In High School I discovered that I could run! Previously, the furthest and fastest I had ever run was about 300 meters – the distance from the Primary School to my house. That was the day I got to school and realised that my shorty pyjama trousers were sticking out below my school dress. I had to get home and back before the school bell rang. I thought this only happened in nightmares, but it was my first middle distance event.
Anyway, back to high school. My brother, who was a distance runner and my sister, who was a senior then, coaxed me into signing up for an 8km fun run. I did it because I was entering ‘big school’ and wanted to please them. I was the 5th girl home. Their girl friends on the athletics team were so proud of me and I had no choice but to join the cross country team. From then on I loved to run. It was a way to be out in nature, breathe fresh, Johannesburg traffic fumes and detox from my age appropriate teenage moodiness. Also, the faster I ran, the more my blind spots were covered and the more liberated I felt from tasks requiring visual acuity.
By then I knew that I had Macular Degeneration and was also trying to prove to myself , and my parents and teachers, that I could cope well enough to not have to enrol at a boarding school for the visually impaired. I was such a home bird; there was no way I was going to leave home. Denial suited me perfectly as facing loss is very painful and only for the mature (which I was not). Running became my escape …running from pending vision loss and running to cope with stress and running to achieve my own goals so that I would be seen as capable. It all sounds a bit like Forest Gump… “Run Jenny run”. Anyway, it was fun …
…until I was the first to finish the race. I had no one to follow and I could not see where the right chutes were for my age and category. It was embarrassing to sprint to the finish line and break the tape, only to be told that I was at the wrong finisher’s table: “you are not a senior boy”.
I don’t know why I did not ask for help. I think my teachers thought I was pulling their leg that I could not see the signs. At least at Provincial level I was never first! There was always a bouncing, pony tail to follow.
Running opened the door for me to appreciate many beautiful parts of our country. There are secret gardens, green belts and forest trails tucked away in the middle of highveld cities and towns. Later I ran for EP (as it was called then) and so got to see beautiful parts of the Eastern Cape countryside – even racing in a team against the Old Apple Express steam train!
Through a particular running event I learned that achievement is very satisfying and gloriously addictive, but is not the key to feeling better about oneself and one’s value in society.
This significant race has been an allegory of my life. It was the final 1500m track event at the top 11 English schools’ meeting. I had won this event at every athletics meeting that season, so was under pressure to perform well and I anticipated breaking the record at this particular event. Those were the days when the good athletes wore spikes, but I never could get the hang of them and so ran barefoot – not quite as fast as Zola Budd! We ran as a team of 5 and each team had their own tactics. I was one of the targets to beat so we had our protective moves. There was a lot of tension and a bit of jostling at the start line, but finally we all got off on a sprint. Our pace setter was out front and I was immediately boxed in by two runners in front of me , two alongside me – one slightly ahead and one slightly behind – and someone on my heels. You get used to this kind of crowding and bumping each other, but I got a deliberate shoulder shove and as I faltered the girl behind me wearing spikes accidently (or maybe not) stepped on the back of my calf and left a long deep bloody scratch down to my heel. As I fell, I bailed out onto the outer lanes so I would not be trampled on. I got up and checked my leg. I was so mad!! By this time the others were out of my sight, I realised that I had not stepped out of the track and so could legally still continue the race. I decided then to finish as best I could. My indignation and sense of injustice and pain kicked me into high speed and I charged after the pack who was about 200m ahead. I cried and ran my guts out. I heard later that the whole school was on their feet cheering me on. It felt great passing the athletes one by one. I was so focussed on catching up to the next girl that I forgot to count the laps and I was relying on the bell ringer to announce the last lap. I only had one girl to pass.
She was about 10 meters in front of me so I paced myself to overtake her at the 300m mark. I didn’t realize that it was the end of the race until the girl in front of me stopped running at the finish line and the track official stepped out to stop me. He was very apologetic that they had forgotten to ring the bell. It was such a crescendo of mixed emotion – disappointment at being denied the chance to break the record, indignation at the injustice of the bell situation and pride at knowing that I had done my absolute best in the situation.
In my life race (as probably in yours too), I have been boxed in by vision loss, knocked down temporarily by breast cancer and even today, as I write this, I have been elbowed by the confirmation that my peripheral vision is also now affected. It sucks!
There is nothing like disappointment for figuring out what is really important in life. No trophy, medal or accolade can take the place of knowing deep down that you are valuable just because you are created alive and are cherished by a loving God.
I will get up and go on. I have a loving family and supportive friends who are cheering me on and I don’t care where I come in this race. It is a joy just to run it.
At band practise tonight we sang a song from Jesus culture “Your love never fails” and one verse made me think about this blog. Nothing can separate, Even as I run away, Your love never fails, I know I still make mistakes, But your mercies are new for me every day, Your love never fails”(Romans 8.35)
Join me -don’t give up!
… and where the heck is that gingerbread man?