When I was 12 years old my family lived in Riverside California. I was not very good in typical school sports like baseball and football, but I was good at running. I loved it so much in fact that it became one of my greatest joys in life and unbeknownst to me at the time, would deliver me 47 years later to the Boston Marathon.
Back then I organized a little weekend run with my friend—Dennis Potter who lived down the street. Dennis was a different sort of kid, rather introverted, with a gravelly voice and a round, red face. We didn’t hang out together much but we met almost every weekend for our race around the neighborhood. It was a set course on the quiet streets around my house, about 2 miles long as far as I can recollect, and the finish line was in a vacant lot right next to old Mr. Stringfellows big yard.
One thing about this little competition that is important to my story is that I always won. Always. Dennis would huff and holler and try very hard to beat me, but in the end I always, and without exception, won the race. I had a good “kick” as runners refer to the last 50 yards or so of a foot race, and it was there that I surged ahead with great confidence and celebration to claim the prize. Victory was mine. And always mine. Dennis was forever frustrated by this and he would shake his head and mutter that he would “get me next time”, and that was the end of it.
We continued our competition for many months and one day my father announced that we were moving to Newport Beach and I would be saying goodbye to my school, my friends and my weekend race. Dennis and I met one last time before I left. Our final race went as expected with me leading all the way, but as we rounded the last corner with about 100 yards to go, I had a spontaneous thought that startled me completely, so much so that I can still recall its remarkable impact and the way it felt. It shook me from head to toe and I recognized it as something that I had not yet experienced in my 12 years of life. I was suddenly pulled out of the victory dance that had already started in my mind, with a mental image of Dennis Potter winning the race, a thought that until that very instant seemed impossible to me. Because I always won. In order for him to finish first, I would have to actually make myself lose. How crazy was that?
But I wondered, what would be the consequence of letting him win—just this once? I knew of course that he would gloat and puff up and feel mighty proud—just as I had for so many months. And I knew I was the faster runner, no doubt about it, but what if there was something bigger and even more important than winning at this moment?
As I remember it, these thoughts and others like them raced through my brain ever so much quicker than my footsteps on the hot pavement. I had only seconds to process this crazy idea, but in those few seconds I experienced a feeling in my body that was exhilarating and satisfying, even more so than winning the race.
I was, perhaps for the first time in my life, feeling a hint of an undeveloped compassion for another human being.
With the finish line in view I suddenly pulled up with one leg, pretending to lose my balance for a moment. I cursed out loud and kicked up a little puff of dust as Dennis, now tasting the possibility of victory, chirped with delight and like a conquering gladiator, shot by me to cross the finish line with outstretched arms.
“I did it! Oh my God…..I did it!” he shouted, over and over. I pretended to be annoyed with myself while congratulating him on his well-deserved win. Amazingly, he didn’t celebrate his victory alone, but ran over to me, grabbed my shoulders and pulled me close in a sweaty embrace as we hopped up and down in his dance of glory. The pride on his face, the clarity in his voice, the excitement in his eyes was something I have never forgotten.
I didn’t see Dennis Potter again after that day. And though I wish it were not true, my introduction to compassion would take many more years to integrate deeply into my own life. One good deed, after all, does not a compassionate person make, but it was a start.
Now at the age of 64, newly diagnosed with breast cancer and reflecting on the many gifts I’ve discovered in my life, the memory of running with Dennis Potter has faded, but the feeling I had while watching him celebrate his great achievement and including me in that embrace of ecstasy, is just as strong today as it was then.
I don’t think we have one-sided lessons in life. Just as a broken bone heals stronger at the point of fracture, every defeat allows us to grow a little too. I believe that each time my cancer knocks me back a few steps, the reverence that I have for living and its endless lessons grows a bit. And I know now that on that race day so many years ago, I needed to lose just as much as Dennis Potter needed to win.