My race began…
long before I started actually running it. Obviously I’m going the metaphorical route (race pun!) here, but I rather think that’s the point, no? But I think that’s also one of the reasons this idea (of talking about our own ‘races’) is so interesting to me: because the parallels between life and running are so clear-cut, and yet can mean so many different things to each individual ‘runner’ (person). So when I say my race began before I even started running, I could easily point to my decision to start jogging a few years ago as being more important than the actual running itself, but I can’t help feel that’s just part-and-parcel of the broader arc my life has seemed to take. Because if life is a race, then—at least for me—the hardest part isn’t the middle, or even the nervous excitement before the starter’s pistol sounds. It’s not that last mile, where you’re wondering if you should sprint (or worrying that you can kick down the stretch, and maybe you didn’t push yourself hard enough early on). It’s not even the training.
No, the hardest part is deciding to join the race in the first place.
You see, something flipped inside me when I was a kid. I’m not sure exactly what it was, but I know when: sixth grade. I went from being what I’m pretty sure most people would say was a nice, polite little kid to being a sarcastic smartass. I don’t know why, but that really defined me for the next six years—and really pulled me out of what could have been so many opportunities, mostly in terms of interacting with others. For while it’s fun to be the class clown—and fun to be around them during class—it turned out that when you’re the guy who’s always cracking jokes and trying to zip the clever one-liners, not everyone takes you seriously. That, in turn, creates a very isolated life experience. I preferred to pretend I was Joel, Tom Servo, and Crow—the wise-cracking, snark-filled cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000—while other kids my age were going to actual movies with each other. Or, even better, making movies together. Me—I preferred being in a dark room, alone, basking in how clever I was. So I kept myself apart, turning down invitations with a variety of excuses (almost all, in hindsight, poorly made and based on a lack of confidence and fear of failure more than anything else).
So I had my acquaintances, but really I had just one person I could reliably call my friend. He was someone I’d known since 1st grade and who lived just a few blocks away. His parents quickly became a second set for me, and it wasn’t long before I could just walk into their house without knocking. I was part of the family, and he and I just clicked on so many levels: a bit shy, a lot nerdy, and perfectly content in each others’ company. I didn’t need to race because he didn’t want to race. We were both on the sideline (and, actually, we usually didn’t even show up to watch others race), and that was fine, because I didn’t feel like I needed anything else.
What I didn’t expect, though, was that as my friend and I grew older, he wasn’t content to simply be the Statler to my Waldorf. For some reason, he actually wanted to get on the stage with the other Muppets (er, run the race with the other Muppets…). But I had no desire to upset the status quo. As we progressed through high school, it was becoming clearer to me that he had already joined life’s race, and I felt truly on my own.
And that’s when I learned for the first time how crappy it was to just be running by myself: that while running can be a fine solo activity, a race inherently creates a community. More important, too, was the idea that I didn’t necessarily have to win—that being in the race, being part of the group, could be just as important.
For me, that’s what the race has always been. Not the actual being amongst others—that’s something I can work at, can get better at, can, in more instances than I ever thought, enjoy. No, what I’ve always needed to focus on was simply signing up. Putting my name down on the list that indicates: yes, I want to be a part of this. And then, of course, actually showing up.
I’ve been lucky. Even though I joined in late—and sometimes backslid and stayed at home instead of making it to the basketball/volleyball/activity I’d signed up for—I’ve found that as I’ve grown up and tried just a bit harder, my life has only gotten progressively more in line with what I could have hoped it would be. I’ve joked with my friends that I’m a lot like versions of software, and I like to think I’m currently at David 5.0 (or maybe David 5.1). David 1.0 was an introvert that didn’t realize there could be more to the world than his insulated bubble; David 2.0 was an introvert who was shaken from his safe world when he studied abroad and was forced to meet new people; David 3.0 found a group of friends at work that embraced and challenged him (and pushed him to try meeting even more people, whether it was other friend groups or even dating); David 4.0 was willing to move across the country with the support of his best friend—and now his (my) wife—only to be eager to not just sit back and wait for people to bring him into their groups, but actively join in; and now we’re at David 5.0, who says yes to most invites, even when a part of him still screams “You’d be so much happier on the couch!”
Because the thing is, that’s not true. It used to be, and there are certainly times when I need to say no and recharge. But I know I’m always better off when I’ve had an experience than when I shy away from one, even if that experience didn’t end up being the “greatest.” With each iteration of David—with each race I’ve joined, to bring us back to the original conceit—I can only say I’m happier. I’m not saying things aren’t hard, or scary, or even—if I’m being totally honest—sometimes even annoying. I still get nervous in social situations where I’m not overly familiar with the dynamic. I still have a tendency to stay against the wall (because without me, that wall is clearly tumbling down!), content to watching others do their thing.
But at least I’m there.
I may not be winning the race, but I’m not sitting at home, wondering how the race is going. And while I could definitely get better at how I start my races, I’ll never worry about whether or not actually being there makes sense for me. Because of course it does. I don’t have to win.
I just need to show up.