...my younger son arrived home from school one day last week armed with a toothy grin, and the type of announcement that simply couldn't wait until everyone was present at the dinner table. Following a series of intense time trials in Phys Ed., my son, nicknamed "Boo," which is a story for another time, had qualified for the school's Mile Run during Field Day.
The famous "Mile Run" has come to be known as one of the most highly anticipated events to close out the school year. A week prior to the race, every student is granted the opportunity of running a mile under the watchful eye of their Phys. Ed instructor, stopwatch in hand. The top twelve times in the school were then invited to participate in the "Mile Run," for grade school prominence, among other awards to be handed out on the last day of school.
Boo's qualifying time was around seven and a half minutes, earning him a second place overall finish in the third grade, but just good enough to make the cut versus several fourth and fifth graders, who's times were around the seven minute mark.
Knowing how I'd once been a "track trekky" during my highschool days, my boy came to me after dinner with a simple request...help him win the thing.
The race was in three days. His opponents were some of the best grade school athletes in the area, making names for themselves in baseball and on the hardwood during the winter months. And my son, a decent athlete himself, but normally one who would prefer to watch the Iron Man sequel over a backyard sprint through the neighborhood, wanted me to figure out how to shave thirty seconds off his time.
On Sunday morning we went to the school. With the sun already pushing the mercury up over seventy at ten a.m, we had the entire track to ourselves. I showed him how to properly stretch his legs, and off we went.
It took all of a half a lap before I started noticing a few things.
"Why are you breathing so hard?" I asked.
"I didn't know I was," he huffed.
"You sound like you're about to have a heart attack. If you wanna win this thing, you've gotta learn how to breathe, okay?"
"I know how to breathe, or I'd be dead."
"Pay attention. Try taking longer breaths. In through your nose...out your mouth. Concentrate on that instead of pumping your legs for a couple minutes."
The panting slowed, and by the end of the first lap his chest was rising and falling with decent rhythm.
We rumbled through a half mile in silence. I'd forgotten how good it felt, that burn in my lungs. The blood pumping through my legs. It'd been a while.
"Doing okay?" I asked Boo, who'd managed to stay at my side despite the rising humidity.
"Yeah, I guess," he said. "Side's starting to hurt a little though."
"Think about something else," I suggested. "Do you hear that noise your feet are making?"
"Yeah. Kinda loud."
"You sound like a pony on concrete. Clip-clop. Clip-clop. Try landing on the balls of your feet, without hardly using your heels. It uses a lot less energy and might gain you a little time."
The transition was awkward, but he continued to work on it, forgetting about the pain in his ribs.
We jogged into the final lap, both our faces glistening, but our breathing calm, our legs pumping.
"Time for your most important advice," I said as we rounded the final turn. He tossed me a glance, letting me know he was listening. "Back in school when I ran the mile, I'd always run against a few guys who'd take off way too fast at the start, and burn up all their energy too soon. I'd always hang back. Control my breathing, keep my legs pumping steady. Then at the halfway point on the last lap, I'd use up all that energy I'd been saving the whole race, and do this..."
I took off in a mad sprint for the finish. I wasn't sure I could still pull it off, and paid for it later that evening with a series of muscle cramps, but the message sunk in.
"That was awsome, Dad," Boo breathed, stumbling to my side.
We walked a lap before heading home. Cooling down. Lost in thought. Then he asked me something I hadn't been prepaired for. "So Dad, when will your book be done?"
"Well, a little while yet, I guess," I said. "There's edits. Then revisions. Boring stuff that'll make the story sound better."
"It's been a long time," Boo said.
I studied my son's shadow angling toward the distant bleachers, considering what he'd said. Thinking there was a lesson in there somewhere. As we neared the car, our legs at last coming to a stop, I figured it out. "I guess writing a book is kinda like this race of yours," I said. "It's gonna be grueling, and probably a struggle. Your brain might suggest you give up. But if you stay focused, remember your goal and most importantly, concentrate on your breathing...well, who knows."
"Yeah, who knows," he said. Then, "I just hope I don't finish last."
I patted him on the shoulder. "Just finish the thing. That's what's important. Not quitting."
A downpour the night before had left the turf soft and a bit precarious. And as I watched the runners line up side by side, I figured the conditions might slow the athletes a bit, helping out my Boo.
With the entire student body in attendance, including the parents of those participating, the horn sounded, and the runners took off.
As I guessed, a half dozen overly excited runners took off in a full sprint, rounding the first lap with cheeks puffing, chests heaving. Other runners followed, and Boo took up the rear. I studied his expression as he finished the first lap. His face was a stone. Eyes on the ground, his breathing calm.
At a half-mile, the excited sprinters had slowed considerably, but remained in front of the pack. Trailing everyone was my Boo, in danger of falling a half lap behind, but with an air of indifference. I was beginning to wonder if he'd decided to forego a shot at winning the race in order to concentrate on simply finishing.
Minutes later, the runners entered the final lap.
As some of the runners found themselves gasping for breath, and others held a hand to their side, mouths agape, straining for what little energy remained, my son began pumping his legs, and gaining ground.
With a half-lap to go, Boo passed his first runner. From where I was in the front row of the bleachers, I quietly stood, watching as he rumbled by two more. His arms now churning, driving his legs forward, he brushed through a group of four struggling runners unscathed. With the finish line in sight, he pulled ahead of a fifth grader, and set his gaze on the last remaining pair of runners standing between him and the title.
Finding myself unable to do anything other than hop in place while my wife bellowed encouragement by my side, we watched as Boo managed to close the gap with the leaders, before running out of time down the stretch. His final time...seven minutes, eight seconds. Nearly a half minute better than the week prior.
Hours later, sitting in front of the computer, staring at endless revisions, I remembered the expression on my son's face as he neared the finish line. Confident. Determined. And yet...calm. His breathing like the steady beat of a drum.
I'm sure of it now...there's a lesson in there somewhere.