The Best Gift

“His toughness came from some secret place inside of him. He simply knew he was tougher than anyone alive.” — Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

Canopy tents, draped in team colors, stood everywhere. There were signs, neatly colored, posted inside and out, offering up words of encouragement for the schools and their runners at Saturday’s North Dakota High School Cross Country Championships.

A slight breeze rustled the autumn leaves, most still clinging to their branches, and the course, freshly marked and cleared, would allow spectators to catch a glimpse of runners passing several times.

My spot at the finish, where I was tasked with moving runners through the chaotic chute, would provide an eye-opening insight into cross country. Out on the course, runners pour their efforts and energy to get to the end. The finish is the culmination of those efforts, and a season of sweat, blood and tears.

This was my first time attending a cross country meet. I’ve run dozens of races, cheered friends at others and watched elites on TV. But this would be different since I would be volunteering. By chance the organizers put me in the finishing area, and I couldn’t have asked for a better spot.

The start of a cross country meet is special. There, after warming up and team cheers, the mass of runners line up, ready to explode into action. All is still for seconds, going on an eternity, until the starting mark is given. Runners burst into action as arms flail and legs churn in a sprint for positioning several hundred yards up the course.

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Runners looped through Grand Forks’ Lincoln Park, over the flat to gently rolling terrain of a neighborhood washed away by the 1997 flood. On this day, though, the runners couldn’t ask for better running conditions. Runners jockeyed for position and pushed their limits as they sought refuge of the finishing line.

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As the race progressed, hundreds of spectators ducked beneath the course tape, cheering on their favorite runners as they navigated the course. In 15 minutes, many of them will have moved 2 or 3 or 4 times before scurrying back to the finish. Runners are greeted to a long line of cheering family and friends as they push down the home stretch. The air is filled with tension, excitement and cheers.

At my spot, inside the finishing chute, I know virtually no details of the race playing out on the course.

After 15 minutes, for both the boys and girls in Class A and Class B, the chaos is pending. Eagerly, I await the first runners in each race, as they head up the final stretch. Each runner crossing the timing mat has achieved a personal victory — finishing a grueling race after pushing the pace, and becoming a finisher at the state championship.

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Multi-tasking in my duties as a volunteer, and seeing an opportunity to snap some photos for friends who are coaches of several teams, it became clear that my duties would require putting the phone camera away.

Once the leaders finished, the finishing area turned chaotic, but in an inspiring and beautiful way. Yes, runners doubled over, spit, gasped for air and wobbled with weak legs. One girl collapsed just in front of the timing mat, crawling over it to record her time. Others dropped to the ground with exhaustion and emotion. Only one puked. Runners from competing schools aided each other, offering hugs and handshakes and a helping hand. Their bond had been forged by competition and battle on the course. Friendship will endure.

Volunteers scrambled to move runners through the chute. We grabbed some who appeared ready to collapse and asked them to keep walking. On at least a half dozen occasions, I stood next to collapsed runners who risked the incoming finishers trampling them. I carried one boy, who couldn’t walk, to an open area. He apologized, but I assured him there were no apologies needed. He had just run his hardest at the state championship.

I didn’t tell him he just accomplished an amazing feat that would last a lifetime. The experience would be seared into his memory. He would never need to make excuses or regret having not done his best.

Moments after the chaos, as I walked to my bike to return home, the experience had already prompted questions in my own mind. Is that the way I run? Have I ever run so hard, nearly to the point of passing out? Yes, in some cases. Just this month, I couldn’t have given any more effort at the St. George Marathon and the Fargo Mini Marathon. But can I give more? Push myself harder during competition. Each race offers an opportunity to answer that question, with the results as proof.

The high school runners reinforced the goodness in our youth and life. But they also proved inspirational and gave new meaning to the famous Steve Prefontaine quote: “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”