On Saturday my Precious Daughter ran two miles in a cross country race. Well, perhaps more precisely, she ran and walked those two miles.
That’s a long way for a 10-year-old. But my girl is nothing if not a trooper. This is the first year she’s participated in cross country. It’s also the first year her school, the International School of Louisiana, has had a cross country team.
In the part of New Orleans left relatively unscathed by Hurricane Katrina, what I like to call the sliver by the river, you’ll find Audubon Park. Sure, the park is short a few trees since last year, but the grass is green and the canopy of this urban forest is strong and healthy. That’s where teams from schools throughout the area met this morning to engage in friendly competitive sports.
We arrived before 8 a.m. and found ISL’s coach and team under a wide oak near the new golf clubhouse. The brisk morning air was quickly being replaced by the hot, thick, humid air that is quintessentially New Orleans. Elsewhere, it’s fall. Here, late summer will linger another 3 to 6 weeks.
My Precious Daughter and her fellow runners, sporting black and white mesh jerseys with the ISL logo, stretched and giggled in preparation for the race. Coach Eagan gave the two teams, one boys and the other girls, last minute important tips and reminders.
A few minutes later a horn blast sent about a hundred girls scrambling off the starting line. Although there is an official jogging and bike path looping around Audubon Park, it’s not long enough for this race. So the runners followed an outer ring through grass and hard-packed dirt that is favored by horseback riders and a few hardcore runners.
A minute after the start, they were completely out of sight. The groves of trees and the wide looping path prevented us parents from seeing much of the actual race. We gathered near the finish line to wait for their return.
The first girl came into sight barely 14 minutes later. She was wearing an ISL jersey and jogging confidently with her elbows pulled in tight to her sides. No, not my girl, but an ISL girl who deserved the applause and cheers which accompanied her to the finish line.
One by one, the runners reappeared and sprinted to the finish. Some, soaked with sweat and panting through open mouths, seemed to press themselves forward and across the finish line with more will than muscle. Others see the flags and crowd and almost jet to the finish with smiles of relief and accomplishment.
Two miles! It doesn’t sound like a lot, but still, I was very impressed with the girls and boys I saw running. I don’t recall how old I was before I ran two miles for the first time. Heck, I can’t even recall the most recent time I’ve run two miles. And these kids are doing it with shorter legs in the morning heat.
And as I said at the outset, a lot of them don’t really run two miles; they walk at least part of the way. But they finish. They ALL finish. They all push through the fear, the pain, the syrupy air of New Orleans, and their feet find the finish line.
This is the real sport of running: not competing against others, but competing with yourself. I’ve told my Precious Daughter that this is how I see cross country. The greater goal may be to win, to do better than others, but the more immediate goal is to be better than yourself.
This is the lesson all the children running at Audubon Park learned today: That good things come with effort. That inner strength can overcome adversity.
There is no better lesson for children living, growing and surviving in post-K New Orleans.
Saturday morning, we joined friends and family in the park to watch the children run and strive and succeed. And in the end, I think we all learned something.