Last Sunday, Ruby ran in her very first race. We did the Top Pot Doughnut Dash 5k, with Ruby in the jogging stroller, and afterwards she did the Kids’ Dash 1k. We looked forward to ending the morning with a performance from Caspar Babypants, Ruby’s new most favorite band.
When I was in high school I competed in long-distance track and field. I remember one race in particular: it was 1500 meters, 4 laps of the track, and I just wasn’t feeling it that day. I started slow and dragged behind the pack. Eventually I was chugging along a good 50 yards behind the second-to-last runner. But I have a rule: never come in last. As the bell rang for my last lap of the track I turned it on. Hard. I had plenty in reserve so I easily passed Mr. Second-to-Last and even caught another runner in the final stretch. The crowd went crazy as I sprinted across the finish line. I climbed the bleachers afterwards, receiving congratulations from my classmates, and my coach gave me a stern look. “That was an interesting race,” was all he said.
Before her race I sat Ruby down to give her some advice. She was a kid; she could spend hours running around… but she’d never done a straight kilometer. I was worried about the distance that stretched ahead of her. Here’s what I told her:
- Have fun.
- You don’t have to run the whole way; you can walk if you want to. But it’s important to finish.
- Don’t come in last.
Ruby disappeared up to the start while I maneuvered the jogging stroller through the crowd of parents who had gathered behind the line. Eventually I ditched it and fought my way to the front. Ruby was there, foot on the line, a determined look in her eye.
I grew up running. I can remember thinking of myself as the fastest kid in my class (until another one definitively claimed the title in 6th grade). I was a member of the cross-country club and the track and field team. I kept running through junior high school, and picked it up again as an adult. My brother, sister and I have all done half-marathons or more. We’re not built like elite lean runners, but we get the job done.
The horn sounded and Ruby was off! Older kids quickly sprinted well ahead of her, and she lost herself in the pack of the race. The course looped around a big sports field, and I ran across the middle of it, keeping abreast of her, planning to cheer her on at the halfway point. She kept up a steady pace.
Ruby had told me, a few days before, that she thought she would win the race. I had responded that it was a great goal to have, but not very likely.
In my whole life I’ve won just one race. I can still remember what it was like: a Wednesday night. The race was the 600 meters. My father was there; he was helping to measure the shot-put competition when the gun went off.
I was a good runner, but not the best — but my prime competition had not shown up that night. We bolted from our starting positions and I was in first place. After 200 meters the lanes merged and I was still in front. 200 meters later, 200 to go, starting the final turn, and I was still leading.
Feet, I thought to myself, don’t fail me now.
It’s funny, nearly 30 years later, to think of it: I don’t remember crossing the finish line. But I remember that plea to my feet; that feeling of being carried away by this unstoppable force inside of me. I will always remember it. And I remember looking for my Dad in the aftermath. Did you see? I won! Did you see?
The path went up a slight incline towards the street and I saw Ruby start walking. That’s fine. She got to the top of the hill and started running again, then disappeared as the crowd turned toward me.
I was so proud of her. She was only five years old, running a kilometer by herself, surrounded by older kids and parents and doing just fine — she was running, just running, lost in the moment, and that’s what it’s all about.
I stood by the side of the path, waiting for her to come into view. Finally the crowd parted and I could see her running towards me.
She was in tears.
She reached me and I scooped her up, holding her. Kids and parents streamed past us. I whispered that she was doing great, that I was so proud of her. She said, I wanted to run with you, Papa.
I dropped her to the ground, back onto the running shoes I’d bought her just the day before, and I held her hand. We ran together. We had fun. We picked out people to beat, and we passed them, hand in hand. As the finish came up I let go of her and she sprinted across the line while I cheered, and then I gathered her up and carried her off to celebrate.
* * *
In retrospect, I think I know what happened.
Ruby thought she was going to win the race. She is five; competition of any real sort was still a novelty. As far as she was concerned, she was the smartest, strongest, most beautiful girl who ever lived. She really thought she was going to win.
In fourth grade I entered a lunch-time chess competition at my school. My first opponent was Dennis, an overweight classmate whose natural intellect was masked by awkwardness. In short order he had the advantage and put my King into Check. I couldn’t find the way out. My brother, three years older than me, finally pointed out the only option but by then I was forced to concede. I was devastated. I spent the remainder of the lunch hour sobbing into the librarian’s flowery polyester blouse.
As Ruby’s first race finally commenced, the reality of the situation came crashing down on her. She was not going to win. She had no real concept of the distance or the people who were running; all she knew was that an endless stream of runners were passing her as she walked up that hill. She was losing the race.
If I could do it again I’d hold her hand the whole way.