And the Last Shall be First

A few months ago, my daughters started running cross country for their school.
I convinced them to give it a try for a few reasons. One needed to find something to engage herself in that she could call her own. The other needed a bit more physical fitness in her life. And I didn’t want either of them to become an adult like me who hates exercise.
While I was busy focusing on how they could benefit, I never stopped to think the pursuit -and my girls- would end up teaching me the real lessons.
One of my daughters it turns out has a real knack for this running thing. She improves all the time. The other…maybe not so much.
Today, they ran one of the more challenging courses they’ve been dealt so far. I knew one would finish near the end. The other I expected in the middle of the pack. Earlier, I had watch them set out with something of a wince. My one daughter, as expected, was dead last, and continued to fall behind as the pack moved out of sight.
As I waited near the finish line, kids were coming in one after another. But not either of mine. The field was thinning. Earlier finishers were heading home. And I saw one of my girls come into view. She had to be near the end of the heap, yet she didn’t look particularly spent or tired. Odd.
A few moments later, I saw her sister, the one who struggles more with her performance and technique. She was obviously exhausted. Pushing ahead in what seemed to be agony, she was also gathering the support of the parents watching, her teammates and competitors from other schools. They were running with her. Cheering her on.
Tears were clouding my eyes under my sunglasses. I hurt for her, physically and emotionally. All parents surely understand. It’s painful to watch your child struggle so publicly.
I hugged the daughter who had finished and handed her water as I turned back to the course. The other’s coach was now running at her side, encouraging her gently but firmly. Other runners from the home team came to run with her. Cheers were growing louder. I couldn’t help but wonder if the support – all genuine – lifted her or embarrassed her. But as she crossed the finish in a crowd of people, there was no frown.
She walked into my arms, and when she saw my tears, she cried herself. I turned her beautiful face, covered in sweat and wet hair, up to mine and kissed her forehead. I had never been more proud of her, my heart felt fuller than I thought it could.
Her perseverance was inspiring. And I told her so. That I would think of that moment every time I wanted to give up, take the easy way out. Take a nap instead of doing something that needed doing. And she smiled a beautiful smile, and said, “I love you mom.”
We gathered our stuff, and people came by, still cheering her on. “Great job, honey.” “Great way to hang in there, kid.” I was proud to be her mom.
As we were walking to the car, her sister, the more talented runner, took my hand. Another coach had been encouraging her to take on more in her training, greatly impressed with how far she’d come so fast. I wondered how that would progress now that she had finished second to last.
“She finished it, mom.” She said and smiled. I looked down at her and finally understood why she finished so far back. Just a moment before, I thought I couldn’t be more proud. But I was. I realized she had stayed behind on the course with her sister to support her effort just to finish, instead of pursuing her own interest in a stronger time.
My kids have done more than learn to run and stay healthy as I had planned. One has re-energized me to fight on when the days get hard. The other showed me that not all winners cross the finish first. Some do it last.


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