Grace Under Fire
by Laurel Park, Jul. 3, 2001
Grace Under Fire
While there is no denying that the majority of things I’ve gained through running are tangible, I am also grateful for the myriad of "intangible" assets I’ve accrued along the way. Dedication, fortitude, respect, humor, humility, and the ability to handle defeat with dignity come immediately to mind. These are characteristics that are obviously important in all walks of life, but they are particularly important in competitive sports and are generally learned very early (and not always easily) in one’s athletic career.
A couple of incidents last summer got me thinking about all those "intangibles." The first was the embarrassing performance (on and off the track) of Michael Johnson and Maurice Green in the Olympic Trials 200 meters. The second was a small-town fun run. These two events were diametrically opposed in terms of prestige and publicity yet in many ways they turned out to be strikingly similar.
I’ll start with the Michael and Maurice show. I have never been a fan of "trash talk" and in my opinion it does little more than detract from the event at hand. A little healthy, respectful competition is always good, but trash talk generally excludes the respect. True elite athletes let their performances speak for themselves. So I found it particularly exasperating to wade through the daily barrage of verbal sparring issuing from the Johnson and Greene camps. I think both men are outstanding athletes and I respect their talents and abilities, but by the time the 200 meter final took place, I just wanted it all to be over and I didn’t care who won. I watched the race — and ended up nearly doubled over in laughter (as was my husband) at the sight of the two mighty warriors howling and limping off the track. I couldn’t help but think that they got what they deserved. Compare that with the women’s 5000 meters, where Regina Jacobs graciously acknowledged Deena Drossin’s role in her establishment of a new American record.
The second event was a road mile which took place in my husband’s home town in Pennsylvania. The race is a quintessential small-town fun run; not exactly Popsicle sticks at the finish, but close. It’s held in conjunction with the town carnival and draws less than 100 people, many of whom run only one race a year. My husband and I happened to be in town for a visit and decided to enter. My husband actually won the race about ten years ago (when he still had the benefit of college fitness) but neither of us held such aspirations this time around — we were in it purely for fun.
The pre-race favorites were two young whippersnappers: a local college standout, and a young woman who had recently graduated from college and was having quite a bit of success on the area road racing circuit. Her times — good though not outstanding — certainly gave evidence of talent and promise. Clearly the theme of this race would be Age and Experience versus Youth and Fitness.
Much to my surprise, I won the women’s category and Rich finished second for the men. As I stopped to grab a cup of water after the finish, I noticed the second place woman - the pre-race favorite - exiting the chute. Her face crumpled and she started to cry. Oh dear, I thought, it had been one of "those" races. Been there, done that.
I went over and put my arm around her. After a few seconds, she gathered herself and looked up. When she saw me, she threw off my arm and stepped back. "OK, fine, congratulations, you won!" she snapped, glaring at me angrily.
For a moment I was too stunned to respond. "Hey, take it easy, it was a tough night and you ran well!" I responded.
"Yeah, right," she spit out, trembling in righteous indignation and still on the verge of tears. "What’s your name, anyway?"
I told her.
"Well, fine, Laurel Park," she snarled. "Congratulations and it was an honor for you to beat me. Now we’re going to run a 6 mile cool-down up that hill " — she pointed into the distance — "care to come with us?"
"No, you run an extra loop for me," I said and walked away.
I’ve never had a post-race exchange like that. There have been plenty of times when the anticipated winner disappeared without saying a word immediately after the finish, but I’d never experienced such direct acrimony — certainly not after a small, low-key event like this!
"Let it go. It’s her problem, not yours," my husband said succinctly. He was right, and I quit dwelling on her words and enjoyed the rest of my evening. Not surprisingly, she did not show up for the awards ceremony.
In the days following the race, I found myself thinking quite a bit about this young runner. My foremost emotion was pity. I surmised (correctly, I later discovered) that she had expected to show up and win unchallenged. When that didn’t happen, she didn’t know what to think. Clearly her emotional maturity has yet to catch up with her athletic talent. I suspect that until she undergoes a drastic attitude adjustment, she’s going to have a rather frustrating racing career.
We’ve all had races that didn’t go as planned, for whatever reason. Sometimes a "ringer" shows up; sometimes the weather turns nasty; sometimes the tank is simply empty. And yes, it’s frustrating when that happens, and it can be difficult to congratulate the victor and smile through inquiries of "what happened?". I’ve certainly had my share of "self-flagellation cool-downs" and have re-run certain races dozens of times in my mind. But, it comes with the territory. Assured victories are few and far between.
Learning to accept defeat with dignity and humility is part of the sport, as is learning to respect your competitors. It doesn’t matter whether the goal is overall victory, age-group supremacy, or simply beating that woman in the pink shorts ahead of you. The level of competition is irrelevant; the need for respect and perspective is not. When all is said and done, it’s just a race. Embrace the good, learn from the bad, and prepare for next time.