What Do You Do When Life Hurts?
The air is dry and I become aware of the distinct smell of the rubber surface of the track as my son, Ryan, races by me. “You’re a little slow on that lap, Ryan, you need to pick it up!” I shout at him.
He tries to smile as he passes me, but his eyes reveal his pain. I know he’s hurting and it makes me nervous. Ryan, my 10 year old son, decided to join the Indiana Track Club this winter during the indoor track season. Until now he’s only run with me and competed in a few road races. It’s been fun and games until now. This is Ryan’s first true test of his running abilities.
Tonight, he’s running a mile, “for time”, with his contemporaries. Ryan never completed an official “track workout” with others watching him closely. How would he respond? How would he perform when the pain begins to creep into his legs and sabotage his muscles?
I know this was a big moment for Ryan and I want him to have a good experience. The workout calls for him to do three intervals. The first is 800 meters (half mile) at race pace, the second interval is 1,000 meters at race pace, and then the final interval would be a mile, as fast as he can run. Ryan looked unsure and nervous before the workout began.
I pull Ryan aside and assure him that he will do well. We agree to a specific pace he will try to run on each lap and I agree to let him know if he’s too fast or too slow after each lap. The first two intervals are erratic and didn’t go well. Ryan is either too fast or too slow. There are several runners on the track with Ryan and he’s having difficulty processing it and finding his pace among the chaos.
“Listen, don’t worry about what’s going on around you, just run your pace.”
“Okay, Dad.” Ryan responds without making eye contact with me.
“Listen for my voice, okay? Just focus on my voice.”
“Okay.” Ryan whispers and steps away from me to get a drink of water.
Ryan toes the starting line with several kids around him waiting to start. He takes a deep breath and closes his eyes as he waits for the starting command.
“Go!” His coach orders and Ryan leaps off the starting line and begins his one mile journey towards the rest of his running career. This is his moment to discover what kind of runner he will be. There are pivotal moments in every person’s life and I sense this is one for my son.
He goes out too fast and I urge him to slow down and find his pace. The next few laps are a little slow. He’s unsure and out of his comfort zone, but he stays in line with a pack of older kids, and then settles into a nice pace for the next few laps.
“Two laps!” I yell out “Pick up the pace, you’re a little slow!”
I can see the pain in his eyes, he’s struggling and the bigger kids pull away from him. I watch with concern as he runs into the back straightaway on the other side of the indoor track. His stride lengthens and his fists pump harder. I can see the strain in his face as he rounds the corner and enters his last lap.
“One lap, you can do this, Ryan, go for it!” I bark at him as he runs by me.
His little legs don’t slow, they speed up. His head leans to one side as he struggles for air. I run towards the final straight away so I can encourage him in the final 40 meters. The pain is apparent in his eyes now. His eyes are wide and bloodshot, his teeth clenched.
“Everything you got!” I yell at him.
He leans forward and his eyes focus on his feet as he pushes through to the finish line. I run up towards him and can see the tears forming in his eyes as he approaches me and then buries his head into my chest and breaks out into a sob.
“It hurts, Dad.” He cries out between sobs and then wraps his arms around my waist, seeking comfort.
“I know, Ryan.” I accept his embrace and wrap my arms around him.
I peek at the timer on my phone and glance at his final lap time. It was his fastest lap. I grin and squeeze Ryan a little tighter and then I bend down so I can make eye contact with him.
“Ryan! Your last lap was your fastest!”
“So?” Ryan responds.
“When did it hurt?”
“The last two laps hurt a lot.” He rolls his eyes and wipes the tears from his cheeks.
“Exactly!” I ruffle his hair and wrap my hand around the back of his neck. “You ran you’re fastest, when you hurt the most. That’s what it means to be a runner. To run your best, even when it hurts. You’re a true runner, Ryan!” I pull his head into my chest and hug him tight.
“What was my time, Dad?” Ryan pulls away and looks at me.
“Your best time ever! Ryan, you ran a 6:06 mile, 15 seconds faster than your previous best!”
Ryan claps his hands and joy spreads across his face. Pride bursts through my soul for I now know that Ryan passed his first test at being a great runner and a success at life. When life hurts, how do you respond? Tonight Ryan responded and finished his run well, in spite of his pain.
When I coached cross-country a few years ago, I told my runners “There will be a time in the race that you will hurt. At the point you will have to make a decision. Do you push through the pain, or do you slow down? Only you can answer that question. It’s at that point that you will decide if you will have an average race or the best race of your life.”
Most runners slow down when pain enters their body during a race, but some absorb the pain and push through because they have a vision so strong that they are willing to sacrifice comfort for something greater than the pain of that moment. Sadly, most will never get past the pain and never experience the joy beyond the pain, but for the few that are willing to persevere, life will reward them greatly for that sacrifice.
Ryan learned a huge lesson that I could never explain or describe, he had to learn it through his own experience. With two laps to go, Ryan felt pain and he had to make a decision. He made the right decision and ran in spite of the pain and he claimed his reward at the end, a personal record and the true satisfaction that he overcame an obstacle holding him back from his goal.
Pain is a part of our journey, but it doesn’t have to define us. We’re all competing in our own race and we’ll experience pain at some point in our journey. It’s up to us to decide if we will allow that pain to dictate our response and keep us from our reward. What pain are you experiencing today? Don’t let it define your race. You have the ability to push through, just make the right decision for success awaits you on the other side.
Ryan walks closely next to me as we exit the indoor track and feel the cold night air hit our faces. He looks up at me.
“Am I a runner like you, Dad?”
“Yes, you’re a runner, Ryan, like me.” A smile back at him.
He accepts my answer with satisfaction and we walk in silence and in victory for Ryan defeated pain tonight. He won’t always win the battle, but now he knows he’s capable. How about you?