It was my final competitive race. I had foregone the dream of being the youngest decathlete to win a gold medal. Now I simply wanted to wrap up the season and focus on soccer.
It was the high school district meet, my junior year and I was racing in an 800 meter heat. I remember it so distinctly, I can almost feel my calves tense, even today.
I felt unusually calm as the race started and as we came down the stretch of the first lap, ready to execute whatever game plan we each had for the final lap, the bell signaling the chaos to come, something bizarre happened.
Now, I should emphasize that what I am about to describe was not a common occurrence in my athletic exploits. I lettered in seven different sports, playing everything from volleyball to cricket to rugby to badminton, and nothing like this had happened before or since.
As we took the bell lap and gathered ourselves to drive, limp, stagger, cruise, fight to the finish, I became acutely aware of all of the other runners around me. I mean, I could hear their breathing, but not only hear it; I could sense each and every one’s level of fatigue. It was like a slow-motion moment in “Chariots of Fire”! The hair blowing, the muscles quivering in exertion, the calculated glances out of the corner of the eyes…
I knew, in that moment, that I had won the race. I could sense that I had one gear more than anyone else. I felt amazing! I was near the front of the lead pack, not pressing too much at all yet (and we were going at an impressive pace), and I hadn’t even gotten up onto my toes yet in preparation to engage my maximum speed. A smile crept over my face as I realized that, at least for this moment, I would step out from my older brother’s impressive track shadow (he was challenging for the state title in the two-mile that year) and re-establish myself as the dominant athlete in the family. I had this!
Then I felt the track rise up to meet me, as I found my momentum shift from horizontal to vertical, as I sprawled and slid through an outer lane.
I had been tripped.
Was it celestial retribution for my private arrogance? Did one of the other runners sense my dominance and decide they had no other choice? Or was I simply the victim of an unfortunate collision of tangled feet in a cramped and explosive space?
None of these resolved itself as I sat there staring at the newly torn hole in the toe of my red suede Adidas spikes and the trickle of blood running from my grazed knee. I vividly remember the scene, as if observed from outside myself, as my coach crouched next to me, devoid of things to say either from sympathy or disappointment. He helped me up and walked me off the track for the last time.
I used Edith Piaf’s lyric to highlight what this moment has meant to me, even after all the years between then and now. All of the triumphs and accolades, the disappointments and near-misses, the poor choices and the good have helped to dilute the deflation, but somehow define what that race symbolizes to me.
I should have finished the race. Regardless of where I finished or whether I outshone my competitors (or my brother), I should have picked myself up, shrugged off the residue of self-pity and embarrassment and dragged my wounded pride, my sense of loss, and my torn shoes across the finish line.
Don’t EVER regret what you have done. You can’t unring the bell (you can try to make amends, repair relationships, educate yourself more thoroughly for next time), but don’t leave something un-done. I wish I had had the fortitude and the grit to dust myself off and tear after the back of the pack in that half-mile race. I wish I hadn’t felt so sorry for myself that I allowed that emotion to win out, rather than digging past that to tap into the work ethic and determination that I thankfully discovered later in life.
This is a cautionary tale about leaving an opportunity unexplored. I might have had enough left in the tank, combined with a primal sense of exacting revenge by tracking down the perpetrator and edging him at the finish, to serve up a moral victory. But because I allowed the daunting and depressing forces at work in that moment to dictate circumstances to me, I’ll alway look back and regret that I didn’t at least try.
Remember to move the air around you and that you are stronger than you think.