There’s nothing like a cross-country race.
Hundreds of scantily-clad athletes flock to a line and then, at the sound of a gun, explode like soda from a shaken bottle. Only one will win.
The rest happens in fast and slow motion. The screaming faces of spectators appear in flash-frames. The crowd is at once deafening and utterly silent. Your breath seems the loudest, lungs pump oxygen in and out, in and out.
You taste blood as hemoglobin is pulled from vessels, and it occurs to you that the pain of the race might go on forever. Reason, which denies this idea, is irrelevant. In that moment, it is infinite hurt.
All at once, it is over. Everything speaks of transcendence: Those who find a deep strength that they did not think they had, those who scream with frustration or jubilation, even those who are made sick with exhaustion, reveal that there is something here that is utterly uncontainable.
On Saturday, after nine years of racing, I competed in my last cross-county race.
My years of college racing have left me with a thought that I think is best articulated by Father Jacques Philippe: “Modern man is condemned to success because without God there is no place to take his failure.”
For much of my college running career, I felt condemned to success. I felt that I had nowhere to go if I failed: no identity, no purpose, no worth. My only option was to succeed. I was condemned.
I want to convince all my fellow athletes — on the field or in the life of the mind — all of us who strive to succeed to the point of condemning us to that purpose. You are not condemned to success. You have the option to fail.
In fact, just when you know that you have the freedom to fail, might be the moment that you succeed with a lot more grace.
This played out very concretely for me this cross-country season. A week before nationals, I lined up on the starting line of one of the toughest regions in the U.S.
I called my parents earlier that week, asking them not to come. I had excuses, but the unarticulated reason was that I had condemned myself to success. I was terrified I would fail. I could not picture a world in which I could fail to qualify and yet still have worth or identity or even the ability to be loved. They said they were coming.
On race day, I executed my race plan perfectly, automatically qualifying for nationals. But I was not overjoyed, I was relieved. I had been condemned to success and I had succeeded.
Not even a week later and I was on a plane to Louisville to compete with almost 300 of the best in the nation. But my outlook was different this time.
I realized that races during which I felt as if I had to succeed had not been fulfilling or joyful. So I made the radical decision to give myself the option to fail. Fixing my eyes on the Lord, I let myself receive my identity and worth from Him. It was a gift He was eager to give me.
It is not to say that I did not prepare my utmost for the race – on the contrary, I spent the week up to the race fine-tuning my training, resting, and providing my body with lots of fuel. But something was different: I knew that no matter how I did, I would not lose anything. For maybe the first time, I was not wedded to an outcome. I felt relaxed and ready to race.
Minutes before the race, coach and I bowed our heads in prayer. “I offer this race to you as a prayer, for the praise of your glory,” I said. The gun went off and the ground shook under the force of 300 legs worth of determination.
I was trapped within a mass of bodies that felt like a wave, pushing me forward. Someone’s sharp metal spike dug into my shin, but I hardly noticed. I pushed through the sea of elbows and ponytails. I had the option to fail, but I was choosing to succeed.
I crossed the finish line with one of my best times ever, in 34th place, making me UD’s first 2-time All-American.
As I wandered around in the finish corral, gasping for air and looking for my coach, my eyes welled up with tears of joy. I was not condemned to this success. This success was freely chosen, and that made all the difference.