How to Lose with Grace
Our son joined the middle school cross country running team in seventh grade and never won a race. In most races, he was close to last. By the end of his eighth grade year, he hadn’t gotten any faster, which is why I found myself driving to his final invitational track meet with a familiar pit in my stomach.
The invitational meet includes over a hundred fifth through eighth graders from all over the state. I remind myself that we are here to have fun. We didn’t force our son into running. His best friend was doing it. We are here to be fit and enjoy the day. All the same, I take several minutes in my car soaking up the sun, preparing myself for what I know will be difficult: watching my kid lose.
A word about my runner: he stands five-foot-four, which at age thirteen makes him above average. Neither skinny nor fat, he’s soft. Aggressive competition has never been his thing. He likes Legos and stuffed animals. He’s an average student. He recently got braces. He does not use hair gel.
Even if I tell myself I have zero expectations, these pre-race moments are fraught with disappointment and shame. What kind of mother is so sure her kid will be last? He won’t be last. He’s never been last, though he’ll probably start out that way. And why should it matter? He’s a great kid! A race is meaningless, over in a blink. A long blink, if you’ve got a runner like mine. Still, I’m jealous of the parents of the fast kids, pacing the starting line with excitement. For them, these moments are full of possibility. Will their daughter beat her best time? Will their boy qualify for the regional race? Hands come in and out of pockets. Hat brims are adjusted. Fine October weather is discussed.
I should probably just go home. I’m not helping anyone. But I remember when I tried track. I was fourteen, the final runner in the 400-meter relay. I don’t remember any parent volunteers. My parents weren’t there. I am not going home.
I get out of the car and join the crowd at the starting line. I must confess that the start of a race reduces me to tears. This was true at my son’s first race, and every race since. Striving gets me. Human effort, no matter how meaningless. And something more, something like what I feel at Thanksgiving, that moment when the meal is finally ready and everyone is called to the table. Water glasses are filled, lids removed, serving spoons plunged into casseroles. Kids are corralled. Hands fold and someone says grace.
Grace. That’s what happens at the starting-gun moment. Like the beginning of a meal, it is a moment that doesn’t last. Moments of grace are easily missed. Maybe we’re right to manufacture them with meals and prayers. And sports. I can feel the reach here, comparing sports and prayer, yet my eyes fill the moment the coach raises that little gun. At the sound of those words: Runners Take Your Mark, my sense of existential absurdity vanishes. Inadequacy flees. Heartbreak fades. How strange and wonderful, that a man might raise an undersized pistol, utter those words, and bring seventy eighth-grade boys to a crouch.
The pistol fires. I see my son go by, near the back. Parents, coaches and teammates explode into motion, hurrying to the next cheering spot. A cheer goes up at the sight of the first runner out of the woods. The fastest boys swish past, full of glory, youth, and speed. The majority of the crowd sprints after them. Many of us remain for the second wave, not five minutes behind. They pass and more people leave. You can hardly tell it’s a course anymore, so many people are swarming it. Finally only parents of the slow kids are left. We make attempts at conversation, comments on weather conditions and course features.
If your runner is slow, this slippage of grace is inevitable. Idleness creeps in. Boredom. Even irritation. Why doesn’t he appear? He can’t be trying very hard. He cannotbe this slow. He must be walking. He’s given up, sat down somewhere.
Another minute passes and worry sets in. He’s fallen, been struck by a side ache. He’s out there crying, bent over. Again, I question why we are doing this. My son knows running is good for him. He talks about getting in good shape. But he doesn’t seem to get any faster. He may have gotten slower.
The winning runner crosses the finish line and I haven’t moved. Hoot and cheers surround me. Kids are high-fiving each other, holding their ribbons, guzzling water. Parents are comparing times. The next age group is gathering, readying for their race.
I look down the hill through the trees and here comes my boy. He’s not last but he’s close. My eyes water. My hands begin to shake. I have to use all my strength to keep my lower lip from trembling.
“They’re hurting,” says a nearby parent, stating the obvious. I can’t agree or disagree or make idle conversation because I can’t speak. I can’t move. I see him; I know he’s not hurt or lost, and I understand that my irritation was out of place. His face is red. His hair is wet, his upper arms look sunburned with the rush of blood. His arms are moving and his mildly pigeon-toed feet swing beneath him. He is trying. This is everything he has. This is what that looks like.
I begin to clap. “You got this!” I shout. Our eyes meet and I clap faster, calling, “One more hill and you’re home free. Don’t give up! You can do this.”
As he passes, he won’t look at me. I can see that my actions embarrass him, yet I know they matter. My voice matters. My being here matters. I’ve never been more sure. The year I ran the 400 meter relay, my team was slow, way behind. When I finally felt the baton in my hand, I saw the winning runner rip through the ribbon and I stopped. I ran for thirty meters, saw that there was no point to my effort, and stopped. Nobody said anything to me. Not my teammates, not my coach. The event did not matter. Yet I never forgot the dead hollow in my chest. Nobody cared if I quit.
Maybe I am trying to correct what happened to me. I am modeling support and encouragement for my son. Certainly I can’t model how to win. I don’t know anything about winning.
Hurrying over to the finish line, I suddenly understand that I’ve got it all wrong. If anyone is modeling today, it’s my thirteen-year-old boy. Not about winning; he’s showing me how to lose with grace. You don’t stop. Even when there’s no chance of winning, you don’t stop.
This was never the story of the slow kid who trains and improves and crosses the finish line in triumph on his teammate’s shoulders. No. This is about the kid who finishes the race.
Christy Stillwell’s novel, The Wolf Tone, won the 2017 Fiction Prize from Elixir Press. Her short work has appeared in journals such as The Tishman Review, Pearl, River City, Sonora Review, Sou’wester, and The Massachusetts Review. She is the author of Amnesia, a poetry chapbook from Finishing Line Press. Stillwell earned her MFA in creative writing from Warren Wilson College, and an MA from the University of Wyoming. She lives in Montana.