John didn’t want to take off his pants. Not now or anytime today. In ten more minutes he would have to do just that. The sun had been up about an hour and the time was near. Underneath his pants he wore a new, lightweight fabric. The sparse garment weighed less than a standard pair of cotton briefs, provided adequate coverage and were made for use in the intense outdoor heat. Today was cold. Unexpectedly cold. 37 degrees cold. He was committed this day and he knew it. He had traveled from a time zone farther west to be here. His internal clock registered 6:45a. He had expected 55 degrees and he got 37. Still, he wanted to be here, but he didn’t want to take off his pants. Not yet anyway.
Five more minutes. John looked around uneasily as he tried to process what he saw. Somewhere in the middle of Columbus Ga at a place he had never been, there were over 100 people slowly gathering closer and closer together. They were brought here by different goals but for the same purpose. John’s eyes surveyed the landscape where he would spend the next 30 minutes. As he looked at the old trees spreading out as so many canopies, the metal structures of different shapes some with chains hanging from them, and cages with nets dividing the enclosures in half, his mind did not process what he saw as a city park. His mind was preoccupied with the wind.
As the sun rose, the wind began to increase. At a speed of 25 mph he would discover later, the wind turned the unexpected cold into a brutal, unrelenting taskmaster. It blew across him now, but soon he would face it head on…twice. For how long he would be strafed by the feeling of cold needles piercing every bare part of skin, he did not know. Of the masses present, only two others would be with him at the end. They would make their case to the judge. Each had only 26 minutes. Two would need longer.
Now it was time. He took off his pants and his shirt. He dropped them near a 10 foot high chain link fence that had other pants and shirts line against it. He joined the others at the appointed place. He would be one of the first into the wind and judgment. He was not the only one being judged on this morning only an icicle could enjoy, but would be unaffected by most of the others.
He heard a gun discharge over his head and he ran. He ran fast. He ran uphill toward the full force of the wind. Two ran with him closely. They were fast as he was fast and they need to get far away from the pack that now chased them. To be caught by the pack, even a few of them, meant certain and absolute failure. The three did not come for failure, but in separate ways two of the three would fail. For one, failure would mean losing thousands of dollars and would forever set his life on a different path. 26 minutes was all he had. In the cold wind, wearing only the flimsy shorts and light undershirt, his face frozen by the cold, time would seem to stand still.
To the top of the hill and the left turn. For a moment, he stopped moving forward. The other two seem to stop as well. The wind had hit them like a brick wall that could not be penetrated. Then in unison, without rehearsal, their knees lifted together, their heads bowed and their arms drove their bodies forward. The force of the wind had stood them up and stopped their forward motion. Once they had regained momentum, they would form a line to lessen the wind’s affect. John nestled into the middle for now. In a few minutes, he would lead and take on the wind by himself while the others hid from it and rested. Working together, they would overcome, they hoped.
Maybe their were sounds that morning. John could hear nothing. He, like everyone else, was focused on survival in this unforgiving cold. He had been running almost 12 minutes and was not yet back where he had started. He lead for a short time, but when it came time for the third runner to take over, he did not. He was content to continue to seek shelter behind the two. John knew he cold not lead much longer and not be overcome with exhaustion so he slowed ever so slightly. The first runner overtook him easily and returned to the lead. John looked at his watch as they began the second and final lap of the race. He was a little behind his goal time, but he would make it up he told himself. Again into the wind. Again it stood them up but not for as long. He and the other two were ready this time. With only eight minutes left to run, the first runner began to seem further away from John. First it was only a slight perception. Then it became real. Arms length between them then two arms length. The third runner still nestled behind John pulled a little closer to John’s left shoulder. John knew he could not let him pass so he reached within himself. He lungs were already taking in evenly spaced, large volumes of air and so he began threw each hip forward with an ever so slightly quicker tempo. Not enough to catch the first runner, but enough to hold the third runner at bay, this time. Two minutes left. With less than a half mile to go, the victory had been decided. The first runner would win. John was not there to win. Winning wouldn’t matter if he ran too slowly. Again, the third runner try to pass and again John surged just enough. John was too exhausted to look at his watch, but he knew it would be close. With a 200 yards left he surged for his final sprint. As he did, the third runner passed him. John surged again and again for 30 seconds he raced a sprinter’s race. After following for 5 miles this third runner might beat him at the end. John remembered instinctively, what an olympic gold medalist sprinter had taught him. He remembered rhythm and relaxation. He had needed to relax. He did and he finished second easily. He looked at the finisher’s clock. 26:05. The winner had finished in 25:55. Five miles in 26:00 minutes was the requirement. He missed his track scholarship to Auburn University by one second per mile. The winner had finished in 25:55. If only the wind…he thought. Nope he couldn’t blame it on the wind. He had done his very best and come up short. He had been judged as less than required.
John slept well that night knowing he had given his best. At a meeting with his coach the following Monday, The coach said John, “I heard what you did Saturday and I was extremely pleased. You know the requirement is 26 minutes for five miles. You came so close. Don’t give up. You will certainly get it next time.” John nodded and smiled. Leaving the office he couldn’t wait for the first race next spring. For John, next spring did not bring another race. Life changed for John. He never got another chance. He remembers that cold day with joy and peace. That was a day where he tried his hardest and gave his best.
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