With August nearly over and the sun starting to slide south toward twilight, it is hard not to draw some associations with seasons past. With fall approaching, there is not a runner alive whose senses do not perk up while recalling the feel of feet racing through the grass. Those instincts might be some ancient bedouin blood in our veins, or perhaps we share a shred of our genetics with wildebeests, coyotes or cranes.
More likely it is simply memories of competitions on cool afternoons and Saturday mornings in our youth.
The drive of youth
Whatever the drive that pushes us to run and compete, there is no sensation quite like the pull of hormones and desperation of youth. In truth the innocence and urgency of youth floods across our early experiences. Sometimes it gets us into trouble. At other times the trouble comes to us.
There is no more bittersweet scene in all of moviedom than the movie moment when George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life is standing there in a saggy football uniform holding the bathrobe of his future love hiding in the hydrangea bushes when the roar of a vehicle pulls up and someone calls to him, “Come quick George, your father’s had a stroke!”
That is the innocence of youth being ripped away from George Bailey. Because from there, his life becomes a series of unwanted obligations, pressures and near collapse from the stress of it all.
There is a scene of redemption later in that movie. For the runner in me, it is the scene that feels so much like reality. It follows the period when George Bailey travels Clarence the Angel to see what the world would be like without him. Then George returns to Bedford Falls during a driving snowstorm. We witness him running through town calling out to the places he loves, including the apocryphal moment, “Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!” This is George Bailey realizing he has been redeemed.
It means a lot to me that his redemptive moment occurs while he is running. That feels so much like real life to me. I have run through it all.
For me, there are some strange circumstances surrounding that movie. I was literally born in Seneca Falls, New York, the town upon which the fictitious Bedford Falls is based. And while I’ve never run through the streets in a snowstorm after an encounter with an angel, that is hardly the point about why I love that scene in the movie so much.
It also happens that I had a moment in life which a phone call arrived telling me that my father had just suffered a stroke. I turned to my wife at the time and said, “Well, my life just changed.”
Because just like George Bailey, that moment led to a long series of life changes that were difficult at best. In fact, few of us get through life without unexpected interruptions. We might like to think our life is headed in a certain direction and then BAM!, something comes along to change it. We lose a parent, or a child. We divorce or lose a spouse. Our children face painful struggles of their own. Life can turn out to be a maelstrom of change and travail. Perhaps we long to be ‘young again,’ when things seemed so much more innocent.
Youth is eternal
But perhaps you also recall that moment in the movie when George Bailey is standing outside with Mary before tragedy takes over. He’s talking his head off even though it is clear that Mary loves him so much it doesn’t matter what he is saying.
Then an old grump overhears his babbling calls out from the porch to George (and I paraphrase…)
“Why don’t you kiss her instead of talking her to death!”
“You, you… want me to kiss her?” he queries.
“Oh, youth is wasted on the young…” the old guy gruffly laments.
I can never claim to have gotten every moment like that right. Women can be mysterious beings, but they are also quite capable of sending out clear signals that men too often miss. Still there were enough times in life that I read the cues that turned into wonderful, romantic moments that can be cherished and remembered.
And that’s wonderful. But the parallel pride of youth is in responding to the challenges put forth beyond the realm of romance. I think specifically of those moments at eighteen years old arriving on a college campus for an entirely new journey in cross country. That same year there were no less than five other freshman entering the program that had run under 15:00 for three miles in high school. There were all those upperclassmen wanting to make the Top Seven as well. It was raw and open competition from Day One. No fussing around. Run hard. Find your place. Make the team. Compete with honor.
By the end of the season I’d earned the 7th spot on the team and placed ninth in a conference meet in which our Top Seven all finished in the Top Ten. We went on to compete in a muddy national meet in Boston, Massachusetts. Before the trip, a senior named Kirk Neubauer stepped aside to allow me to run at Nationals even though he and I were essentially tied for points on the year. “You go ahead, Cud,” he told me. “It will be important for the future of the program.”
I’ve never forgotten that clear gesture of perspective, friendship and maturity. Recently Kirk retired from Admissions at Luther College after many years of service in recruitment of students. He has literally infused the lifeblood of the institution, its students. Now he is going to dedicate his time to helping the college cross country program, which maintains its wonderful traditions under the guidance of its coach Steve Pasche.
I am so grateful to have known so many people who bring full and intense purpose to life. Some of them have been coaches and mentors. Some of them have been peers, teammate and competitors. We gain strength and insight from all of them.
Youth is not always wasted on the young. The more we appreciate that, the less we are likely to grow prematurely old.