The Rising Tide of Competition

21Jan13

Image3 miles in, it was clear he was staying right where he was. On a “low to high” trail run, friends, Jack and Lindsay bracketed my son Drew between us. 12 years old, the 6.5-mile run was longer than he had ever gone before. A flat beginning along a creek, now transitioned to a series of climbs up one side of the valley wall. Though nothing brutal, the vertical was enough to take the serious fight out of most people but Drew was ready to make it clear, he was not most people.

In my son, adolescence is in its full awkward bloom. His body’s getting longer, the parts of his face look like they’re struggling to get to know each other. Cheeks that were once cherubic are sinking, his brow is dropping and his smile’s become something recognizable but not exactly familiar. The evolutionary process is both fascinating and frightening. I can’t wait to see what this growth spurt will become but I’m slightly unnerved by how quickly its happening.

A couple of years ago, Jack and I used to spend time wondering how long Drew would be able to turn early promise as a runner into vanquishing his father. At the time, I was still pretty fast and High School seemed like the most likely period for Drew to move to the front. But I’ve had a lot of injuries in the past couple of years and I’ve eaten more than I should have. In contrast, Drew’s “promise” has hardened into a cold reality. On my heels as we started climbing, his breathing quickened but didn’t labor. His tempo surged with the steepness. At the top of each climb, when I checked in with him, I could taste a bothersome confidence in his answers.

If you’ve ever spent a day at the beach, you might have had the unsettling realization that the little camp you’ve created to enjoy the day is suddenly about to be overrun by a rising tide. It’s on you before you know it, threatening sandcastles and blankets. You’re brilliant day now sodden by the force of nature.

Running yesterday, I felt a force of nature at my back. My twelve year old, my friend, my student is about to swallow me up. Last year, I felt it on the ski hill. He’d gone from following me down the trail to racing me. As he got closer to matching my speed, he started taking bigger risks. The kid never said a word about it but I could feel his desire growing every time out, his focus sharpening on taking me down. On the run, the distances between us had always been too big for that kind of competition. Until now. He can feel it, I’m certain of that, he may not have the idea fully formed in his head but somewhere in his cortex is a white hot signal telling him to keep pushing, something good’s going to happen.

In the 1979 film, The Great Santini, for the first time in his fictional life, Robert Duvall loses a “one on one” game of basketball to his teenaged son. Rather than conceding to the inevitable with grace, Duvall’s character reacts with outrage and tries to humiliate his son but only shames himself. I always loved this scene. To the filmmakers, I’m grateful for showing me how not to handle this seminal moment.

I don’t like losing to anyone but I’m looking forward to losing to Drew. I can feel how much the event is going to mean to him. Like an incoming tide, there’s nothing I can do about it but make way.

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