I’ve never been much of a front runner. Too much vulnerability out there alone, everyone focused on your back as they draft along behind you, ready to pounce when you’ve grown tired from all the attention and headwinds that you’ve fought on your own.
Better to tuck in mid-pack for most of the race, unobserved, one of the crowd, carried along en masse, never at the rear but careful about spending too much, too soon and having nothing left when the race takes its final shape and the true leaders emerge.
In a mile race with its perfect four laps, each with its own strategy and tasks, my preference has always been to launch a long acceleration at the end of lap three, picking off those who have foolishly gone out too fast while discouraging those behind from even thinking about mounting a final frantic sprint that will demand too much of them.
So here I am, right about at that point in my life, coming into the bell lap, the jostling of the crowded early laps done, some of my energy spent but enough left in reserve—absent a sudden bolt of lightning or a stumble— to bring this thing home. And as I sneak a peek behind me, I note that my competitors have all disappeared.
It’s just me out here, on my own, chased only by the half-formed, uncertain dreams of my youth.
How am I going to play it from here?
Do I have enough left to stay ahead of myself (my physical decline, my doubts, my many hesitations) to mount a long triumphant acceleration to the finish line?
Some 20 years ago, still in my frisky early 40s, I had occasion to race a mile on the track at a low-key summer meet organized by the local running club. Near the end of the third lap I was comfortably in third place, biding my time, prepping for the extended 500-meter haul to the end. Suddenly, both runners in front of me parted, and there was a Grand Canyon-size hole for me to step into and grab the lead.
And I recognized right away that the hole was going to be there only for the briefest moment and then it would close.
What would it be like, my mind flashed in rapid-fire fashion, to run from the front the entire last lap, daring others to run me down, pushing hard to keep them at bay rather than craftily reeling them in?
A lot happened in that moment. Everything I am, every way I have approached the world, every strategy I have adopted to get what I want—or relent from seeking it—was reflected in that brief moment’s deliberation, including the projection of myself out there naked and in the lead, forthrightly seeking my prize.
I backed off.
And immediately, no, I mean immediately, right then mid-stride, I berated myself for my failure of nerve.
Yes, it would have been unfamiliar and therefore uncomfortable and unlike me to grab the race by the throat that early, challenging any and all to wrest it away from me. Uncharted terrain, painful, with high odds of failure.
Which is exactly why I should have done it, of course, a fact that I knew virtually simultaneously with my decision to hold off and recede back into the pack.
“Damn!” I told myself in a distant corner of my consciousness, aware of what had been at stake and what I had already lost in this otherwise inconsequential moment of this otherwise inconsequential footrace on this inconsequential speck of a vast universe.
I finished in third place that day, right where I had been at my moment of truth. If I’d have jumped into the lead, I may have changed the dynamics and the psychic tempo of the race and placed first or second, though it’s more likely I’d have been the same third, or possibly sixth or eighth as well, a spent force who burned like a shooting star and fell ignobly to earth.
I’ll never know that one way or other, and it’s hardly the point.
The relevant question as I come upon this bell lap facing me is: Am I willing to take it on out?
Will I step into the breaches I see opening in front of me, the ones that invite me to lead from the front?
Will I not even await the breaches but instead dare to jump into the lead sometimes and just go?
Or will I hang off the pace as per my custom, waiting to see what develops, what opportunities might present themselves before committing to chasing them down?
And by then, as this all-too-real and ultimate bell lap rings for the last time, will I perhaps have hung back so long that I can no longer even outrun myself?
There are much more rocking versions of this Bruce Springsteen anthem, but it achieves its own power and poignancy here as he nears his own bell lap:
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My iPhone photos on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/93289242@N07/
Deep appreciation to the photographers: Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Bell photo by Jason Coleman, Franklin, Tennessee, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jason_coleman/
Blur runner by Pekka Nikrus, Helsinki, Finland, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/skrubu/
Road photo by arbyreed, Orem, Utah, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/19779889@N00/