by Dante Zappala
“Are you going to win a medal?”
Kid stares off into the twilight, not sure how to respond.
“Well, will you win something?”
“Not a chance.”
Dad puts on his racing flats and heads down to the track.
“But cheer for me, yeah? I’ll be coming around 13 times.”
So went the conversation between Nino, my 7 year-old, and me before I competed in the 5000 meters at the John Hay Distance Festival in West Chester.
This meet is generally reserved for very fast high school and elite runners looking to post a time before the summer comes around. I am neither of these things. The 5k is billed as an open race, but this is not your local fun run. The winner runs in the 14’s. The event only occupies 15 minutes on the meet schedule.
I went as far as emailing the race director ahead of time with my projected finish and asked if I would be completely embarrassed and/or kicked off the track for going too slow. He told me I’d be fine, but I went into it knowing that I would get my doors blown off.
So, for Friday night fun, I dragged the family halfway to Kentucky just to “watch daddy run” They were mostly into it. We stopped at Five Guys and the boys got to eat fries and nothing else for dinner. We watched heat after heat of the mile, trying to predict the winner of each after three laps.
But the answer I gave Nino about the medal certainly came as a surprise to him. From all of my previous races down to his CHYSC basketball team, basically for his entire life, everyone who competes gets a medal with no distinction of success or effort. Much has been written on this phenomenon, and I am generally in agreement that this is the exact reason our civilization is falling apart.
My kids might be onto this. Like many boys, they are hypercompetitive so they constantly look for ways to distinguish winners from losers, even if we adults approach that topic with as much grace as conversations about the birds and the bees. Nino has a rudimentary understanding of fractions and therefore judges me in my races by my overall place in the field. I’m confident I’ve reached a level with him that is somewhere between acceptable and mildly impressed.
This night, however, was going to be much different. After our conversation about the medal, I was somehow uncomfortable about him seeing his dad get slaughtered without context. I explained to him that I was going for a specific time goal and that if I reached that, it would be better than getting a medal.
That is a completely true statement, by the way. It was the exact reason I went all the way out there. I’d found a fast race on a fast track that was right in my peak window. My overall goal these days is to simply race times that validate my training effort.
But why did I feel I needed to explain this nuance to my kid? Possibly, I was going for the “winning isn’t the only thing” lesson. More likely, I was protecting my credibility with him.
And this is my hypocrisy. If failure is acceptable, and me getting smoked in this race is failure in his eyes, then let him see how I deal with it. For in the end he is developing his own measures. In many aspects of his life, he will need to define categories like “poor,” “good” and “exceptional” for himself. I do him no favors with my propaganda. Maybe he will set tougher goals than I do. If that’s his ultimate choice, than I need to get out of his way.
My excuse is that I’m fighting nature. I believe that seeking reward for everything we set out to accomplish is likely hard wired into our DNA as a survival mechanism. When the stakes were life and death, we developed the innate ability to pass off whatever we did as a success, even if we came up short. Call it the evolution of BS.
The irony is that we live in a golden age where failures, by and large, are assets, not death sentences. And success is not something we need to wear on our chest to ensure our survival. We can fall short, learn something about ourselves and find the means to do it better next time. And when we do reach our goal, we can congratulate ourselves without aggrandizing ourselves.
I finished in the 26th percentile, seven places from last, but I also achieved my time goal. Fellow runners will get the significance of that. And sure enough, I got some meaningful words of encouragement from a few people I train with who were at the meet and understood what this meant to me.
But was it so important to my kid? I made sure to ask him after the race if he noticed my time. He said he had and with his approving smile, I had my medal after all. If I want him to seek the medals that really matter, he’ll need me to model humility a bit better moving forward.
Therefore, my pledge is that the next time I break 17 minutes in a 5k, I will be a little more deliberate about who I share that with. Promise.