Uncovering Character

Sunset in Santa Barbara-type shot

This week I was in Santa Barbara, California, also known as “The American Riviera” for its lush landscape, pristine beaches, gorgeous sunsets, and spectacular view of the Pacific and the Santa Ynez mountains. I was visiting my son, Mark, daughter-in-law, Natalie, and grandson, Clay.

Natalie pulled off a surprise birthday party for Mark. It was held at a picturesque park overlooking the ocean. A perfect setting for a bit of reflection—and I found a few minutes to slip away to walk along the ocean and reflect on just how fast my son went from zero to thirty-four in sixty seconds. As I gazed at the seascape, I recalled a poignant moment in his life.

When he attended Park High School, he was co-captain of the track and cross-country teams. I remember one track meet in particular because he was favored to win the 800-meter race on this indoor track. The day was filled with anticipation and high expectations. From the starting gun, Mark quickly positioned himself near the head of the pack so he could strategically make his move at the appropriate turn during this grueling four-lap race.

I was perched on the mezzanine deck above the track at the university facility, my video camera focused on him. As he approached the third turn in the first lap, I expected him to make his first strategic move, pulling away from the pack and positioning himself directly behind the leader to take advantage of the draft. On the crowded mezzanine, the third turn had large blind spot, a supporting pillar and HVAC ductwork.  When I lost sight of him, I anticipated he would emerge in second place as he cleared the obstruction, as he had done in the past.

I squinted through my viewfinder and zoomed in on the leader. I panned back for Mark. I didn’t recognize the second runner out of the turn—nor the third, fourth, or fifth. Then, the entire pack appeared. No Mark. I pulled back from my video camera. What happened? Mark finally emerged out of the turn—dead last. He was hopelessly behind the leader. Even the gap between him and the last runner in the pack was insurmountable. Not only was it impossible to win the race, it was highly unlikely he would catch the pack. My gut tightened. I sensed his embarrassment. He trained so hard for this race. I remember sliding my thumb over the “Pause” button on the camera, after all, the race was essentially over.

For some reason, I slowly backed my thumb off the Pause button. I let the video run. I looked through the viewfinder and zoomed in. I saw something through the lens I didn’t expect—my son’s heart. I was no longer filming his attempt to win a race—I was filming his race for dignity. I swallowed hard. I realized this race was no longer about winning—it was about character.

 
“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”

                                                             Steve Prefontaine
                                                            American Long-distance Runner

As the race continued, I knew two things. He will not win. He will not allow himself to finish last. I watched the drama unfold. All he had to do was pass just one competitor. He picked up the pace for the balance of the front stretch allowing him to pass a runner at the beginning of the back stretch. He ran all out on the straight-away to pass another runner just before the seventh turn.

I leaned into the camera to film his finish, wondering what he was thinking. Life is so different from dreams. A harsh lesson at seventeen. To this point, his life was marked by fortitude. He had a reputation for never giving up—it was on full display today as the film rolled.

I zoomed in again as he came out of the final turn and passed another runner. Now sprinting toward the finish line, he passed a fourth runner at the finish.

After the race, I learned that behind the blind spot, a competitor accidently tripped him while trying to pass him on the turn. Mark fell ahead of the pack so other runners ran over him with their spikes, leaving him with bloodied legs.

I saw something in my son that day—he showed up with the will to win—he left with the will to persevere. Steve Prefontaine, an American long-distance runner and Olympian once said, “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” On this day, Mark gave us his best. Even in an apparent defeat, he never sacrificed the gift. He taught me something about how to approach life.

Today, as I attend his surprise party on his 34th birthday, I realize just how proud I still am of this kid—who now, as a man and young father, will one day teach his son how to chase his own dreams—and to remember how crisis uncovers character.
 

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