You never know when something will happen that changes your life.
A couple of decades ago I had a daughter who liked to run high school cross country, or XC for short. XC courses usually involve running over backroads, creek crossings and steep hills. Fans gather at the starting line, which is also the finish line, but once the gun sounds it’s just you and your competition flying through the countryside, and the only cheering you hear comes from the voice inside your head.
XC runners tend to be a bit on the fanatical side, which is what makes the sport so wonderful.
At one cross country meet I was asked to help the race officials in letting them know when the race was over. My job was to drive a golf cart and stay behind the very last runner for the entire race. That way when I showed up at the finish line, everyone knew the last runner was in.
My daughter was a strong runner, and my wife and I would normally be pulling out of the parking lot to head home well before the late runners would show up.
I mention this because as I took off in my golf cart, I quickly realized that the race at the front is vastly different from the race going at the back of the line.
Up front, the runners are fighting for position on the turns and calculating when to start the final burst for the finish line.
But back in the back, the runners are just trying to finish with their heads up. A good race means never having to slow to a walk, no matter how slow your jog.
As I watched my runners — it’s funny how quickly I felt some ownership over this part of the race — I quickly began to reassess who the real heroes were on the XC team. The lithe, muscular ones up at the front fought for the cheers and fame, but these few at the back were fighting for glory of a different kind.
My runners had found within themselves the will to improve, and the courage to do it on a stage when others would see their struggles. You remember what it was like in high school. I doubt everyone would be impressed at the gradual improvements these young athletes would slowly achieve. But they pushed on with dogged determination, right there in front of anyone with eyes to see.
There was one runner who I think wasn’t used to be at the back of the pack, but there she suddenly was. She had slipped while running over some rocks and had sprained her ankle. She was in pain and was now at the back of the pack.
I approached her and told her to hop in. She could ride with me until we got to the finish line where she could get some first aid.
She looked at me with a “get thee behind me, Satan” face and shook her head. “I’m going to finish this race on my own,” she said.
I suggested she reconsider. She answered with a glare and began what would be a long, slow walk. I radioed ahead to let the race officials know it was going to be a while before we showed up.
When she finally came in sight of the finish line, I was pleased to see none of the scorers had left. As she approached the line they applauded her, along with her family and one or two friends who had stayed behind. Everyone else had gone home.
In our “no time for losers, ‘cause we are the champions” society, we apparently think that dismissively turning our backs on losers will encourage them to try harder next time.
Well, two decades later I can still picture the fierceness in the eyes of my runner-turned-walker. And to this day she reminds me of the millions whose triumphs are no less satisfying for the solitude in which they are accomplished, far from the cheers and flashing cameras — their victories no less sweet for the silence that greets them at their personal finish line.
Chris Huston is an author and award-winning columnist living in southern Idaho. Connect with Chris on both Facebook and Instagram at Chris Huston-Finding My Way and at chrishustonauthor.com.