Experiencing the race for last place—1992
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When I neared the two-mile mark of the five-mile race in Ocean County Park, there was a park ranger directing traffic. I was dead last, 107th in a field of 107 runners. As I passed, he called out to me 'How are you doing?" "The best I can," I answered. Doing the best I can is no more than routine but being last was an unusual experience. Early on, when I was in my 40s, I ran in a national cross-country championship. I was lapped by the entire field. But never since then had I held the position that defines the end of a race. There was no question that I was last. I turned around several times to be certain. I was surrounded by silence as if I were alone on a training run in those woods. Then came final proof. I could hear, just behind me, the vehicle that brings up the rear. Most races have one to pick up those who, for one reason or another, injury or exhaustion might need help getting back to the finish line. About 200 yards ahead was my friend Jason holding his steady pace and beyond him, at some distance, a small group of stragglers that I could see intermittently through the trees. Each of us was engaged in a private struggle - trying to maintain the level of exertion a five-mile race demands - between hard and very hard. This was a two-loop course and as I neared the half way point, there was a brief time when I was tempted to drop out. This was not something new to me. On loop courses, where there is an opportunity every lap to pack it in, I often have a transient impulse to call it quits. But just as in wartime, there are cowards but no cowardice, in races there are quitters who never quit. Within a few strides, the thought passed and I knew if I started into the second loop, it would never come again. It never did. I was last and probably would finish last, but it didn't matter. If you asked me why, my answer would be in action. I would be unable to put it into words nor would suspect, any runner, or coach or sports psychologist. If anyone has been able to, it is the philosopher William Barrett in "The Illusion of Technique." Barrett writes of the runner lapped by the entire field, and nevertheless torturing himself to keep going, as "more admirable than the victor we crown." And of the last place finish in the Boston Marathon, he writes "There 'simply cannot" be question of his quitting. An image of the man of faith." Faith and belief and prayer are the subjects that concern Barrett. And it is the ritual, (in this instance, the race), that provides a discipline and gives our lives meaning. And the effort and concentration we bring to it confirms the belief we are not sure of in other moments. The race is the prayer with which, as my sister who is a nun says, "We storm Heaven." Now, there was a mile to go. My friend Jason was beginning to come back to me. Both of us in this hour, finding our meaning in the apparently meaningless suffering. Both sending a wordless prayer to a higher power. Both believing that what we were doing was the best statement we could make of whom we are. In the last 20 yards, still trying to do my very best, I finally caught Jason and went by him. Beyond the finish line, as I lay gasping on the ground, Jason came to pat me on the back and congratulate me. Then I heard someone say, "The best race of the day was for last place." He didn't know that half of it.