Little people take races super seriously.
Don’t take my word for it. Running with kids today, I saw the full gamut of emotion, or as the Wide World of Sports used to put it: The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.
However, I didn’t see any of the winners today. I didn’t share in their victories. The victories I saw were of a much different kind: quiet, personal, but very large and important to the individuals experiencing them.
I was the sweeper today for the seven races in the first of the Youth Running Series cross-country runs. That meant that at Storm the Park, as the event at Point Pleasant Park is known, my task today was to run behind the slowest runner and make sure everyone got back to the start line safely.
Storm the Park attracts roughly 700 kids ranging in age from five to 17. A large group of devoted volunteers make the race happen, as does Halifax marathoner Leah Jabbour, who is the series’ race director and who before every heat led the kids through warm-ups and generally got them pumped to run.
I ran two loops of the 1.5 kilometre course once and covered the distance an additional six times, dogging the footsteps of the Tykes, Mosquitoes, Peewees, Bantams and Youth. Without a doubt, the toughest race to pace was the Youth. The kids flew off the start, completely catching me unaware. I had to sprint for 300 metres and kept thinking if the pace stayed consistent, I was in serious danger of getting dropped.
As the race progressed over the three kilometres, one young girl, the youngest in the race as it turned out, started falling behind within about 500 metres. She slowed, but she never wavered. I talked her through the race, giving advice on when to pace herself, when to push, and continuously prompting her with the oft-heard words at races: “Good job” and “You’re running strong.”
At one point I told her: “Focus on the guy ahead of you and imagine a rope linking you and he’s pulling you along.”
For the first time, she acknowledged me and nodded and her pace stepped up.
She ran strong and like a champion. She never stopped trying and, in fact, at the end of the race hit the final hill hard and gave it everything she had running through the finish chute.
That kid is already a very tough-minded runner and she’s going to hand down some real defeats to competitors in the years to come.
No matter how fast or the slow the kids ran, it was a privilege and experience to run with them.
Some made me laugh. One seven-year-old girl just slayed me. “My heart is beating like a maniac,” she declared at one point, slowing to take a walk break. She kept up a constant stream of happy chatter until she rounded the final corner and then she flew down the hill and into the finish.
Another young lad alternated between walking and running. He must have been around eight years old. For these kids, 1.5 km is a long distance, like a half-marathon or marathon to most of us. As we got near the finish, he kept repeating: “My Dad is going to be proud of me; I’m going to make my Dad proud.”
“You’re going to be proud of yourself too,” I told him.
Not everyone was so graceful. I ran behind more than a couple of crying kids. One small boy had completely dissolved in tears while his mother tried to coax him along. Two-thirds of the way through, one of the volunteers said, “You’re doing great! Can you run a little?”
The boy deliberately took six steps past her and then turned around, crouched low and with every fibre in his body let out a long, sustained piercing scream. He took two more steps, sat down in the path and did the same again. It was incredibly primal.
On one of the other races, I ran with a pair of girls. They’d run full tilt for 100 metres and then break into a walk and contentedly chat away. One of them kept dramatically announcing to me: “My arm is falling off!”
The last pair of kids I ran with were two boys. They struggled the entire way. We’d jog for a bit and then we’d walk. They never gave up. I could see running was very hard work for them, but they kept going.
When we hit the finish chute one of the boys and I finished in a mock race. He beat me, of course. I high-fived him and got treated to his beaming face. He’d covered the distance and was glowing with happiness, a reminder that champions aren’t always the first ones across the line.