Alex ran cross-country in high school and he committed to the sport. It was inspiring to watch him do the hard work and be rewarded with a sense of accomplishment at meeting a goal and improving his physical capabilities.
Either Sue or I were at every meet both home and away. We couldn’t coach – we hadn’t paid our dues on a cross-country course – but we could encourage and show our support for his efforts. He was with a great bunch of guys and as cross-country runners score higher academically we were pleased he was in good company.
One particular Saturday, I could not attend a conference meet in nearby Goshen. I was in St. Louis on business but sticking close to my phone for updates on the morning’s competition. As I drove home with my partners, Steve and Dan, I received a phone call from Sue announcing Alex had won. It was time for great celebration! I followed up with Sue, “Did he win best score for his team or for his heat or his grade level?” “No, Craig,” shouted Sue, “you don’t understand – He won the whole conference meet!! He beat everybody?!!”
They had to rush off to the awards ceremony and I had few details to go on but my mind raced with the thrill of victory. In the past Alex seemed comfortable in his usual fourth place position for the team and even now, having won everything, he simply took it in stride without much fanfare.
He didn’t talk much about it when I got home – he’d rather play video with his buddies and Sue couldn’t add much of the detail as the race was largely run in the woods, out of sight. I was anxious to sense the parental euphoria I had missed. I wanted to know more of the story and how the competition unfolded but I only had a few facts. It seems the best way to experience what I missed was to recreate the event on paper but I only really knew three things: First, Alex was comfortable placing third or fourth on a regular basis among his more senior teammates. Second, there was a brief moment in the middle of the race when spectators could get a glimpse of the runners through an opening in the trees. And third, Alex won.
Armed with these three points I sat at my desk that Saturday night and wrote the following story which appears in my book Portraits in Character – Word Pictures of Exceptional Persons.
The next morning as we got in the car to go to church, I asked Sue to drive so I could read something I had written about the race. Alex sat in the back and listened to my opening paragraph. He’s a very literal person – just the facts – and so he quickly interrupted me and wanted to argue with my perceptions and details.
“Alex,” I inserted at a pause, “do you know what literary license means?” He did not. “That is when the author sees as his task to help the reader or listener emotionally feel and better understand the moment at the climax of a story. There may be a fact that is omitted or slightly enhanced and yet, on balance, the spirit of the story is meant to portray an honest reflection of what happened.” I added, “I’ve got very little to go on here but I do know what victory is and we just shouldn’t let this significant accomplishment go unnoticed.”
“Now, let me make a deal with you. You let me read this story all the way through as we ride to church and if when I’m done you don’t agree it fairly depicts the race then I will trash it. Fair enough?” “OK,” he responded while knowing he was only committing to five minutes of silence and not having to yield his bent to a literal view of life.
I started again and I could sense the tenseness in the backseat as he bristled at another of my interpretations. Unknown to him, I subtly adjusted the cosmetic mirror on the passenger visor so I could sneak a peek of his reaction to my written words. “Just hang on, Alex, it will be over soon.”
Sue turned the car towards town as Alex stared out the window with a posture just short of an eye roll. I continued to read the story. As author of the story, I was able to affect the cadence and add a bit of drama to the reading. Sue brightened as she recalled the thrilling race of less than 24 hours ago. The more I read, the more grin came to his face and his eyes widened as he gazed out the window and silently relived the competition.
As we neared the church, I read the closing paragraph. “Now, Alex, there you have it. I knew very few facts, but I knew what the thrill of competition feels like and so I utilized literary license to help recreate the scene. How’d I do? Does it meet your approval?” “Dad,” he demurely beamed from the back seat, “that’s fine.” Then he added, “Actually, that’s just the way it happened. You can keep your story.”
Here’s the story that begins on page 193 of my book. I hope you enjoy the race.
A Personal Mission – Subject: Alex W. Tidball
Cross-country running is a grueling sport of personal commitment and sacrifice. It calls for individual effort among like-minded teammates. This unique mixture fostered an attitude that suited my son Alex’s interest in athletics.
What a day for racing in northern Indiana!
