“Is Mark?” she asked, referring to her big brother.
“Yes, he is. You don’t have to if you don’t want to.” I wanted to be sure that Lainey really wanted to participate.
“I want to.”
“Okay, I’ll wake you up in plenty of time,” and off she went to sleep.
The Bruce Barnes Memorial Mile is a downhill footrace that starts at the Post Office in Greenwood in the western part of Albemarle County. It is the perfect race for children and middle-agers like me, who want to get a confidence boost by running a fast mile. Mark, twelve, and Lainey, ten, have recently run the mile for their physical fitness tests at school, so I knew they could complete the distance. Mark has run a few races. A couple of years ago, he and I ran a 2-mile cross country race at Panorama Farms in Earlysville, Virginia, the Kelly Watt Memorial Race, named for a lovable and fast cross country runner from Albemarle High School.
This would be Lainey’s longest race, and it is run in linear fashion, from point A to point B. Afterward, everyone walks back to the start. Lainey has run the mile around the soccer field at her elementary school, and I have run a ½ mile race with her a couple of times. I wanted to see what I could do for a time, since the local Men’s Four-Miler is coming up on Father’s Day, and I have cut back on my running in trade for other types of exercise in the past year or so. When I told Mark and Lainey we were all going for our own times, they ignored the comment and asked if I would buy them Slurpee’s after the race.
We toed the line at 9:15 AM and took off. After crossing the finish, I immediately looped back to cheer Mark and Lainey in. I could see Mark about a quarter mile back. He was headed for a personal record and just chugging along. When he was seven or eight, he and I ran and walked this race together. Now seeing his confident and lanky frame and grim expression as he dashed forward, I was very proud.
“You’re doing great, Mark!”
I passed him, clapping my hands and searched the distance for Lainey. It was overcast and neither of my children is hard to spot with their copper colored hair. Only around 80 runners were in the race. I could see Lainey passing the same quarter mile sign that Mark had crossed a minute earlier. She seemed to be struggling. I ran to her and came alongside, patting her back. Breathing hard, she appeared close to quitting or wanting permission to do so. I cheered her.
“Come on Lainey! When we get up this little hill, you’ll see the finish line downhill and very close!”
Sure enough, as soon as we saw the electric light clock, Lainey picked up the pace, and I went with her. And I broke a rule I have never broken in 34 years of running all kinds of races from track events to cross-country meets to marathons. I crossed the line a second time.
As I did so, I was immediately scolded by Mark Lorenzoni, one of the race directors and legendary local running guru.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, Matt, you know you can’t finish twice! Step back and go around the shoot. You’re lucky we recognized you coming through the first time, or you would have disqualified yourself and your daughter!” He was serious. I apologized and stepped back. Later, I apologized again. He was less severe. “I know she’s your child, but don’t let your emotions get the best of you, and you forget she has to finish alone.”
It’s one of the oldest footrace rules in the book. You cannot finish twice. In fact, it’s a truism for life. Once you finish a course – a race, a course of action suited to its time, anything that starts and ends – you are finished. As a Generation X parent, I am part of a generation of highly protective parents. At one time, we were called “helicopter parents,” because we hover over our children far worse than any other generation before us. Lately, we have been renamed “tank parents” because we simply run ahead and destroy obstacles.
After years of teaching and administrative work at the school and school division levels, I have found my own generation to be the most challenging in terms of satisfying the desire to live vicariously through children. Knowing this, my wife and I fight our urge to intervene, knowing it is best for Mark and Lainey to solve their own problems. Every once in a while, though, the temptation is too great. We can see our children’s grades on-line. Teachers are just an e-mail away, and all of the bureaucracy that once separated educators from parents has flattened.
Nevertheless, I was reminded yesterday morning as my strong little red-headed girl surged ahead of me across the line I could not cross twice, our children are the masters of their own learning destiny. We cannot learn for them or deal with their pain for them. We can and should challenge them and comfort them. We should encourage and unleash them to own their futures and let them thrive. And they will.