Posted in autobiographical, reflections

Last-place finish

cross_countryThis essay, based upon a cross-country meet in the autumn of my first year in high school, appeared in the Standard for August 9, 1992. I have no photo from the event, but this pic from a recent Pennsylvania meet evokes my own experience as a young man in Spencerport, New York.


Dark clouds loomed overhead, threatening to turn the high school cross-country meet into an impromptu swimming competition. At last, skittish officials called runners to the starting line. A shot from the starting gun cracked the misty air. The race was on.

While we jostled for early position, my mind hurried back in time, even as my body advanced with smooth strides. Academically, the year was off to a good start. I ranked near the top of my freshman class, but my longstanding awkwardness in things athletic grated on my self-esteem like a coarse wool sweater. The previous summer, I determined to scratch the itch or die trying. An early day in September, I boldly laced on my factory-fresh blue Nike trainers and made for the locker room.

Friends had warned me of the rigors of racing, and their advice proved accurate. The first athletic “Everest” consisted of eight consecutive timed miles. Our drill-sergeant coach barked out impatient orders as he pushed our bodies to the edge of endurance. Hard work in practice paid off; my race times improved from meet to meet. Soon there were some on the team I managed to outrun. Still, I envied those runners who placed high in the standings and could cheer others as they entered the chute and crossed the finish line. Improvement notwithstanding, I usually got no more than a bird’s-eye view from the other end of things!

A sharp elbow from a teammate snapped me out of my daydream, and I set myself squarely to the task at hand. Two and one quarter miles later, the verdict was in. Unfortunately, the puddles turned out to be the only unique aspect to this latest effort. I crossed the finish line about two-thirds back in the pack.

Most runners quickly donned their sweat suits and headed for the buses, anxious to get warm and dry. Spectators became fewer, so no one seemed to notice one mother who stood at the mouth of the finish chute. Scanning the distant field with a hand over her eyes, her facial expression betrayed the worry she felt. Could there be someone still out on the course? I thought. For several minutes she kept up the vigil, starting at the slightest movement upon the horizon.

Moments later I spotted the object of her concern. In the distance, a bobbing figure was approaching. It became obvious from his halting stride that this youngster was in a great deal of pain. As he drew closer, the strained expression on his face bore eloquent testimony to the difficult run it had been. Drawing on all the strength he could muster, the boy’s determination was outdone only by the encouragement of his devoted mother. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she yelled through cupped hands: “Come on, Johnny! You can make it! You’re almost here!” Exhausted, he stumbled the final few yards, then fell headlong into the warm embrace of his mother’s arms. I overheard the tender words: “You made it, Johnny! I knew you would. I love you, son.”

Slowly, I walked toward the team bus and took my seat among my companions. The miles swept by while I replayed the scene in my mind’s eye. Soon I pondered a different type of race, but a race nonetheless. The apostle Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 9:24 of the Christian race: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize” (NIV).

Children of God have a clear course marked out before them. For sure it is not all roses; the narrow way never is. There are swirling streams to be forded, jagged roots that must be sidestepped, and sharp inclines to mount. At the times the Christian runner even falls flat on his face, mocked by the elements around him. When you face lands in the mud, there is but one thing to do: Get back on your feet, and in God’s power, press on. The finish line is still up ahead.

By most people’s standards, Johnny was a lousy runner. No crowds lined the chute to cheer his last-place finish. No blue ribbons or “great job!” pats on the back awaited him. Yet somehow I sensed that for mother and son at that moment, nothing could be more of a reward than the unfeigned love between them.

The cross-country season ended, and with it my fleeting dreams of running stardom. But the lesson for life learned that rainy Saturday in October lives on. From the view of many I meet, I’m so far back in this world’s race you could even count me out. There will be no great accolades from dignitaries, no medals of commendation for a hasty “rise to the top,” no Nobel peace prize or prime-time television interviews. Last-place finishers don’t guest host “The Tonight Show.” However, with sheer confidence I can say I’m “running to win the prize.” And when I finally get to the finish chute, I suspect everyone will have already boarded the buses and gone home. Everyone except One, that is. His name is Jesus, and when I fall exhausted into his outstretched arms, he’ll put the first-place crown on this last-place finisher. That will be worth it all.


Photo credit: The Patriot News


Greg is interested in many topics, including theology, philosophy, and science.

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