Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Big Meet

This spring, Eli 10.9 decided he wanted to run track.

Given that he's already in about 16 different sports, this seemed impossible. However, practices were Saturday morning, and he only had to go to three of them to qualify for the track meet.

Well, I'm sure you know how this story ends up. And after thinking about it, track didn't seem half-bad. After all, it's is a non-contact sport, and if there's anything Eli needs, it's fewer injuries.

Track was perfect.

The end-of-season track meet included 21 schools, and Eli was in the 5th/6th grade division. Since he's a very young fifth-grader (birthday July 31), and since so many people have their kids start school year later now, he would be competing against some kids who were almost two years older than he was.

"Man, I'm going to get smoked," he said.

"Dude, you are so fast," I said. "I don't know how fast those kids run, but I know how fast you run. Those guys better have strap-on rocket packs."

He laughed.

"Do you really think I have a chance?"

"Unless Usain Bolt shows up," I said.

Eli was in three events: the 50-yard dash, the 100-yard dash, and the standing broad jump. And he was the only fifth-grade boy selected for the "scoring team"--basically, any kid in fifth or sixth grade could be in the track meet if they went to enough practices, but only a limited number could actually score points for the team. In the world of fifth and sixth graders, it was a big honor.

The track meet started on Friday afternoon, and while he warmed up, we talked a bit.

"Just do one thing for me," I said.

"What?" he asked.

"Keep your head still," I said. "Don't bob. It makes you feel like you're running faster, but it actually slows you down."

"Got it," he said.

"And don't forget that you have one big advantage," I said.

"I do? What?"

"Your lean," I said. "Most kids lean early and wind up slowing themselves down, but your lean is perfect. I've never seen a better one."

He smiled. "I practiced that," you know.

"Oh, and I almost forgot," I said. "Track meets are as much about conserving your energy as they are about running your events. It's hot, and there's lots going on. Be sure to drink plenty of liquids and don't blow all your energy chasing people across the football field."

He laughed. "Got it," he said, and walked off toward his team's tent.

Track meets have a very pleasant rhythm, one that I've always enjoyed. Nothing's ever really in a hurry at a track meet. Some event is always happening, but the pace is always measured. It's relaxing--well, except for the 90 degree heat, wind, dust, and sweat.

It's relaxing like the Old West was relaxing, I guess.

When Eli's first event (the 50) was called, he got in line with the other kids by heat. I told him on the drive up that he shouldn't be upset if he didn't do well, because he hadn't put in the time, but I knew it would still matter to him.

He was the smallest kid in his heat, and when the gun sounded, he flew. Incredibly, though, he was in third all the way down the track, well behind the first place runner. He gained on second place, almost getting there, but he ran out of time.


I walked down from the stands and met him walking toward me. "Oh my God, I got SMOKED," he said.

"Man, don't feel bad about that," I said. "That's the fastest I've ever seen you run."

"Really?" he asked.

"Really," I said. "You looked like you wearing that rocket booster."

"Well, no finals for this," he said. "I just want to at least score ONE point for the team."

"You still have two events left," I said. "And I want you to remember something."

"What?" he asked.

"This feeling," I said. "I know you're hurt, but I know from hard experience that there is no greater fuel than disappointment. Every great athlete, every great person, uses this to drive them higher. So remember."

"I will, Dad," he said, setting his jaw as much as a 10.9 year old can.

It doesn't sound like much, finishing third in a sprint, but it was stunning, at least to me. In all the times I've watched Eli in sports, there's almost never been a situation where he couldn't change the outcome through whatever it is that he has inside him that other kids don't have. And I know he felt the same way, judging by the look on his face. It was hard for me to see him that way.

His next event was over an hour away, so he went back to the team tent, hung out with his friends, and watched them compete in other events. We sat in the stands, baking.

The disembodied voice of the P.A. announcer is a constant presence at track meets. It comes and goes, almost lost in the wind, and it's almost like radio static. Plus, and this always true, all P.A. announcers sound exactly the same. All of them.

So we're sitting there, kids are running past in some event, and the announcer is calling out names. I'm not really hearing them, just knowing that quite a few have been read, and then I hear Eli's name.

"What was that?" I asked Gloria.

"I think that was the finals of the 50," she said, with a big grin.

"It was," said a man sitting beside us.

"He made it!" I said. I immediately started walking down from the stands, and when I looked up I saw Eli half-running toward me. He was laughing. "I don't believe it!" he said, giving me a high-five.

"That was a fast heat," I said. "And I think you may have outleaned that other kid at the finish."

"Now I've got a chance to get a point," he said.

"And you still have two more events," I said. He walked back across the track, bouncing with each step, and some of his friends ran up to congratulate him.

His heat in the 100 didn't start until almost 8:50, which is when he'd normally be going to bed. He still ran well, though, finishing a strong second in his heat.

"Can we stay and see if I made it to the finals?" he asked at 9:15.

"Sorry," I said. "You've got the standing broad jump in the morning at 9:00. We need to grab some dinner and get home so you can rest."

Which we did.

TOMORROW: day two.

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