by Dante Zappala

I’m two miles into a 5k, and there’s a hill coming. I’m somewhere in Delaware – I’m not exactly sure where, on a course I’ve never run. But I know what’s ahead because it’s where I just came from.

My first thought is about the odd position I find myself in. I had no intention of leading this race, but at the turnaround, it was down to me and one other guy. He looked vulnerable, so I tried to smash him with a surge. That didn’t really work because I sensed he was within a few feet as we began our ascent.

My next thought is about the hill itself. It’s going to be a grind. I’m not looking forward to it. But then again, I reckon the guy right behind me is thinking the same thing. I’ve only met one or two people in the world who relish running up hills.

Finally, I thought about whiskey. The night before, I’d had a lot of it; cheap rail whiskey on happy-hour special. In retrospect, I might have passed on the last round if I knew I had a shot to win this race.

For as much as I have run and raced recently, a chance to win rarely presents itself. Big races are out, and local races are a crap shoot. There are runners who can hit low 16 for a 5k as a training run. If they show up, the race is theirs. But on this day, none of them showed up. So, it was left to the rest of us to see who would break the tape.

I haven’t won a race in more than 20 years, probably not since high school. When I won races back then, I always found a way to diminish the accomplishment. Public League competition wasn’t great. I could look at the newspaper and see the times the Catholic League kids were running on the same cross country course. I could look nationally and see that I wasn’t even close to that caliber of a runner.

Doing a dance after scoring a touchdown in the 4th quarter to cut the lead to 35 begs for someone to come over, point up and say, “scoreboard.” I would say that to myself all the time before I started dancing.

I’ve thought about that a lot over the years. Was I just being honest or did I need to shortchange myself for some reason? In reality, every level of success but one has a higher level above it. What exactly is the right balance of humility and pride?

We finally got to the top of the hill – the other runner had a few steps on me, but I was still alive. The finish was now just 100 meters away and, thankfully, downhill. I took a look at the line and thought, “You remember how to do this.” I took off and as I passed the other runner, he let out a heavy sigh. He was done, the race was mine.

After a moment to gather myself (meaning I was dry heaving behind a telephone pole), I went over to meet the guy and thank him for a good race. It was fun, I kept telling him. He wasn’t saying much at all. He didn’t want to lose that race and I don’t blame him. Neither did I.

It reminded me how much I love competing against another person. Most of what I’ve done over the last few years has been against the clock and against myself. Here we were in a small road race that won’t stand out in anyone’s mind, and we both wanted to take advantage of the opportunity that had presented itself. The more that became apparent in the race, the more important winning became.

Still, I ran almost a minute faster last year and finished closer to last than first in that race. You see, this is me calling scoreboard on myself. What, if anything, have I learned since high school?

Racing purely to win is not a worthy goal. To do that, I’d have to cherry pick races. That’s shallow and lame and still leaves no guarantee of winning anything. But I’ll do my best to win if it’s ripe for the taking. The bobble head trophy I got for this “W” is actually pretty sweet. And the gift card I won paid most of our bar bill after the race (whiskey again!). I’ll always take cash or some equivalent as a perk for performing well.

I’ll also keep trying to compete for place, be it for first or 200th. I enjoy the challenge of being next to someone of similar abilities and simultaneously testing myself against him and self-doubt. I’m not going to downplay the fact that we’re racing rather than just running, even if it’s for small-time glory. Competition prods our physical and mental limits. Our best times and most sincere sense of accomplishment lies somewhere just shy of those limits. It could be part of the human condition, but we always think the view is better the closer we get to the edge of the cliff.

Finally, I’ll stop calling “scoreboard” on myself. One truism I learned from acting is that when someone tells you, “Nice job up there,” you simply say, “Thank you.” How you felt about your performance is not important. How your audience received you is. You’d be insulting them if you responded with fake humility – some comment like, “Thanks, but I didn’t really feel great tonight.” There is no “but.” It’s just thanks from now on.

The truth is that I had an excellent day down in Delaware. I battled with a fellow runner for 17 minutes and change and came out on top. I went to the edge of the cliff, looked out and liked what I saw.

It felt good to win. And I’ll leave it at that.