By Christopher Cudworth
Having been known to brag a little in this blog, it is time for me to reveal the method that keeps me humble in the long term. The story is true, and it lives on in our family lore, hanging by a thread every December on my father’s artificial Christmas tree.
Back when I was racing competitively and winning more than a few 10ks, I showed up at a race in Wheaton, Illinois knowing I had a very good chance of coming in first place. The race went very well with one notable exception. The course was extremely long. I’d been finishing 10Ks under 32:00 on a regular basis and this race dragged on well into the low 34:00 range before I gratefully but angrily crossed the finish line.
As you may know, it hurts to run or ride or swim a lot longer than you’d anticipated. We base our efforts on our training and the ability to maintain a given pace for a particular distance or time.
The examples are manifold. No cyclist can sprint forever. In fact it is rather astounding that so many stage races in major cycling events such as the Tour de France come down to a sprint of just over 400 meters or less. It’s insane, if you think about it, to race more than 100 miles only to have a bunch of meatheads crash it out in a mighty sprint at the end. What’s the point, really?
Same goes with running. The current marathon world record is 2:02:57, an average pace of 4:41 per mile. So why isn’t it possible now to just dial it up to 4:35 and be done with it, go under the 2:00 hour barrier? What’s wrong with these wimps? Can’t they just go faster a little farther?
Well, it takes time to get faster, and lots of training. But when a race breaks that social contract by failing to measure the course properly, competitors can get rather upset.
So I was fuming the entire time between finishing the race and waiting through the race raffle for the actual awards ceremony. My late wife sat with me trying to keep me calm. Even though I’d won the race it did not feel like it. I was angry and disgusted.
The race officials started the raffle and all kinds of great prizes were being given out. Trips and vacation stays. The sponsors had gone all out for this race.
“Relax,” she told me. “You’re probably going to get something nice for winning.”
Finally the moment came. I walked fiercely to the podium when my name was called as the race winner. Then I walked proudly back to the table where my wife was sitting with a smile on her face. The award was in a small white box that had no markings on it. “It’s probably a watch!” she said.
Then I opened the box and what do you think was inside? A Christmas ornament. A Marathon Santa. It was worth perhaps $4.50. I sat there with my mouth open. Again amazed and disgusted.
My father still thinks this is a hilarious story. He hangs that Marathon Santa Christmas ornament on the tree each year with a flourish. Then he points to me and laughs. He mostly lost his speech due to a stroke years ago but he waves his hand in a grandiose way and says “Yeahhhh…. yeahhhh!” and he laughs some more.
At the time I opened that box during the awards ceremony even my wife could not hold back the combination of amazement and disbelief. “There must be some mistake,” she told me. “Take it back up there.” But I didn’t. I couldn’t. My own arrogance and pride had already turned the entire day into a farce. It was only suiting that I received an award that was a farce as well.
In fact I never really worried about what I won as an award from that point on. There are trophies gathering dust on the shelves of my basement, but the Marathon Santa hangs proudly on the tree each year. Every time I watch A Christmas Story with Ralphie and his Red Ryder BB gun, I revisit the moment when my hunger for a Major Award felt just like that moment when the father in the movie opens that big crate to find a Leg Lamp hiding in the stuffing.
As it says in 2 Timothy,” I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Well, a strong faith always comes packaged with a strong dose of humility. I am reminded of that each year at Christmas when the Marathon Santa shines brightly next to the holiday lights on my father’s fake tree.