Finishing the Race

I’ve run in a few races, way back when. I can remember running for the sheer joy of it, when I was young and energy was boundless. The track bored me, but the path in the woods, the feel of the spongy forest floor, the wind in my hair, the sensation of power as I ran… I remember that, sometimes.

Running for myself was one thing. I could push, or not. Rest when I was tired, go on again after. A race is clearly different. In a race, you are expected to reach the finish line. The expectations push in as you run; your own, those who watch, your coach if you have one. But it’s your own that you run with, in your head. You’re the only one who knows if you are doing your best. And doing your best isn’t always running your fastest. There are times you have to plod along, maintaining momentum. I was never a sprinter.

I was thinking about this yesterday because life is like that. You have to maintain momentum, but it’s not always about days when there is spring in your step. Some days you feel so attenuated that you wonder what happens when you are stretched too thinly. Your body feels like it’s moving at a snail’s pace, but you can’t stop. Stopping during a run when you’re pushing to finish a race means you lock up, cramp, and can’t keep going.

But there is something else. In a race, you know when the finish line is going to come. You can see it,or not, if you’re running cross country, but you know it’s there, and you take it on faith that no one is going to step up when you are a few paces from it and move the goal posts. Life isn’t like a race. It’s messy, disorganized, and deadlines don’t always stay dead. I was talking to a young classmate about this the other day. She was disconcerted by a professor who keeps changing the scheduled experiments and moving deadlines. On the job, I pointed out, that happens. Projects get moved, priorities change, and you have to be ready to clear whatever hurdle pops up.

I’m not saying that it isn’t discouraging to have put out a great effort, to have pushed for that final burst of speed… only to be told that you’ve got to maintain for another week, and oh, this assignment will be added to your load, too. The trick is to just keep plodding on with your eyes on the new goal.

Life isn’t a race. It’s an obstacle course, where you never know what’s around the corner, and the only certainty is that what you can see is subject to change.