Alex was in Goshen, Indiana, for the Cross Country Invitational pitting Warsaw against six other schools in the Northern Lakes Conference. This was an important race for the conference standings and as it’s late in the season, this is the last shot for individuals to achieve their personal best performances.
You may recall that in recent weeks, Alex earned a fourth place finish among his Warsaw teammates. On the heels of that great race he entered last week’s Manchester Mega Invitational looking to best that record with a first place finish among his freshman and sophomore partners. Although he came up short in that quest with a third place slot, he did obtain a personal best time. It was a satisfying performance.
On this mid-October morning in Goshen, Alex prepared for what he planned to be a memorable run in the classic setting of a Hoosier autumn. The rewards of the recent performances were fresh in his mind and he felt good. Maybe his time had come.
The field of runners crowded the starting line for this 5K race of underclassmen. More than 65 harriers found their starting mark for the single loop run. The course textures would include gravel, grass, pavement, mud, and sand. Any slopes would be minimal and gradual. Warsaw’s mood was somber as the girl’s team had just finished with dismal results against the six other schools. These were strong opponents including the cross-country powerhouses of Northridge and Wawasee high schools. And contributing to the tension ahead of the starter’s gun was the ever-present thought that this was for the Conference Championship. The top ten finishers would be candidates to advance to the State sectional and compete at the varsity level. Would a strong finish among his teammates put him in the running for post-season competition?
The start was familiar. Runners quietly found their line to the first turn. They measured the pace of their competitor’s steps. The usual questions began their mental 5K: Am I too fast? Are my feet landing properly? Are my strides too long? How do my thighs feel – is that about right? Are my arms relaxed enough – too much? Should I be breathing this hard already? Is that a hole in the pathway to avoid or just a shadow? The rush of questions all point to a normal start. Now let’s race!
Soon after the gun the harriers entered the woods and were out of view of gathered friends and family. Now there was only the gentle thumping of the swift and quiet runners as they ushered the change of seasons into a grove of Hoosier maples.
When the runners first emerged to the open field, something was different. The lead pack had a higher than usual number of jerseys displaying the orange and black of Warsaw. More than autumn was in the air. Warsaw parents exchanged puzzled but expectant glances. Something is going on. Back to the woods.
The next view for fans came at the halfway mark and would set the stage for the final moments. Warsaw was clearly dominating the lead pack but most noticeable were the two runners locked in a steady cadence at the front. They appeared strong. They looked determined. The field of 65 was now down to a race of two.
But Alex was in no mood to share a crown on this October morning. Yes, Alex Tidball led at the halfway mark! Not just among his teammates but for the whole field of runners. Even at this distance, his eyes revealed a personal mission at work. A clear objective was front and center. Alex had never held this position in a race – not even for a moment. He saw himself as a finishing sprinter. He was a tactical competitor lying in wait to strike near the finish with that familiar burst of speed. He always held back a little something extra for the fans at the finish. He thought of it as his signature. But now he owned first and it felt good, it felt right. Would there be anything left?
The Northridge runner, however, was not feeling sentimental this day. This was his race. He had been his team’s top JV runner all season. And furthermore, this was Northridge and no team and nobody beats Northridge.
The final meters were ahead. Alex knew he was ahead of his normal pace but he also knew that if fourth place on his team tasted so good a week ago then first place for the whole field must be like a feast of BonBon’s (his grandmother’s) cream puffs. It is now clearly a race for two and they are rapidly running out of fuel and out of course. The time has come to make a move.
The pace quickens and it’s lock step. There is more than a gentle Indiana breeze around him; there is a fiery breath upon his back as the Northridge runner battles for the inheritance of his commitment to the sport. Alex can feel him right on his back. “Am I going to get spiked?”
And then the sprint is on – only moments to go! He can feel the victory just steps away but the problem is – he can’t feel his legs. The fans are on edge. Watch the eyes! Watch the eyes! Is it there? Does he have it?
The following Monday, Alex’s proud parents stopped into the local art shop and asked the owner to mount three items in a single frame: A race tag bearing number 354, a small finish-line ticket with a handwritten “#1,” and the Northern Lakes Conference First Place Blue Ribbon!