Forty thousand feet in the air and my mind was tracing a dirt path on the ground in worn out sneakers. Over and over again, I saw myself round the track, hit the final grass stretch before the finish line and blaze into a first place medal. Not even the turbulence could stop me.
It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything competitively. My last high school speech and debate tournament was an unmitigated disaster (by my own standards, at least). I was second in the State going into that national tournament. I finished somewhere in the teens. After the awards ceremony, all my friends went out to watch the fireworks over Mission Bay. I just stood there and cried, colors bleeding down my face and across the black bay water. I was so disappointed. Six years of pushing myself towards this one goal and I had fallen short.
I don’t often feel defeated because I’m not a quitter, and as Babe Ruth says, it’s hard to beat a man who never gives up. But that night, I felt defeated. I felt defeated for a long time.
Needless to say, I am nothing if not over competitive.
I stopped competing formally in college. Too busy to join the debate team. Then life and work and the real world kicked in and I never had a chance to go back to anything that might put me on a path towards a podium and a medal.
Not till this summer.
As some may know, I have been working as a sports reporter for nearly a year, and it has been brought to my attention that I may broaden my abilities as a journalist in this field if I actually had some experience in athletics (which I don’t, unless you count some intense games of ultimate frisbee, or that summer my church insisted on playing volleyball every Wednesday and I was named the MVP for the opposing team three weeks in a row).
So I signed up for the cross country team. They spent this summer training. I spent the summer in Europe. Aware that I would need to keep pace with everyone, I asked the coach for some things to practice while I was traveling around.
In Prague, in Budapest, on the silver shores of Lake Balaton, Hungary and in the majestic mountains of Šumava, Czech Republic, I ran. I did 300 meter sprints that nearly killed me, again and again. I raced up hills. I ran for miles through forests. I’d get up before my friends to finish my workouts so we could spend the day together. I ran my way through Europe.
Coincidentally, I also ran my way into a bit of a hamstring problem.
One night at the English Camp I volunteered at, we watched “Chariots of Fire” (everyone was getting pumped for the Olympics two weeks down the road and Chariots of Fire is like, the greatest Olympic movie of all time).
Irish missionary Eric Liddell and self-made man Harold Abrahams are running these 100 meter sprints in ten seconds and because I’ve been doing sprints all summer, I know just how ridiculous that is to do. You guys have no idea how long 100 meters is when you’re running hard.
I really relate most to Abrahams. He has an intensity I resonate with when it comes to winning. He lives and breathes competition, so much so that the anxiety and the pressure of it seems to shake him to his core, but it’s what drives him forward too. And although he has something to prove to everyone else, you just know he really just needs to prove it to himself.
But when I would be in cold sweats outside a semifinal round, it was Liddell my dad would remind me of as I wrung my hands and paced the floor. Dad loved Liddell’s quote about God making him fast and that when he ran he could feel God’s pleasure.
That was Dad’s way of reminding me that I do what I’m good at not to prove that I’m good at it, but because when I exercise my God-given strengths, God is glorified in it.
In the dust of defeat as well as the laurels of victory there is a glory to be found if one has done his best.”
― Eric Liddell
By the time I touched down in the USA this summer, my leg and I were not on speaking terms.
I stretched, I iced, I ran again, because I am not a quitter. And because I didn’t know what else to do. Coach wants us to be at 12 miles by the time the season starts and I can barely manage eight.
Sitting on my sister’s couch, watching the Olympics and sitting on an ice pack, I thought to myself, I want to feel that thrill. Not even the thrill of winning, just of getting to compete again.
“Are you going to see someone about your leg?” my sister asked.
“Naw,” I said, shifting on the ice-pack under my thigh. “It’ll get better.”
Besides, I had other things to worry about.
All new athletes have to get a physical from the school medical staff. I showed up with like 50 wanna-be football players and spent the day having my blood pressure taken, my weight measured, my balance examined and my eyesight checked. It was all rather new and glamorous to me. I’ve never felt so cared about by strangers. This must be what being a princess feels like.
“You’re 5’11,” said a nurse measuring my height.
I gaped at her. There’s just no way I’m 5’11, ma’am.
“Let me see that,” I said, bending over her petite shoulder to see the chart. The stocky jock behind me snorted.
“Can I have a few of those inches?” he asked.
I’d trade, I thought as I walked to the last examination station. Thirty of us waited in a crowded line in the sun for the examination. Behind me, several football players were making some low-key cat calls (I’d like to assume they were directed at me, but they were probably intended for the blonde soccer girls a few heads in front of where I was). The guys were rowdy. The day was warm. And I was tired of standing on my bad leg.
But I was just so excited to be in this new, seemingly glamorous world of athletics that I didn’t even care. Also, I’m not a quitter.
We must have waited in that line for half an hour, and by the end of it, I’d been invited onto the football team as an honorary member (they said they needed a kicker).
