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/
I love this Andrew. My guiding light has been that if a person doesn’t take advantage of an opportunity, then she won’t get future opportunities–because they are gifts after all, and you don’t turn down a gift, do you? So I hope you run hard, my friend. I hope we all do.
Now in my second year of retirement and approaching the big 65th birthday the bell lap has begun, making your reflection particularly timely and meaningful for me; and quite thought-provoking. So, here goes: After 25 years of high intensity professional activity in higher education that included 11 years as a college president it was hell to “unplug.” In keeping with the metaphor I suppose those years represent laps 2 and 3. As such, much physical, emotional, and psychic energy was expended as I followed the belief that I wanted no regrets at having not seized an opportunity. In my mind and words I didn’t want to occupy the “cheap seats” in life that some occupy as they grouse and criticize those who have the responsibility and risks that come with making things happen. Now unplugged from all of that I face lap 4; the bell lap. This lap started with uncertainty and no small amount of fear—much like each of the laps. Yet, as with each lap, I find myself settling into the pace with growing confidence that all that has preceded it has prepared me to run it well. It will not likely be the strongest lap, or the most aggressive, but it will be run well with lessons from the years of preparation and the laps that have preceded it. Thanks Drew for inspiring these thoughts and perspective.
Good point, Joan. And one never knows from where or when such gifts draw close and await your ready acceptance. They’re like the flip side of tragedies in that way, which can strike with sudden lightning force from nowhere. Except the tragedy in a gift is in not seeing it for what it is and taking full advantage. “I can spend the summer in Paris if I juggle a few things? I’ve always dreamed of Paris! Oh, maybe I’d better not, I’ve got an awful lot going on. And Paris will still be there in the future…” Maybe, yeah—but maybe not…
Jay, your comments remind me how different every person’s situation is, all of us of a certain age evaluating varying circumstances and needs and coming to our own customized decisions on how to handle this phase of life. Seems there are as many different ways of approaching it as there are people, judging from the stories I hear. What most all of them have in common is lots of good fortune, gratitude for that good fortune, resilience (from injuries, disease, personal tragedy, etc.), and the desire to spend time & energy doing something more meaningful than refining one’s golf game. Not that there’s anything wrong with golf—or running! But the traditional Gone fishin’/Gone golfin’ retirement imagery doesn’t have much hold on people’s imagination anymore, it seems to me. Other opportunities still abound; they’re just of a different quality, and as you say, to be accepted/pursued at a different pace and aggressiveness. Thanks for sharing your own initial traversing on this journey. I’m watching!
[…] Hidas is nearing the “bell lap” of his […]
Great column! Sometimes I think I ran my bell lap a number of years ago, when my career reached a pinnacle of success. Then I found my program beginning to slip into mediocrity as my work began to slow down considerably. It felt like I had my bell lap in the bag for a while, and then experienced things beginning to slip into the back of the pack.
Then in 2013 I was struck down by a rare autoimmune disease. Following my diagnosis I went into Mythasthenia Crisis. Thoughts of my career faded away in the face of this new challenge. About a year and a half later I was taken to Stanford University Hospital and suffered the loss of strength of all my voluntary muscles. For several months I couldn’t open my eyes, speak, swallow (even my own saliva), eat, lift my head up, walk, or even breathe. All of a sudden I was in a whole new race.
Forced to retire, I have struggled with just what you describe in your race metaphor. Again, I find myself in the bell lap. Only this time the winning has to do with whether or not to live. Recently, I found myself again facing that old challenge, do I push myself toward life or just back off. That is the third lap decision I am facing now.
I can’t speak for others, but for me the bell lap came at a far different time in life than I could have imagined. Such is the race for me.
Robert, thanks so much for sharing your story, which is quite remarkable in every way, not the least of which is in the matter of your resilience. I find myself constantly astonished by that—what people can come back from, fighting and living to see another day.
And then there is the matter of you having been thunderstruck by illness, and that brute fact laying waste to all your best laid plans. During my experience as a Hospice volunteer, one of the most common sentiments patients expressed, especially if they were relatively young but struck with terminal illness, was along the lines of, “Damn, I didn’t count on this!” Who does, right? I suppose we can be thankful you are still around to ask the “What’s next?” question, as am I. I’ll join you now in an authoritative knock on wood…
[…] Hidas is nearing the “bell lap” of his […]
[…] Hidas is nearing the “bell lap” of his […]