“Who says life is fair, where is that written?” – The Princess Bride
It’s Saturday afternoon in Falmouth, and the skies are still fair. There are no signs yet of the dark thunderclouds that will roll in later, threatening the festive atmosphere at Falmouth High School. For the moment, at least, all is well and everyone seems to be enjoying the family friendly events taking place on the outdoor track.
This is my first-ever experience of Falmouth weekend, having made to the trip with Tyler who will be competing in tomorrow’s Road Race. But after picking up his number, he’s gone off somewhere to get in 30-40 minutes of easy running, and I’m hanging out at the track by myself, taking in the scene, killing time before the elite mile races that are schedule to begin in a little over an hour.
But first, there are an endless number of kids races.
I have no objection whatsoever to having professional runners share the spotlight with kids. Although I sometimes wonder how much 4- and 5-year-olds get out of the experience, I’m fine watching them scampering down the straightaway as parents cheer wildly and take pictures. And then I’m fine when, a few minutes later, the next oldest age group takes their place, this time for a 200-meter “fun run” and repeats the stampede. So it goes, group after group of slightly larger children, until it’s time for the formidable nine-year-olds to step up, and enjoy the privilege of running a full lap of the track.
At this point in the proceedings, I’ve made my way to the end of the home straight where I have a great view of the action. I’m listening to the announcer tell cheerful lies about the future athletic prospects of these kids, who are all gathered under the impressive structure at the start/finish line, and instantly I see something wrong.
It’s not that the adults in charge are about to release more than forty nine-year-old boys for an every-man-for-himself all-out sprint around the first turn, alarming as that may be; no, it’s how those boys have been lined up across the lanes.
As everyone knows, when you step on a track, unfairness lurks at every turn. Most marks on the track are, in one way or another, placed there to eliminate the unfairness, although in some cases, that’s not possible. But one of the most basic ideas is the curved start line, which attempts to neutralize the disadvantage of starting in the outside lanes when a common start is used. In theory, the curved start line means that every competitor runs the same distance to get to the rail on the first turn.
And yet, here we are about to start the 400m and the kids are lined up on the finish line, not the curved start line. It’s bad enough that there are forty kids and the race will not be run in lanes (who has time for that?), but relegating those in the outside lanes to making up those precious feet against those starting on the rail is an affront to fair play. Where are the adults? Where are the guardians of sport?
I want to shout to the officials and volunteers who swarm the area but are not alert to the danger. “Hold the race! Address this miscarriage of justice!” But the words are stuck in my throat, because who am I, a stranger here, to tell the SBLI Family Fun Run how to conduct their event? Moments later, someone yells “Go!” and the army of boys surges forward in a chaotic panic. Those on the outside are immediately penalized for their disadvantage and try to move inward into the midst of the thundering pack.
And then it happens: legs get tangled; several boys stumble; one goes down.
It is one of the boys who had been exiled to the outer lanes, and one feels he never had a chance. He goes down fairly hard, and looks a little traumatized watching all his peers disappear around the turn and down the back straight. Eventually he picks himself up, knowing, perhaps that he’s supposed to finish the race no matter what. He starts walking — still in the outside lane — and soon he is joined by an adult, perhaps a volunteer. A couple of minutes later he’ll make it to the finish line, and receive a tepid cheer. I wonder what he will have learned from his journey.
And this makes me very cranky. I immediately think about the various excuses that I would hear if I were to appraoch the officials and complain:
“It’s just a fun run.”
“It’s not the Olympic Games, you know.”
“Not everything in life is perfectly fair.”
Right. It’s not fair, but the vast unfairness of life is no excuse for being sloppy and unconcerned with the small corner of the world in which it’s in your power to make things a little bit more fair for a bunch of fourth-graders who deserve better.
I’ve come to realize that I am a fanatic about track and field rules, and the geometry of fairness. In the case of the upcoming fall season, I obsess about the layout of cross country courses. I seem to spend way more time thinking about arguably unimportant details than most of my peers. For example, I know and implement the USATF standards for the width of a cross country finishing chute. I measure the distance to the first turn from multiple spots along the starting line of our cross country course. I consult the best authorities on how many runners from one team are allowed on the start, and in how teams are randomly assigned start boxes. Most people would say none of it matters. It’s just not a big deal. It’s not the Olympic Games, you know.
No, it’s not a big deal. But sweating the details in this small aspect of coaching/mentoring kids is a way of teaching that details matter in other areas. And the effort to do it right is so minimal; why wouldn’t every responsible adult in a position to oversee a race make that effort?