Then it was my turn. I was almost done. So close to having everything I needed. Just one quick sit-in with the doctor and I would be finished!
She checked my vitals and said some friendly things that I don’t remember. Then she looked at my chart and asked, “Have you had chest pains during exercise this summer?”
Yes, I had checked that box. It was just once, I explained to her, right after that first round of horrible sprints in the summer heat. Just an ache. Only lasted a few minutes. No big deal. I’m not a quitter.
“You’re going to need to get an EKG before we can clear you,” she said.
My heart sank.
Instead of getting out of there, I found myself in another series of lines to have my insurance checked, my medical history reviewed, and my options clarified.
During the process, we discovered that I was one academic unit short of eligibility.
“To compete, you need to be a full-time student,” they told me. “You need 12 units. You have 11.”
My mind roared in frustration. How was I supposed to find another unit? I’m about to transfer! I have no classes left to take! And where am I going to find the time (or the money) for another class? I’m already working two jobs and I’ll be training all afternoon every day. Most of my night classes don’t end till 10 p.m. anyway.
I left with a piece of blue paper that had the number of a clinic in Chula Vista, a printout of my current class schedule (11 units circled in red) and a few fraying threads of my resolve to do cross country. I could feel my hamstring wincing all the way up the stairs to the parking lot.
But I’m not a quitter.
I spent a week trying to set up an appointment for that EKG. I found a 7 a.m. yoga class (which is full, but I am on the waitlist and I’m ruthless. So…). I also started going to the neighborhood hot tub to soak my leg (which is some mighty dedication to recovery, given the 90 degree temperature we’ve been scorched with this month).
On Sunday, we hiked to church for evening service. My dad has done this periodically since we were kids. If the afternoon is too restless, we walk to church. A good way to simmer down before worship. And truly, one of the prettiest corners of San Diego you’ll ever see, especially in the golden stretches of evening.
It’s only two and a half miles and we were only walking, but when we got to the church, my hamstring was practically singing. I tried stretching it out a little with no luck. Fighting back the urge to cry, I washed the dust off my face in the bathroom sink and went to find a seat with my family in the sanctuary.
On Monday, I still hadn’t heard back from the doctor regarding my EKG, and now my coach was sending me emails asking if I had been cleared to run yet. I called up the receptionist again (who knows me by name now because I have called her every day for a week and a half). She said she’d personally inform the head nurse of my message.
It’s been a long summer and I felt myself running out of steam. I just wanted to compete again. How hard could this possibly be?
“Maybe God is closing this door?” my pastor said gently. I’m sure it would have been a helpful nudge to anyone less of a hardhead than myself. When people tell me I can’t, the Harold Abrahams in me rises up to say, Oh yes I can!
It’s possibly one of my worst qualities and has gotten me into more than one traffic citation.
“Why not just drop this?” my dad asked.
“I can’t,” was all I could think to say back.
Why not? Because I spent my whole summer abroad training for this when I could have been sleeping in or hanging out with my friends a little more. Because I can basically feel the blood shooting through my veins when I even think about running competitively, vying for a medal, aiming to win at something again. And because the idea of coming back to San Diego to compete in cross country this fall was one of the only things that soften the very difficult goodbye when I had to leave Prague again this summer.
I really needed to be able to do this.
So there I was, lying on the ground with my mind up in the air, somewhere floating around the sewage of lost dreams and abandoned ideas. I felt very much in a haze, the way Abrahams looks when he’s lost a race (which he doesn’t do often, and frankly, neither do I).
All the anxiety built up on being able to compete and win was taking the fun out of running. And running is something that I have always loved to do.
Eric Liddell sat down next to me, taking the fuming Abrahams’ place. “God made me fast, and when I run, I can feel his pleasure.”
More prone to turn God-given abilities, these divine gifts, into my own self-serving aims, Eric’s perspective is one I have to fight to hold on to. I learn because God gave me a brain and it glorifies him for me to do so. I teach because God gave me a big heart and a steady hand and it glorifies him for me to do so. I run because God gave me long, healthy legs and a passion for movement and it glorifies him for me to do so.
I pulled myself off the floor and immediately drove over to school.
I sat on the examination table and let a trainor bend and prod my leg in all directions. Then I sat on more ice and was told not to run till the start of school. So much for 12 miles.
But I felt better.
It has been a wonderful experience to compete in the Olympic Games and to bring home a gold medal. But since I have been a young lad, I have had my eyes on a different prize. You see, each one of us is in a greater race than any I have run in Paris, and this race ends when God gives out the medals.”
― Eric Liddell
The nurse from the clinic called back and I scheduled an appointment for the EKG. Hopefully it comes back clear, but if it doesn’t, I know I’ll find a different race to run.
Because I am not a quitter, and not every race is on a track.