The hurdlers are not happy.
From where I stand at the end of the long jump pit, waiting for my seven jumpers to come bounding down the runway, to land with a sandy splash in front of me, I can see the hurdlers, shivering in their navy warm-ups, less than eager to start their race.
“We like the 100!” they’ve wailed, after discovering that they were signed up for the grueling 300 meter low hurdles. These are sprinters, preferring the intense glory of the quick, high 100 and 110 meter race. This business, three times as long and far more taxing, isn’t their game. Our point-savvy head coach, noted that they aren’t the only ones; this race seems universally hated, and therefore offers many opportunities for scoring points in the abandoned lanes. All hurdlers, he declared, will do the 300 this week.
While the freshmen and sophomore hurdlers shiver in the wind, I stand with Sorche, a senior. She’s new to track this year, returning to BFA after two years in Canada to finish her senior year. Though energetic and athletic, this is her first sport at BFA, and as such she represents much that I love about BFA sports. In many schools, there’s no opportunity to try a sport. You try out, and hope to make it on the team at all. Here, students often show up with little experience, just to learn and enjoy. Sorche is like that. She came, she decided the intimidating hurdles were fun, and she worked hard to learn and improve.
On this chilly afternoon in Stuttgart, she stands in shorts, ready to start. She’s had shinsplints since early in the season, so her legs are crisscrossed with pink athletic tape, giving her the appearance of a Lisa Frank zebra. She squints at the 300 meters of race ahead of her, at the hurdles in the way, frowning. She’s no more excited about this race than the freshmen, but she’s not trying to get out of it.
“It’s just–far,” she sighs.
“You’re right,” I reply, ever the helpful coach. “But it won’t last forever.”
“Yeah, OK.” She takes off her jacket and hands it to me, shivers one last time and folds herself into the starting blocks. A final gunshot, and she’s off. I follow her pink-striped leaps around the track with my eyes, jogging over to the finish to see the last few.
At the finish line, she meets the ground in a happy heap of relief.
“You’re done!” I cheer from above, handing her the warm-ups.
“How was it?”
“Hard. But–” she hesitates. “I think I’d do it again.” She looks up at me and grins. “I mean, I may be crazy. But I want to do that again.”
Earlier this week, I asked my juniors a number of questions to help them select a topic for their upcoming practice college admissions essays, the last essay of the year. One of them regarded lessons that they’ve learned lately.
Sorche’s race was my lesson, not a new one, but a forgotten message brought to light: Hard and good sometimes come together.
I sometimes complain that teenagers hate challenge, doing whatever it takes to write the simplest essay, run the easiest race, read the shortest book. While the herculean efforts of Sorche and many of our other track runners scold me for this unfair generalization, this race today also reminds me that high school students are not the only ones trying to avoid difficulty.
So often, I want to avoid my own hurdles, running around them or under them, running the other way entirely. The challenges of relationship, vocation, trusting God with future and present–all of them can be deflected with enough eye-shutting and subject-changing. And yet, without challenge there is no growth.
Looking ahead to the next month, I know already that the hurdle of farewells looms large. A school year almost always ends bittersweetly, this year more than most, as many of my closest friends and the class to whom I’ve become most attached will leave Germany in June. Though the change is inexorable, I know that I could somehow dodge the suffering, withdrawing into some snail shell of denial or detachment, refusing to say goodbye. Or, I can remember, like Sorche, that even the hardest roads are sometimes worth running into head-on, eager to grow, learn and finish well.