A race has as many reasons as it has entrants. But at the front end, at the tip of the spear, a race is a life and death struggle, a zero-sum game of kill or be killed.
Perhaps that kind of all-or-nothing construct is too much for many, too much for most. But for the true racer it is the mind-set required to summon the physical and psychological effort that trains for, attends and finally finds release in the caldron of competition.
In Stephen Crane’s classic Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage protagonist Henry Fleming’s meditation at the end of his first day of fighting, the day he had run from battle and deserted the “tattered soldier”, is transposed against his second day’s act of bravery. But that transposition only leads Henry to delude himself into thinking that “death is for others”, and “it was a deity laying about him with the bludgeon of correction.”
As in life, so in racing does the ‘bludgeon of correction’ swing wildly about, pitiless in its indifference to any man’s hopes and goals. Who hasn’t experienced the feeling when lightness and lift suddenly transforms into lassitude and doubt?
It is the mature racer who approaches the line with the sure knowledge that moods and feelings will careen in madly fluctuating measure. It is that same experienced loper who advises us not to get too caught up in our highs, nor sink too deeply into our lows, for such are the fancies of the flights of men, those who first give their all, then fail just as grandly in the effort.
This existential understanding as experienced through the rough-and-tumble of sport affords each of us a precious insight: that it is unwise to assume a privileged position in this world, for each new day is a battle joined, each presenting its own challenges, grace and disappointments. But so, too, is each no more than a link in a much longer chain, one that enjoins, “what you do today has little merit beyond what you did yesterday, and what you must do again tomorrow.”
Such is the athlete’s refrain, for it forms the framework out of which the fully prepared competitor emerges, regardless the final result listed.
This is why sport matters in schools, my friends, because unlike words on a page, sport truly follows that oldest of writer’s commands to “show, don’t tell”.