Last weekend, my brother John raced in the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Cross Country Championships. He was seeded first in the Class C race. (New York State divides its public high schools into classes based on size.) John is a fierce competitor and has worked tirelessly to get to this level in his high school career. As a senior, this was his chance to be the first boy to win a state title in Cross Country from Bronxville High School. And of course, it was his chance to win a state title for himself, which I think is just as important.
I haven’t watched many of John’s races. Those of you who read this blog on a regular basis may have noticed that I don’t discuss sports very often. Or at all, really. I’m just not much of a sports fan except during tennis grand slam tournaments and the Olympics. My family, however, is all about sports. More of my siblings are All-American athletes than are not. And everyone in my family considers themselves a fan of most major American sports and, specifically, New York-based teams. I tried for a long time to be like them. But the fact is, I’d rather spend my time reading books and doing things I like than trying to learn the rules of football, which is just never going to happen. Anyway, I digress. All I meant to say was that honestly, I would have gone to more of John’s races had I genuinely been interested enough in the sport of running to sit through meets that last for hours and hours. But I only really care about him. That’s why I just show up to the important stuff, like State Championships.
The race was early on Saturday morning in Queensbury, NY, which is north of Albany. My brother Jim, my sister Tori and I drove up together after work on Friday. We spent the entire three and a half hour drive having a sing-a-long and also, looking for a McDonald’s. (There are surprisingly few along the New York State Thruway). When we got to our hotel, we settled into our “suite” – which was just a very large room that we were sharing with our parents – and went to sleep. Or, everyone else went to sleep. I was up the entire night due to a combination of the Diet Coke I drank at 9 PM and my dad’s snoring.
In the morning, we got ready and headed over to the local high school’s, where the day’s races were to be held. Jim and I drove together and eventually I joined my mom around the starting line. My dad and my sister were up in the woods, where they were planning on running around to catch John at different points in the race. John had quite a few people cheering for him that day aside from our immediate family. The Bronxville girls’ team was running later in the morning, so there were other parents and coaches around. And my mom’s good friend Barb, her daughter Emily and Emily’s one year-old son came out to support him as well.
When the race started, we saw John for about a ten seconds before he and the other boys ran up into the woods. My mom, as she is during all of my siblings’ races, was very anxious. She just wanted John to win. We all did. After about ten minutes, we found spaces along the straightaway – I think that’s what it’s called – before the finish line and waited for the end of the race. Finally, we could see John from afar. He was easy to spot in his bright blue and white striped uniform. He was in the lead.
As he entered the final straightaway, he looked strong, but the boy in second place was right on his heels, gaining momentum. They both zoomed past us and I lost sight of them about ten meters before the finish line. That was when John lost the race.
I had no idea what was happening. All I did was hope that he had won, though I had a feeling that he hadn’t. I kept looking toward the finish line but couldn’t figure out what the outcome was based on anyone’s reaction. When I turned around, I saw Barb and Emily. “I think he got second,” one of them said. My mom ran over to us. “Second,” she said, sadly.
I didn’t see John until probably twenty minutes later. By that time, all of us had recounted what we had seen and what we hadn’t, who had told us that he’d gotten second, how strong he looked at every point in the race. “Hey,” everyone said. “Second place is still pretty good.” And that is, of course, the truth. However, when you’re competitive – like John is, like everyone in my family is – second place is good, but it’s just not good enough.
When he finally came around, each of us hugged John for a really long time. He was clearly disappointed. Not angry. Just bummed.
“Thank you for coming,” he said to me.
“Of course,” I said. And I meant that. Of course I would have been there. It was a big race. I wished that I could have done something for him. That the outcome had been different. But, I will say, I have never been prouder of John. For the rest of the day he was composed, complimentary of others, and very, very gracious.
jim, john, me & tori
We watched his teammates on the girls’ team win a state title as a team. I saw a few other races from a distance. Mostly, I felt cold and bored. The temperature was in the 30s and I wanted to go home. My family and one of John’s coaches got pizza at a restaurant down the road from the high school. We were all in better spirits by that point, John especially. Afterwards, he, Tori and my parents went to the awards ceremony. Jim and I drove the three and a half hours back to our parents’ house.
Back in Brooklyn that evening, I was hanging out with some friends and told them all about John’s race. Most of them seemed to…not get why I was upset that he had gotten second place. I tried to explain that I was proud of him and that, yes, second place is good. Obviously. It’s one place away from first. It was just hard to see Johnny get second place when I knew that he’d worked so, so hard to get first.
Later on, I was playing a game with a few people. “You’re so competitive,” someone said to me, after I’d lost a point or a round or something.
“Yeah,” I said. “I know.”
“It’s obviously hereditary,” they said. And that is the truth. Even though I don’t care much for sports, I am deeply competitive, like the rest of my family. And also, like the rest of my family, deeply loyal.
Seeing John get second place was heartbreaking not because it felt like it was happening to me. It was because I knew it was happening to him. And I want him to have all of the success and glory and happiness that he deserves. But someone had to get second place, which, when you think about it, is much better than a lot of other places.
john & me, post-race but pre-pizza
Johnny, you’re a fighter, a leader and, most importantly, a gentleman. I know you’ll continue to do great things in your last year of high school and beyond. And I’m so happy that you’re my brother. I am so proud of you.