On your mark, get set … Wait! I know we’ve never seen an Olympic sprinter or swimmer take off his goggles, stand up from the starter’s block, scratch his chin, shrug his shoulders and walk away. After all, these athletes have spent years preparing for races that sometimes last less time than it takes us to order lunch.
Like it or not, most of us are in races of all kinds. Some of them are positive and can even be necessary, while others may not be as productive. We race against the bully in the playground to prove that we can cross the lawn faster than he can, we race against the car at the other end of the parking lot so we can get the closest spot — and we race to our seats in a movie theater so we don’t miss the previews.
Some of these races clearly offer us an incentive to improve our lives, the lives of those around us or just to make us feel better. Beating the fastest kid on the block may not be something we put on our resumé, but it can give us confidence in other arenas.
Races can be inspirational. Watch any Olympic Games and every media outlet is in search of an incredible story. Witness Wilma Rudolph. She had polio when she was 4, which caused her to have infantile paralysis. Through her recovery, she wore a brace on her leg until she was 9. She went on to become an Olympic track star in 1956 and 1960.
Races can also encourage people to climb out of bed each morning, recognizing the urgency to do important work. Scientists, for example, frequently describe the race to cure cancer and to provide relief from other diseases that destroy our friends and relatives quickly, or slowly take them away from us. The scientific researchers know, without looking at a clock, that people are suffering day and night with limited treatment, which also motivates them to work late at night or through weekends.
Rescue workers, including the police, firefighters and the Coast Guard, race into storms or treacherous conditions to help people. Seconds can mean the difference between life and death.
With everyone racing to something every day, it’s easy to see how some of those races, particularly the ones with little at stake, seem more like a battle of wills than a race. Do I need to race to the shortest line in the supermarket before that other person, with the same intent look in his eyes? What happens if I lose that race? Am I stuck in this other line for an extra 20 seconds or, gasp, even a minute or more?
When we’re driving, we recognize that an ambulance racing past requires us to get out of the way. That’s not only the law, but it’s also the way we help our society function. When confronted with someone in a spectacular hurry, it’s possible and even likely that the person may be racing against or toward something we can’t see or understand.
And then there are the times when we are racing out to do something that may not, on second thought, be important or even all that helpful. Yes, movement might be positive and, yes, we might benefit from cutting down the time to accomplish something, but might we have found a shorter route or even a different path without all that running around?
If we see our lives as a series of races, maybe we can pick the ones we truly want to run, while also recognizing that we can define a successful race for ourselves.
Many years ago, I attended a press conference before the New York City Marathon. One of the reporters asked a Kenyan athlete, who was likely to finish in the top 10, about winning. The runner, whose pace per mile for more than 26 miles is faster than most people can sprint for a single mile, took his time to answer.
“To finish the race is to win the race,” he said grinning, taking much more time between words than he would between strides the next day.