What I Learned by Failing to Finish the Race at Field Day

It’s field-day season in America’s schools. You remember field day, right? The water games, the relays, the hotly contested match of monkey-in-the-middle.

When we got older, the games become more like actual sports and the will to win grew almost as fast as our scrawny legs.

I remember the first year our field day at Rose Hill Elementary School in Charlottesville, Virginia included more challenging events. Gone was the Frisbee toss, softball target toss and hula-hoop contest. In their place were the long jump, the speed dash and what they called the marathon run — three full laps around the small field where all the other events took place.

I was so proud of myself for making the final heat in the marathon run and was thrilled that both my father and mother were there to watch. I didn’t even mind that Virginia’s early June air was so thick I could feel myself swimming through it as I sprinted off the white spray-painted starting line.

Lap One — I was running strong and leading the pack.

Lap Two — I was short of breath and fading into the mass of gangly kids, our knobby knees knocking one another as we rounded the orange cones.

Lap Three — I was struggling to breathe but too proud and dumb to stop. I lumbered around the final turn and down the short straightaway. Nothing would keep me from the finish line — except my lungs. I fell to the grass just before the finish, my chest heaving and my heart feeling like it could explode.

My parents, administrators and a nurse were soon at my side. The other games stopped. My classmates watched and whispered.

Before long I caught my breath and my parents took me to see our family doctor. An hour later I owned an inhaler and a cool new phrase: “I have exercise-induced asthma.”

Sidebar: I didn’t really know or care what it meant, I only knew I had something to pull from my bag of tricks when the teacher asked if I had done my math homework. “No, I’m sorry, I couldn’t … I have exercise-induced asthma.”

After the quick trip to the doctor, my parents stopped at a nearby McDonald’s for lunch and some Happy Meal healing.

I remember so clearly standing in line and seeing another girl from my school. I didn’t know her name, but I knew she was in my grade and had been participating in field day when the drama unfolded.

She pulled on her mother’s sleeve and whispered more loudly than she probably intended, “Mom, there’s that boy from school.” Then she looked at me. “I hope he’s okay.”

The truth? I don’t remember much else after that.

I just remember feeling special.

Someone had been aware of me.

Someone had expressed concern for someone they didn’t know.

I suppose that was one of the first experiences in my life when I learned what it meant to really “love thy neighbor.”

As I look back on that spring afternoon, I’m certain that kind young girl has no idea how a few overheard words impacted me.

I’ve often wondered how things might’ve been different had I been able to finish the race. My pint-sized pals certainly would have hoisted me on their shoulders and carried me around the schoolyard. My mother would’ve wiped tears from her eyes. My father would have put his hands on my narrow shoulders and told me how finishing the race would become a defining moment in my life.

He would’ve told me how much he loved me.

But, no. I hadn’t finished the race. I’d collapsed with the finish line just beyond my reach.

And, so what?

Maybe I’ve learned an even more valuable lesson from a girl who didn’t even know she was teaching it.

Isn’t it interesting how driving by a field day can remind a father like me that our other Father — Heavenly Father, the ultimate teacher — loves us so much that He blesses us with grand memories and tender lessons even when we fall before we’ve crossed the finish line?

“Hey, there’s that boy from school. I hope he’s ok.”

Couldn’t be better.

Courage to Be You
Jason’s new book, written with Gail Miller,
is now available from Amazon and DB

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