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At the end of the race there will be no result
Where should competition stop and compassion begin?
When the stakes are high, we admit that race matters. When I was at the brink of death, in an emergency room, my friend and advocate was a black female physician. It was a busy Saturday night, and she had a hard time getting attention -- even though she herself ran a unit of the same hospital. It was drafty in the emergency room, and she kept zipping up her fleece, hiding the badge that identified her as a physician. In my pre-death clarity, I knew that this was a bad thing, that others would not take her seriously unless they saw that badge. Best as I can remember, though, I couldn't bring myself to say anything about it. Since I got better, I have been maybe a little more honest about what I see and understand.
Now that I am healthy, I have also been running more. A year to the day after that night in the hospital, I ran (very slowly) up a (very small) mountain, to show myself that I could. I run races to keep myself honest. The small-time races in which I compete are usually fundraisers, and it's nice to exercise on behalf of some good cause. A few Saturdays ago, the cause was research on sickle-cell anemia, and the organizers and volunteers were African-American. Covid vaccinations were on hand, voters were registered, fraternity brothers greeted each other. An emcee played music as high-school cheerleaders led the runners in their warmups (I hid behind a tree and stretched at that point). It was a nice vibe, but part of me was in uptight pre-race problem-solving mode. Where was the starting line? What was the course?
All eventually came clear. It was an out-and-back course. We would go up and down one hill, then up and down another, and then come back. I knew the area, I like running uphill, and I felt good the entire race. I went out just behind the fast group, and could see where I was in relation to them. About eight people were in front of me at the first peak, I saw them coming back before I made my own turn. Nine people, I thought, ahead of me at the second peak. No one passed me coming back down that one. In what is not the noblest part of my mind, I was thinking that most of the people ahead of me seemed young. I should place in my age group, I thought. What I knew for sure, as I turned the last corner and the cheerleaders came into view, was that this was the fastest five kilometers I had run in a race. A glimpse of the clock before I fell on my back confirmed that.
Races are warm camaraderie and cold data. It's nice to be with other runners and to see what they can do. The runner who finished just ahead of me at this race was a student. At a later ten-kilometer race she beat me by much more. At the next 5k I ran, I found out that a guy I knew from an entirely setting was very fast. I like the feeling of people getting out there in the weather and doing what they can. I clap for other runners during the race itself. But at the end of competition, runners know just how well they did thanks to the machinery that produces the results. You might have felt good or felt bad about your race, but afterwards you get it all in black and white. There is your name; there is your time; there is your pace; there is your place among all finishers; there is your place in your age group. You can see it, and everyone else can too.
So at the end of this race I was keen to see the results. After I managed to get back to my feet, I walked slowly back towards the emcee and the organizers and their tents. I looked around for a board with the results, but didn't see anything. I waited a while to see if the emcee would say anything about when the results would be announced, but he didn't. He just kept playing the beginning of John Sebastian's "Welcome Back" over and over again, as runners returned to the scene. I got some food. I talked to the people doing the vaccinations. I talked to some other friendly impatient people.
As I walked back to the center of the action, towards the emcee, I unconsciously made a little circling motion with my hands, right over left, then left over right. A black lady of a certain age caught my eye. With the music playing, she assumed that what I was doing was dancing. She gave me a little smile and bobbed her head back and forth to the beat a couple of times, as if she were dancing with me, just for that second. Then she went back to registering her voters.
I hadn't been dancing. Without noticing what I was doing, I had been expressing impatience. I was, rather rudely, making a motion that signaled that everything was not working the way that I expected, and that I was the sort of person for whom things were supposed to work the way I expected. And I had been caught out, not by criticism, but by kindness. The stranger who saw what I was doing interpreted my movement generously: as though I were happy and in the moment, as though I was trying to add something to the mood rather than take something away. And it was the very fact that she took it that way, that she chose to see me as behaving more warmly than I was, that caused me to notice what I was in fact doing and why. I smiled, not only at her kindness, but at what she had -- wittingly or unwittingly, I'm not sure -- shown me about myself.
Then the emcee did make an announcement. "At the end of the race there will be no result." A convoluted explanation followed as to why no one had been present to turn on the camera and get the results recorded. I shrugged. One of those fraternity brothers could have just sat at the finish line with a clipboard, I thought, and written down our numbers and the time on the clock. But no one had. All right. I let it go. I just took the words with me. At the end of the race there will be no result.