The Summer Olympics brings back memories. When I was a teenager, I was enrolled in a program designed to encourage young people to go to college. Not that I needed such encouragement. Back in my day, you couldn’t go pro if you didn’t go to college, and I wanted to go pro. So college was a foregone conclusion for me.
Nevertheless, I enrolled in the program and was faithful to it. During the summer months we attended classes and lived in the dorms. We took a core of academic classes, but this was balanced out by allowing the students to participate in basketball, tennis and track.
The climax of our summer was our version of the Summer Olympics. We would travel to another campus and compete against fellow future college students. Naturally, each year we wanted to bring home as many first place finishes as we could, both as a team and as individuals.
One of my best friends participated in the mile run. We trained in our own way for our personal events, and he was no different. He was fast, and just like Forrest Gump, “He could run like the wind blows.”
Few people knew the foundation of his running prowess was rooted in fear. His family lived near a graveyard, and each night in order to get home, he would have to run by that dark and scary place. The vast darkness combined with that graveyard provided him with one of the best finishing kicks of any mile runner.
As he prepared for our summer track event, he got into the habit of counting to four before either inhaling or exhaling. It gave him a rhythm or cadence, if you will. If you ran with him, you could literally hear him counting, “One, two, three, four, breath.” I found it odd, but it worked for him. As the old cliché states, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
On race day, we were all seated in the stadium awaiting our events when the announcer called for the mile runners. Each campus had its own little cheering area to root for its respective runners as they made their way around the track.
When they called for the mile runners, our section became loud. We had watched him train and knew of his potential. It was a first-place finish in the bag, which was great for our team’s cumulative score. The runners took their positions.
“Runners, to you mark. Get set. Bang!”
It was on with the firing of the gun. It should be noted for those of you who are not fans of distant running that there are different methods of pulling off a victory. Some runners prefer to set the pace, while others are content to stay in the middle of the pack, conserve their energy wait for the right moment to strike.
Our runner was not so diplomatic, and neither were we. His first lap was a blur as he blew away the competition. The faster he ran, the louder we became. As he took on the field of runners, we took on the stadium of onlookers. Never had they encountered such speed and endurance.
During Lap 2 he showed no sign of slowing down as he increased his commanding lead. If other runners thought he was the rabbit, it became clear that they weren’t going to catch him. They were racing for second and third place.
Our chests swelled with pride as he made his way around the track. Spectators watched as their runners were reduced to spectators. As for our camp, we cheered and jeered. We talked trash as only an unrefined teenager can.
On the third lap our runner waved to us. There were rumors among the crowd that this could be a new record. As if sensing our very thoughts, he kicked it into another gear. Onlookers did not think this possible, but those of us who knew of the graveyard did. When he reached the third turn of the third lap (which ironically is sometimes called Dead Man’s Corner), he went into an all out sprint.
It was so beautiful and so unexpected that the stadium when quiet. Who could do such a thing? Who after running such a race has gas in the tank to kick it into high gear during dead man’s corner? Our guy, that’s who.
Once we recovered from the shock of his acceleration, our cheers matched his pace. He raced across the finish line, stopped, and faced the crowd. His hands were in the air like a conquering hero returning home from battle.
He had the look of victory on his face. After months of training he had accomplished his goal of winning the mile.
The only problem was he had not.
He had only completed three laps.
It turned out that his lapping the field, combined with his habit of counting to four, confused him. So instead of running four, laps he only ran three. He was so far ahead of the field that it took awhile for him and some of us to realize it.
We thought his stopping was an intermission of sorts, or perhaps an icing on his victory cake. But as others who knew better began to mock and jeer, we realized that the race was not won.
He must have sensed it as well, because the fickle mistress called Momentum began to leave him. Flashes of shadows coupled with the sound of track shoes ran behind him. The onlookers laughed as they realized that our record-breaking runner couldn’t count to four.
He withdrew his outstretched arms and waving hands. There was still time and he still had gas in the tank, so he rejoined the race. We recovered as well and started cheering like never before.
As he closed the gap and made his way around the track, he again did what no one saw coming. Just like Forrest Gump and Charlie Brown, he ran out of the stadium. The shame was too much for him to bear.
As one of his best friends, I knew what I had to do. I gathered his two other buddies and exited the stadium in search of our fallen hero. We found him crying in the back corner of the bus. We approached him in single file because walking on a bus deems it so.
As I approached him, I thought of words of encouragement, something I could say that would ease his feelings of pain and shame, shame that had caused him to seek refuge in the back of this bus. I would like to say I found them, but I cannot.
As I started to form the words, “Hey buddy, don’t worry about it. Anyone could have made that mistake,” a laughing demon overcame me and rendered me unfit for the task. I was saying the right words but I was thinking, “Who cannot count four laps?”
I think he cried some more, but I couldn’t see his tears for my own tears of laughter.
I quickly was replaced by another friend, who was equally unsuccessful. We were laughing together as only ignorant teenager can. Our last friend, thank God, proved to have maturity beyond his years. He was able to keep it together long enough to talk our friend back from the brink of despair.
My friend eventually recovered, but the events of that day remind me of the scripture, “The race is not given to the swift nor the strong, but he who endures until the end.”