Whenever my mom cheers for my races, she has the same go-to phrase that she shouts: “Have heart.” Depending on the race, her cheers can either be extraordinarily motivating or mildly insulting. If I’m winning, she can tell, and her voice reaches an excited high pitch, the one that shrieks “I AM SO PROUD OF YOU.” When I’m not winning, when I drag my legs and muster feeble strength, her voice strains. It sounds worried. It says, “You’ve lost your fire, I wish you would find it.”
Last week, I had one of those races. In a 20 kilometer trek, I fell farther and farther behind with each lap. Each time around, I knew exactly where my mom stood on the course, and each time I anticipated the sting I would feel when she did all she could to help me up the hill. “Have heart.”
Her voice echoed in my ears through the hidden parts of the course, where no one was there to see my struggle. When I got passed again and again. “Have heart.” When I crested hills to feel myself lose instead of gain speed. “Have heart.” When I looked up and saw the leaders of the race minutes ahead of me. “Have heart.” When I looked for excuses to drop out of the race. “Have heart.”
At one point, I don’t know which, I did something I had never done before. I regained my energy, despite having thought it was lost. In the final kilometers of the race, I resigned to sprint it in, to show that I was ok, to prove that I had worked. I called it finishing with dignity, and despite how far I had fallen down the results list, I felt proud of myself for what I had done. When I saw my mom again, I could see it in her eyes, she was proud of me too. But she also never wanted me to do that to her again.
Later that day, as I watched the junior men race around the same course, I encountered a strikingly similar experience to mine earlier. It gave me an outsiders perspective, the one my mom lives every week, that expanded my understanding of the beauty of this sport.
As I stood atop the infamous Hermod’s Hill, the final climb of an already treacherous course, I counted the heads of the men I knew racing the 10k. After the lead pack flew through, followed by the larger chase pack, I realized that one of my favorite skiers was missing. I looked down the hill and saw him, Patrick, a teammate from my college team, working his way up the first step of the climb.
I recognized his body language, it was one I had mirrored a few hours before. He was tired. Hurting. Upset. He chased a field he didn’t believe he could catch, and had to face the humbled cheers of the spectators lining the course.
When he reached me. He stopped. “I’m done.” He exhaled. He didn’t look me in the eye, instead he glanced down at his fellow competitors lapping past the finish. He had crashed and broken a ski early in the race, and although he had received a new ski, he didn’t see the point in skiing for last place. I recognized his discouragement, what he was feeling was all too familiar to me, and instead of forcing him down the track to chase something he didn’t want, I told him it was ok. I told him he could drop out. I gave him permission, if only to silence the disappointment that remained from my race earlier.
“I just don’t have the heart.” He said, this time looking me in the eye. I offered to walk him to the finish, to provide him company in what experience had taught me would be a humiliating decision. He denied it. Instead, he would ski down on the course, he would do it himself.
I stayed on the hill to continue to take photos, by this time the lead pack was making their way towards us to finish their second lap. After watching a tremendous finish by the leaders, one that will surely be talked about for years at the venue, I made my way down to get shots of the podium. As their names were announced over the loud speakers, the winners waved and smiled. I glanced away from my lens toward the finish line, as some of the last finishers were crossing. One of those finishers was Patrick. He, too, was smiling.
He later told me that as he was about to drop out, after he had completely given up, he looked back to see if was truly the last finisher. He wasn’t. Behind him skied two Paralympic skiers. One of whom was Omar, a one-armed skier who will compete in Sochi next month.
“I saw Omar pushing it up the hill and I knew that I could ski another lap” Patrick told me. He skied an incredibly fast second leg, catching part of the group, and didn’t finish last. He finished hard. Sometimes the most inspiring parts of races happen after the podium is named. Every part of sport can be beautiful.
Patrick’s race reminded me of how valuable our sport is. How, even when things don’t go perfectly, we are all lucky to be able to do what we do, to be able to go for it, with every part of ourselves, everyday. That in itself is enough to go out each time and, no matter where or who we are, have heart.