It always seems that it is something random and insignificant that forces to mind memories long suppressed. Even though many of these memories are such a part of your being that you would not be who you are today without them, they have faded into the dark recesses of your mind to slumber, until some chance occurrence forces them back to mind. Whether the memory stirs a sense of embarrassment or achievement, success or failure, it is there and forever will be, waiting only for that one seemingly insignificant event to once again break it from its cell.
So as I saw the jogger beside the road today, I didn’t think anything of it. There are frequently joggers along the road, I probably see them almost daily; so often that I don’t even really notice them when they are there. Why it was that today, out of all of the times I have seen a jogger, is the day when a memory from the fifth grade instantly pops into my mind, with crystal clarity no less, will probably always be a mystery to me. But I haven’t thought of this event in probably ten years or so, it seems likely that it may be as long before I think of it again, so I may as well write it down while it is fresh in my mind.
I was in the fifth grade, as previously stated, and going to a small school in southern Arizona. This was the school (I know I have mentioned it before) that only had 42 students enrolled, and that covered kindergarten through the eighth grade. We were all forced to participate in band as well as sports, because there just weren’t enough kids to make a team/bank without everyone (as you would expect, levels of participation varied greatly. Some of the kids were gung ho about everything, some of the kids really liked some of the sports and tried really hard while ignoring the ones they didn’t like, and some just showed up because they had to. I was of the second or third variety there, though I did like to at least try everything once). Of the sports that we participated in, I enjoyed baseball the most. As a bonus that was the game that I was best at, in practice anyway. When we actually played against a team from another school, noting that we would be playing against a team that was an extracurricular activity for those involved, I found that I wasn’t nearly as good as I had previously thought: I could foul tip damn near every pitch, but I could never seem to get a hit. Add to that my horrible fear of catching a pop fly (based solely on taking one in the mouth a year earlier) and I was pretty worthless on the field. But I played anyway, not as if I had a lot of choice.
When Track and Field season rolled around (is there actually a “season” for that?), we were somewhat limited in the events we could participate in. Some of the kids in our school were actually good at some of the events, though I forget which students and which events -although I would bet that the students were the ones from the seventh and eighth grade, so we sort of got to pick from the events that they weren’t participating in. Once we had a participant for each event we could choose a couple other events to enter, making sure that the times for our events wouldn’t overlap. I remember signing up for two events, one of which was the long jump (I thought that I was pretty good at that, and I probably would have been in a field of my peers, but in a field that included people three grades -and several feet- beyond me, I was pretty fucked), the other event that I entered was the mile. The mile is one that I entered because no one else did, and we really wanted to have at least one participant in each event.
Being that I was in the fifth grade, I was no stranger to running. I ran every day at recess, well it wasn’t really recess since we were on a middle school type schedule, more of just a long lunch break. I participated in all of our team sports: soccer, football, baseball, etc. There was a lot of running in each of those as well. I figured it wouldn’t be much different to participate in the mile, hell, I must have been running more than a mile on any given day anyway. So my training for the mile was just that, I did no training whatsoever, just continued with my daily playing around.
The first time that I ever saw an actual track was on the day of the track meet. I had no idea just how big that sucker was. Remember, I was only ten years old at the time, and the track was at a high school, that thing was fucking huge! I took my place alongside about a half a dozen other people, all of which were at least a good foot taller than me, and waited for someone to tell us to go. Then I ran like hell.
I was able to break out in front of the pack immediately. I was thinking that there was no way these older kids could compete with me, hell, I was ten, I ran every day just for fun. By the time I got to the back stretch my legs were starting to get a little bit tired, so I slowed down a little bit. The rest of the group was still behind me, but closing fast. I managed to stay just a bit in the lead as we went into the corner, but someone pulled ahead of me just before the final straight stretch. I’ll be damned if I am gonna let someone else win when I have been in the lead the whole race. I turned on the afterburners and blew right by him. I got to the finish line and let my sprint turn into a jog, then eventually a walk. Then everyone ran past me back into the first corner. What the hell? Victory lap? But I was the one that won.
I started to jog again, but slowly. I still wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, but the judges were still trackside, and everyone else was still running… I didn’t have any energy left in me, and it was all that I could do to just continue putting one foot in front of the other. I was nearing the back corner when I saw the rest of the field pass the finish line for the seconds time, and keep on running. I made it to the finish line for the second time just about the same time as everyone else had reached it for their third. I had been lapped by everyone else in the event by the time I was on the back straight for the third time. Everyone else stopped when they reached the finish line, so it seemed that it was actually a four lap race, who knew?
I had lost, and lost in a big way, but it wasn’t in me to give up. I pushed on, jogging when I could, but cramping so badly that I had to walk the majority of it. Just about everyone had left the track to go watch some other event (the pole vault, I think), leaving me there all but alone, with just one guy still trackside. When I finally hit the final straight stretch, I started to jog again. I wanted it to at least look like I was giving it an effort, even though only two people in the world would ever know it. When I finally finished the race, the guy who was still trackside came up to me and said “good race, man.” And, as cliche as it is, he actually patted me on the back.
I learned a lot that day.
I learned that it is probably a good idea to do at least a little bit of research before you sign yourself up for something. I learned that distance running is probably not one of my strengths. I learned that sometimes it really isn’t about winning, sometimes it is just about finishing; it is better to finish last than to just give up. I learned a very valuable lesson about life, one that I certainly didn’t realize at the time, but that is glaringly obvious now: The guy who watched me finish was holding a yellow ribbon, so he finished third, but he stayed around to watch me finish. Finishing first might mean that you won the competition, but there is a lot more to competition than just being the one who finishes first. It was the guy holding the yellow ribbon that was truly a winner that day.