A short little story that I thought I'd post after watching a young lady in Moscow running in the cold to keep up with her mother who was on a bicycle.
She didn’t quit so much as stop caring, so stopped trying.
I saw it happen, the moment she discovered she didn’t care about the race. Her head drifted sideways as the realization hit her and I watched as her stride faltered. She slowed almost imperceptibly.
It was the last race of the season for Elisa, the end of cross country season, at least for the junior high. You could sniff the air and smell the fall, the leaves turning, feel the crackle of frost that broke underfoot in the morning. The afternoon was warm enough, though, and sky was mostly clear except for clouds painted perfectly white against the azure blue. Glorious.
Elisa was running a strong third. The course was two loops around the park, all grass and wood chip trails that were easy on the kids' joints. She looked smooth and lithe and strong, her pretty face red and sweaty with effort. The uniform was too baggy for her; most of the kids had the same problem. It bothered the girls a lot more, old enough to be self-conscious of the changes in their bodies. Elisa had pinned the back of the singlet to take up slack and make it more snug, but it must have loosened as she raced across the grass.
There was no way to tell how good these kids would be in four or five years, I thought, when they were on the high school team. These junior high runners—boys and girls runners jumbled into puberty together when everything got exciting, scary, and weird at the same time—right now were good little runners, though none of them looked like future Olympians.
Her parents attended every meet and watched, like me, her fall behind a girl from the next town over. With shouts, they urged her to pick it up, compete, you can do it.
But the race doesn’t lie. Elise couldn’t do it, not today anyway.
Not that she didn’t have the physical tools. Elisa came into the short junior high season super-fit, trained up in the off-season by her dad. Miles and miles and interval after interval. She had also grown about four inches since last season and it showed in her coordination.
Heck, all of them had grown and all of them were spending half their energy battling knees and elbows to get them all going the same direction at the same time. And that puberty thing swept through the team. The sixth graders from the previous season weren’t kids, boys and girls, anymore. It was startling how fast the changes came. It showed more in the girls, the changes, than the boys, but I’d see it in the guys, too, about the eighth grade. By the time they reached high school, they almost weren’t recognizable.
But with the girls it started earlier, and not just their bodies but their minds, the new doubts. Life got complicated.
And Elisa was right in that spot, stuck between a girl and a woman, a child and soon-to-be adult, when she decided the race wasn’t worth it. She fell another step behind the other girl.
Her parents, closer to me than to her. cheered harder as she ran towards them, practically pleading for her to go faster, hurt more, catch that girl.
It was cross country, so I what I always did and cheered on all of the girls, our team and theirs, as Elisa ran to where I stood waiting.
“We’re all runners,” I’d remind the team. “some fast, some slow like me, but all runners.”
Elisa wasn’t a runner anymore, though. She had been rebuilt into a racer. Miles and miles, interval after interval, she had become faster and stronger at covering ground but there’s a cost to everything, and, for Elisa, it was to make running, something toddlers do for fun, a job.
That’s hard for a young lady that’s thirteen. A fair number of adult runners never manage it, even if they do have the talent to make a living from their feet.
A line of dialogue from Chariots of Fire flashed into mind as she passed her mother, then her father. “And when I run I feel His pleasure.” It was my second most favorite quote from the movie, attributed to Eric Liddell.
Elisa lifted her shoulders in a quick movement, a teenage shrug, as she passed her folks. I could see the frustration on their faces. They didn’t understand. She could be good, Elisa’s mom and dad had told me, really good, maybe get a scholarship. You could read it in their expressions: Why wasn’t she trying harder?
Of course, there aren’t scholarships for thirteen year-olds, but facts can be inconvenient to dreams.
Teenagers think they’re masters at hiding what their feeling. Mostly they’re pretty bad at it, though. Every muscle, movement, twitch, and slouch sends a message, even if they don’t know it yet, and Elisa was sending a message of her own.
I directed some encouragement to the runner ahead of Elisa. Elisa a quick glance my way and made eye contact. I nodded that I understood and her awareness that I understood stained her face. She looked away hastily.
When she was close enough, I said, “Good girl, just finish it out.” I kept my voice low, no point in shouting.
Elisa looked startled.
My directive to the kids was simple. I didn’t care if you ever won a race. I just wanted you to do your best, to honor yourself and the other runners. It usually took a year for the new athletes to realize how much I was actually asking; sometimes, winning was easier. Sticking it out when everything went to crap was harder and required more guts than racing away from the field to break a tape.
She accelerated, going after the girl that had passed her, but I couldn’t watch her finish, I had more runners coming past.
Honor yourself, Elisa, I wished after her, but I didn’t say it aloud. I turned to face the next group of runners.
“Great job,” I shouted to a little sixth-grader named Kate and got a smile in return, a quick one because she was fighting off two other runners here near the end of the race.
One by one, the runners came past. I could hear the cheers from the parents and teammates behind me. I waited until each runner of the team had passed before I jogged toward the finish line, cutting the corner of the course. If I hustled, I could watch the last couple finish. . .
Elisa waited until most of the team had loaded up their gear. She fidgeted with her bag and blanket, stalling. I saw her and waited myself, looking out to the course. Her parents had already left.
The head coach herded the kids toward the bus while I stood there. The sun was dropping over the only hill on the course and the flags at the finish line drooped and looked lonely. High on the hill amid medium tall pines and backlit by the sunset, I could see volunteers rolling up more flags marking a turn.
I turned to face Elisa—or would have, but her chin was tucked into her chest and she was staring at her toes.
Without warning, she stepped forward and gave me a hug. A muffled “Thanks” came from the region of my left elbow as I gave her a hug back. My rule on hugs was simple. I don’t initiate hugs but I do return them.
“You did good,” I said, and I meant it.
I felt her nod on my side and then she let go and hurried to the bus. She still didn’t look up.
I wondered if I’d see Elisa next year.
Dang it, I thought. Running’s supposed to be fun.
I turned back to the sunset and wiped a hand across my eyes and hoped so.