You might already know this about me, but I like to run. I’ve always enjoyed it. Yeah, I’m one of those freaks. These days I run at a pace for distance, but in grade school, I loved to run fast. I loved sprinting short distances. I was wiry and thin and not very muscled, but I could run fast. I wasn’t afraid of going all out for 100 yards. The 100-yard dash was my thing. Tetherball was also my thing, but you don’t get your picture on a Wheaties box hitting a ball on a string. So I focused on running.
In eighth grade, my P.E. coach suggested I go to a district track meet at the local high school. It was an informal meet of short and long distance races. Mostly I was flattered and partly I was excited to compete beyond gym class. I signed up, promised the coach I would be there, and then asked my parents’ permission. A little backwards, I admit. There may have been some kid-sized manipulation happening. Amazing what you can learn from watching Diff’rent Strokes.
On the day of the meet, my dad took me and got me checked in. I’m sure he would rather have been doing a zillion other things, like… come to think of it I don’t know what he would rather have been doing. Maybe he was just happy he wasn’t at work.
Looking at the big high school track with all the other kids warming up, I suddenly felt my breakfast turn into a lead ball. These kids knew how to warm up. They had real running shoes and shorts. Compared to me in my dirty Zips and loose Van Halen t-shirt, they were pros. Gulp. Maybe I don’t want to do this.
I met the high school track coach who had organized the meet. To me, at 12 years old, it was like meeting the head coach of the U.S. Olympic track team. I wanted to ask if he was ever on a Wheaties box, but I kept my mouth shut. “You’re signed up for the 100 meter, right?” he asked. “They’re lining up right now, you should take your place.”
Okay, maybe I do belong here. I can do this.
Wait. Did he say 100 meters? How far is that? I thought I was only doing 100 yards. Is that farther? I think this is wrong. I think I’m wrong. I think math is wrong.
Before I could ask too many questions, someone ushered me to a spot and had me crouch down. I had never done that before, I always started standing up. I was getting more nervous by the second and psyching myself out. I was suddenly the country bumpkin of track meets.
The coach called out. “On your marks… get set…” BANG!
I never had a gun start a race before, either. Not in person, anyway. It was loud. I slipped. My knee hit the dirt as I stumbled into a standup running position. I was already behind and the lead ball in my belly threatened to become a projectile.
I ran all out, but with my late start I knew I could never catch up to the leader. I was going to be a distant third and as they approached the end, I stopped running and jogged past the finish line. I came in last because the runners behind me didn’t stop.
I looked up at the stands to see my dad watching. I was embarrassed at how poorly I did. My throat got tight but I wouldn’t let myself cry. I went to my dad and told him I was done. He was surprised because he thought there were more races but I said I wanted to go home. He didn’t fight me on it, but I know he was a little baffled, slightly disappointed and didn’t know how to handle it. Maybe he was thinking about the grocery list. Again, I really have no idea.
As we made our way out of the stands, another runner walked past. “Hey, good job.” Um, what? Didn’t he see me just fail miserably? The coach trotted up and asked if I was leaving. I told him I didn’t feel good (pretty close to true). He said that was too bad, but maybe there would be another meet. Then he said, “You did really well. You got a bad start but you made up for it. I’ll tell you what I tell my team. Never give up on a race, even when you’re coming in last.”
I wondered if that was written on a Wheaties box.
I went home and thought about that for the rest of the day and, obviously, the rest of my life. It was a hard lesson to learn, but I’ve tried to do that in every part of my life, ever since that day. That may also be why I drive like a crazy person on the freeway. Those motivational quotes will get you to from the Valley to Silverlake in, like, 10 minutes.
But here’s the ironic twist to that philosophy, one that’s taken me a lot longer to learn. You also have to know when it’s okay to give up. Giving up is not always failure. Giving up is not always giving up. Sometimes letting go of something that’s not serving you (or anyone else) anymore, something that’s not lighting you up or helping you grow, is the best thing you can do. Letting go is growth.
Recognizing the difference between not sprinting to the finish line and realizing that you don’t actually like running* is difficult, but worth exploring.
*I really do like running, though. Really. I swear. I know it’s not normal.