The pleasure of watching sports is rarely about the outcome and almost always about preparing yourself to appreciate moments of poignancy when they occur as they will without warning.
I was reminded of this and of track’s abiding virtue at a recent dual meet at the local high school. The winning runner in the girls 1,500m had crossed the line in about 5:40. I had clapped encouragingly alongside my wife and son and most of the fans in the sparsely populated bleachers. Some of the runner’s friends and classmates had called out her name as they cheered. Good for her. But as the second and third runners finished the stadium had returned to murmuring conversation punctuated by a regular and respectful applause for the trailing runners as they came across over the next minute or two.
It could have gone on winding down this way until the next race began, except that for anyone paying attention to the whole field there was still one runner with a full lap to go. She was so far behind it was as if she were in a different race. And, really, she might have been for all the chance she had to move up to even second from the back.
The real competition in track, you will sometimes hear, isn’t the field but the clock. But as pure as that claim may sound it’s still one step removed from the truth. You don’t need a clock. Your competition in track is yourself. Not your abstract self or your best-ever self but your actual self on a given day. The test of a race is whether you can rise to the challenge of performing the best possible version of yourself in that moment. Your effort must be your best—but best is always relative.
There was no pity in my tears for the last-place runner as she rounded the final curve. Because I have rounded a hundred final curves myself, because among the days when I have not done my best there have also been days when I have, because I was watching the race closely so that I might have some luck explaining it to my son, because the rest of the crowd had not entirely forgotten her, because moments of true appreciation are profound, because the gods sometimes bless us, I watched with pride as the last runner came down the homestretch.
After the race, I leaned over and told my son that what makes track special is that the runner who finishes last is doing the exact same thing as the runner who finishes first. It doesn’t get any better than that.