’s what we’d say, and we’d mean every word.

But here’s the thing: I’m a hypocrite.

In my current neighborhood, I need two hands to count the adults who are training for marathons. Around here, the grown-ups who run are svelte, nylon-clad, stylishly-sneakered creatures straight out of a sporting goods catalog. Their cars are festooned with white oval stickers that say “26.2.” Their ideas of “a long run” are distances I only consider driving in my car. It’s a tough place to be publicly out of breath after a modestly-paced two- or three-mile jog.

One evening I was out for a run when an older man grinned at me and said, “Go get ’em, Sister!” At first I grinned back — aw, that was nice — until it occurred to me that that’s not what you say to a fit young thing with a sprightly ponytail. No, it’s what you say to a breathless mama in a t-shirt and shorts from the Clinton Administration and blindingly new sneakers, with her hair sticking out of her 6-year-old daughter’s turquoise headband, and a complexion slowly turning a nice shade of tomato. Go get ’em, Sister, indeed.

Without even realizing it, I began to find reasons to take my little jogs later and later, to the point that I was only running when it was totally dark. I told myself it was because it was cooler out, or because I needed to put the kids to bed first. But it wasn’t. I just didn’t want to be observed, or commented on, or have to compare myself to the “real” runners around me who looked so fit and photogenic.

But tomorrow, I’m going to take a page from the kid at the back of the pack of the middle school track team, and go jogging in the sunshine, just like him. Our pace may be modest, our faces pink, our clothes not quite right — but at least we’ll be ahead of all the people at home on their couches checking Facebook … and we’ll be out there, which is its own kind of win. Go get ’em, they said. OK, then: We will.

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