“Runner’s get set!” “Bang!” The gun shot signaled the runners’ stampede, a burst of energy. The runners were off.
Just a few moments before, I watched my son, Gannan, jiggle his legs and arms in runner’s fashion as he loosened up at the starting line of our school district’s annual mile race. He swiped his hands down his wind pants. They often sweat when he was nervous. If I was telling the complete truth, I would have to admit that on me there were a lot more parts sweating than just hands. You see, I was sure that at any moment he’d scamper across the parking lot to avoid the race altogether. After all it was only a few weeks before at a pee wee football game, a mother tapped me on the shoulder and pointed at my son who, in full football gear, dashed across a crowded field, climbed a wire fence and ran like lightning down the street in order to avoid going into the game for the first time.
Although it wasn’t important to his step-father or me, our son had readily pressured himself to be the best at all athletics. Mysteriously, if he couldn’t be the best or had any inkling that someone else was better he’d feign an illness, lock himself in his room or bolt while a bleacher full of spectators chuckled and pointed in order to avoid a competition. I had so much hope that running would be different for two reasons; his favorite teacher had suggested he take it up after hearing through our small town gossip mill about the infamous “football incident” and his very best friend, a talented runner as well would also be running the race.
A year ago, that friend, Sean, was the best runner in his school. This race would have been easily won by him as it had been three times in a row—a year ago. But that was before my son arrived, a new kid in school. For the first time ever, someone’s hand slapped the school wall before Sean’s during their daily recess races. From that point on Sean and my son were fast friends. Running was in their blood. They zoomed with wings on their feet around the playground, around the block, around the town.
Standing at the starting line, they glanced at each other. I took some comfort in the fact that Sean looked as nervous as I knew Gannan felt. His head was down and his eyebrows furrowed. “Runners in line!” shouted the official. The mass of students pushed and shoved jockeying for a good starting position. Gannan elbowed Sean and gave him a look that said, “Let’s do this!” “Runner’s get set!” My heart beat almost drowned out the man’s voice, and then, “Bang!”
The gunshot signaled the runners’ stampede, a burst of energy. Bodies shoved, legs tangled and in the chaos, my son tripped on the narrow trail. He fell on all fours. In his haste to stand up, he didn’t look behind him and was knocked down again face first into the gravel. I audibly groaned out of fear, out of disappointment, out of worry. As I watched him struggle to get up amongst the charging sneakers above and around him, I rushed forward, but my husband held my arm and whispered, “Let him be.”
Sean ran a few paces before realized what had happened. For a split second, I could see a realization flash across his face. This was Sean’s break; the way he could win. I glanced nervously over at his mom who stood a few paces away. Her nerves were palpable. She wrapped her arms around herself. We both knew if he kept running, he’d win for sure.
A cold rush seeped into my heart and for the first time I grasped how desperately I wanted Gannan to win, probably as much as Sean’s mother wanted her own son to win. Or as much as Sean himself wanted the victory. However, it must not have felt right to win like that because after a few more paces, Sean seemed to know what he had to do. Turning on his heels, he headed back against the stream of runners, a flying fish swimming against a fast current. It took just a few seconds to get to Gannan. He reached down, grabbed my son’s forearm and picked him up. Their eyes met for a brief moment and then they were off, friend next to friend, running the trail together.
Five minutes later, as expected, Sean and Gannan were the first runners to burst from the woods and approach the finish line. Side by side they ran—the perfect twosome. Both exhausted from the fierce competition, they ran in tandem. Gravel crunching under the weight of their dashes; left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. Their breath mixed with the sound—crunch, whoosh, crunch whoosh. Most of the crowd was unaware of the circumstances before them, but still they sensed that something extraordinary was happening. Perhaps it was the mixture of pride and awe and tension and worry on the faces of each boy’s mother that gave it away. Maybe it was the pure elation of the coach’s cheers, “Yeah! That’s the way to do it boys! Team mates! Team mates!”
Ten yards from the finish line a subtle change came over the pair. Gannan inched his way ahead of his friend just slightly—a hair here, a thread there, slowly solidifying his win. My heart soared envisioning the moment that would erase the football folly that had plagued my son’s self-esteem for weeks, but just before the finish line Gannan hesitated. He looked behind him, and just as quickly as it soared, my heart fluttered with nerves realizing Gannan was no longer sure if he wanted that win, not sure if he deserved it. After all, where would he be without Sean? How different would this race be had his friend not helped him escape the trample of the crowded starting line?
Time stood still. The coach’s voice came in slow motion waves; deep and low sending out encouraging phrases. I clutched my husband’s arm and he leaned forward shouting “You can do it, Gannan! Start your kick! Kick it!”
As if sensing his doubt, Sean, shouted, “Run Gannan run!” With a glance over his shoulder Gan’s face glowed with the gratitude of release. His hesitation melted away as he reached down deep to find an extra spurt of energy. Flicking gravel under his feet, he accelerated like there was a strong wind at his back, and from his second place position, Sean’s smile stretched from red cheek to red cheek. He seemed to burst with pride as he shouted, “Yeah Gannan!” watching his best friend cross the finish line.
Feel like you can relate to our Muddled Mother? Read more from Logan!