Emma finished the mile in 5.4 minutes in the 85-degree heat. She did so with the ease I do nothing, not even write these words. No panting or hunching over in exhaustion; if she was sweating, I couldn’t tell. This was a private school track meet in New York City.
At the onset of 7th grade, my son had the opportunity to choose a sport and he chose ‘Track and Field’ and ‘Cross Country,’ which I learned were not only two different sports, they occupied two different seasons.
In the spring, the meets take place at Icahn Stadium on Randall’s Island; a good idea in a bad place. The location also houses a wastewater treatment plant, so the island reeks like an explosion of Porto-potties. These poor teenagers are supposed to sweat through it, inhaling putrid sewage air. This is problem number one of many. The seats suck. Positioned at a 90-degree angle, the stadium seats are made up of ass-numbing hard plastic. Also, the location is ridiculously inconvenient, mandating the crossing of 2 bridges, terrible FDR traffic, and two tolls totaling $18.
Today’s track meet brings together athletes from top notch, elite prep schools who all equally melt under the scorching sun in their polyester uniforms. Their feet create a sneaker rainbow on parade, which is in direct contrast to their dull uniforms, ranging in shades of maroon, navy and hunter green.
Only a few dozen parents usually show up at the (non-championship) meets. A small gathering of dads, immaculately dressed in tailored skinny pants and shirts with monograms, lean against the glass at the edge of the track. Some cheer happily while others record their sons’ performance on the iPad.
“Dig deep,” they yell. “Now’s the time to pass people! You’ve got this! Keep it up!”
At my first track meet, I didn’t know what to expect, but I certainly didn’t expect the wave of emotion that tackled me. The intensity of the kids’ efforts; the pressure in the stadium rivaled a championship baseball game. It was palpable and seemingly unnecessary; just yesterday they played on the tire swing at the playground.
I cried through most of that first meet, grateful for my dark sunglasses. Initially, I thought this might be a normal parental reaction, but as I looked around, most parents seemed to choose the cheering route. By the second meet, I prepared myself; I knew what to expect. Once again, I ended up bawling. I behaved similarly to Kristen Bell and her reaction to the sloth. I can also connect to her explanation: “If I’m not between a 3 and a 7 on the emotional scale, I’m crying.”
The kids chant, “Billy, Billy, Billy” from the stands and he is energized by the encouragement. The bleachers come alive and today, this is what sets me off. Tears flow beyond the dark specs and I’m also hysterical because Billy’s mom isn’t even here to see this!
There’s a different trigger each time; an acid trip where I finally see the light and it’s too bright. The pressure, the competition, the ferocity with which these children commit to this sport. I want to send them all the Ghost of Christmas Past and show them now is the time to seize these fleeting days; time will outrun all of them. They should be having fun; engaging in recreational distraction from academics. Instead, these meets have become athletic versions of the PSAT.
My son moves onto high school next year, where they launch a more official “get ready for college” movement. I hope every class, club, or sport he selects will not focus on solely college admissions in mind.
I’ve armed him with one piece of advice: be passionate about life. Whatever it is he decides to spend his life doing, pursue it with fire, with consistency, and with confidence. Ultimately his happiness will be the rush which carries him across the finish line.