One bright, sunny autumn Saturday in September, in the same week as my father’s forty-fifth birthday, I was standing on the roof of my old YMCA watching dad stride around the banked 100 meter track they had laid out there, holding on to his watch and calling out times as he flashed by. Every year my father raced the mile. His ultimate objective - to run it when he was sixty in under five minutes or, looking at the challenge another way, to finish the distance in less than four minutes plus his age in seconds every year. Previously he had a coach or co-runner time him but he apparently judged me old enough for the responsibility and brought me along. So there I was practicing counting his laps and calling out splits while he circled several kilometers around in track warming up. Every four laps I called out his split, and every once and a while he’d shout, “Ring the bell!” and I’d jump up and down giving the signal for what would be his final lap in the actual race by shouting like some demented fight bell, “Bing! Bing! Bing! Bing! Bing!” It was great fun. And when he was finished warming up, had done his final stretching, he lined up for the start. Running the mile meant sixteen laps starting from a specially colored line about one quarter of the way down the track from the finish line where I was standing, a double wide white stripe set among a rainbow of different colored lines marking the paths. I gave the “On your mark” warning, waited for him to settle, and then sent him off with a high pitched “Go!”.
In my family talent is not considered something like a trophy one can hold aloft as a personal prize. Rather, because we’re all equal under God, there is no inherent superiority of any one individual over any other. We merely possess different gifts others do not share. What we can laud and take personal credit for is the effort and dedication which goes into doing your very best whether or not you’re gifted. The actual level of achievement reached is of little concern; the key is to do your very best. As my former coach Archie McKinnon said, “… the real thing of value is the sweat and work that went into it”. Certainly we all take vicarious pleasure in the accomplishments of the rare elite, for we share a common father: Paul Tergat running the marathon in under 2:05, a sub-30 10k pace the entire way; Gary Kasparov moving chess pieces with a 2851 rating; Halil Mutlu at 56 kg lifting 168 kg over his head; or Einstein publishing papers on the Theory of Relativity out of a patent office – all accomplishments reflecting the tremendous potential of the human race. All wonderful and inspiring. With achievements like these how can we be prideful of our own individual petty exploits? So my parents taught not to focus on winning but instead to take pleasure in the personal act of improving oneself. That, surely, is a goal everyone should be striving for.
Foremost among my father’s physical talents was running. While he was also an excellent swimmer (amongst my mother’s papers is a certificate proclaiming him to be the 1938 Leeds Schoolboy Swimming Champion) he had a still stronger God-given gift for running. What he could have accomplished on the track had the war not intervened won’t ever be known. World War II intervened, he flew, survived, and his life took on a new course with new challenges – but running was always a part of his life. Oh, his time that September day? He made it with several seconds to spare, a result that at the time I had no doubt at all would happen. After all he was my dad.
Update: Subsequent to writing this it was learned Halil Mutlu was banned from competition in 2005 for steroid use. Just recently he announced withdrawing from his planned Beijing Olympics comeback because "he's missing his lifts". It seems that if I want to write about extraordinary human accomplishment it would probably be for the best if I just avoided athletic performance entirely.