My daughter, age eight, ran/walked her first 5K today. Out of 69 kids, she finished dead last.
My daughter is an amazing kid. Sure, my opinion may be biased, but the facts remain. She is creative and funny and smart and thoughtful and unique and sweet and innocent. She’s just as likely to pick up a salamander as she is to pick a flower; as likely to design an evening gown for her doll as to take a hike through the woods; as likely to sit quietly reading her book as she is to spend a morning watching episodes of Phineas and Ferb. Her interests are wide and varied, her time split equally between scholarly pursuits, girly-girl frivolity, tomboyish exploits, media consumption, and keeping her little brother at bay. This may sound like fatherly braggadocio, but ask anyone that knows her and you’ll hear much of the same.
Despite all her qualities, athletics is past time she has yet to show much aptitude for. Our first attempt to introduce her to the world of participation, competitive sports was a weekly basketball clinic when she was four. Granted, she was one of the younger kids involved, but she showed next to no interest in doing much of anything that wasn’t a water break. She often complained of being too tired to participate in the drills, feigning yawns and “needing” to sit down to “rest.” The next try was soccer last year. It started well, though we quickly noticed she was more interested in the social component than the competitive. She did show some surprising flashes of an underlying competitive drive. Once as goal keeper she actually leaped onto the ball with an opponent rapidly bearing down on it. It was shocking she actually knew what to do, did it so quickly, and with apparently little thought of the possibility of getting kicked in the face (getting kicked was usually her #1 concern). As the season went on, her enthusiasm waned, with a nice little resurgence for the last couple games. I thought maybe we had found her athletic niche. But when signups rolled around this year, she wasn’t interested. She complained of being too slow. Her being too slow, not the game.
So far organized sports have been a miss (we may try basketball again next year, or maybe softball). As a life long watcher of and participant in team, competitive sports it’s been a little hard for this dad. I’m not one of those parents who think winning is not important. If you do anything where there is a stated goal, you should do all you can (within the rules) to achieve that goal. In sports, the goal is winning, so you should try to win. However, I’m not one of those insane, win-at-all costs people either. If you lose, that’s fine as long as you give it your best shot. There’s a lot of life lessons to be learned through losing; probably more than in winning. I’m not a big fan of participation trophies, but with little kids who are just learning the rules of the games and whose feelings are a bit more feelery, it’s probably for the best. It’d be great if Lily showed a bit more competitive fire in the proper contexts, but she’s just not there. Who knows, maybe she never will be (and that would be okay). She has taken to swimming and loves riding her bike, so at least she’s moving.
This spring, my wife signed her up for a running group called Kids on the Run. It included other members of our homeschool group, and was run by some great parent volunteers. For about eight weeks, the kids all met to run together, divided into age groups, in training for the 5k at the end. Boys and girls from all grades of elementary school participated. I went to several of the trainings. Lily was, without a doubt, the slowest one there. And it wasn’t as if she would stick with the pack, then fade toward the end. Within just the first few minutes of starting, she’d be waaaaay behind. Before long, she would be begging to walk. She wasn’t the only one who had to walk a fair portion, but she was the one who walked the most portions. We would try to alternate, run-walk-run-walk. We set small goals: walk to that tree, then run to that cone, now walk to the fence, then run to the picnic table. In between the weekly group runs, Jen did a great job of running with her at home. In the evenings, they would go to the track near our house and do a few laps.
She often complained (“my feet hurt” “my tummy hurts” “my head hurts”), she took a few spills, always finished with her face red as a tomato (a Bauer trait), and more then a few times contemplated quitting. But she kept at it. She was still always the slowest at training, but showed noticeable improvement. She still whined about her sides hurting, but she didn’t give up.
Jen took her running five days of the week leading up to the big 5k. Two days before the run, she got an agonizing toothache. A filling had become infected and the tooth would need to be pulled. But it was the weekend. The procedure would have to wait a couple days. The day before the run, she was in excruciating pain, mostly sitting on the couch trying to hold back the painful tears. The dentist prescribed some antibiotics and a regimen of pain reliving meds that seemed to be working by that evening.
Unlike me, Jen did not grow up with a love of competitive sports. While I have known both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, this is all very foreign to her. Couple that with a mother’s love, and it was difficult for her to watch Lily be the last one to finish week in and week out. She was concerned for what would happen to Lily’s fragile psyche if she finished last at the big run. The toothache gave her an out.
The night before the big run, she told Lily if she didn’t feel up to it, she could skip it. We could do our own, private 5k when she was feeling better. To Jen’s surprise, I think, Lily said she still wanted to do it.
The day of the run, all the family came to support Lily. Both sets of grandparents turned out, and one grandma (Mimi) even decided to run with her. The race began, and before long Lily was already bringing up the rear. The run was not on a regulation track, and it would take 10 laps to equal the 5k. The kids all wore 10 rubber bracelets to help keep track of the laps. After finishing a lap, they would take one off and toss it in a bucket near the starting line. As the run went on, more and more kids had fewer and fewer bracelets on and it was looking like Lily may well indeed be the final runner on the track.
Jen, Mimi, and I ran along side her. Encouraging her to keep pushing and reminding her she had more down inside than she realized. Her tooth was fine, but she complained of her tummy hurting. Red faced and winded, she pressed on, all the other runners having already finished.
The final lap was her strongest. Her best friend, who had come to watch, ran along side her. Just before the final turn, a group of kids who had already finished joined her for the home stretch. She raced toward the finish, energized by the cadre of kids and coaches running along side her, all the other participants and spectators lined up along the last few yards, cheering her to the end. She threw her last bracelet into the bucket and raced to the finish line, probably the fastest she ran all day. When she crossed the finish line she had a look on her face I’m not sure I’ve seen before. It was the look of accomplishment, of having achieved something thought not possible. Rather than Jen’s fear of a crushed spirit at finishing last, she had the glow of someone who set a difficult to reach goal and met it. Jen threw her arms around her in a hug, tears welling up in her eyes.
My daughter, age eight, ran/walked her first 5K today. Out of 69 kids, she finished dead last. I couldn’t have been prouder.