Sports day in the local park. The incredibly loud kids have enthusiastically conquered hurdles, raced sacks, kicked footballs, and innovatively cheated their way around the egg and spoon course.
The day concludes with the running races.
Other events were fun and participative. No scores kept. No timings recorded. Everyone having fun.
The running race is different.
By definition, everyone else loses. Plain. Simple. Honest.
No trophy just for showing up.
No consolation medal for completing the distance.
Divided up by year group, creating an age range nearly 2 years wide. At this age that is huge, +/- 20%. Just like in real life, everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others.
Divided by gender.
The political correctness police parent threw her obligatory conniption fit. Stereotyping. Non-inclusivity. Heteronormative assumptions. Her opinions met with the same disdain as those of anti-vaxxers, flat-Earthers, and Brexiteers.
Allocated into heats.
The select few making it to the final.
Winner takes all. There can be only one.
The kid’s races were just the warm-up act.
The real competition is in the parents and teachers race. Atmosphere builds. Noise levels are deafening a the children cheer on their favourites.
The ladies race is short on numbers. Mothers, grandmothers, and childminders are press-ganged into lining up.
The winner wore a huge smile as she blew all the other entrants off the park. Natural talent, muscle memory, and sheer bloody-minded determination carrying her over the finishing line.
Twelve years and twenty-two kilograms ago she had been destined for athletic greatness.
A persuasive boyfriend and an absence of birth control put an end to that. Her dreams traded for the life of a single mother struggling to raise her baby alone while still a child herself.
The parent’s race win providing a brief glimpse of what might have been, before reality reasserted itself when her latest baby (her third) demanded a nappy change from a nearby stroller.
Finally, it was time for the father’s race.
A procession of young, fit, muscular guys strutted to the starting line. Warming up and attempting to psych out the competition.
My son pushed me towards the starting line. His inarguable six-year-old logic concluding that he had run in his race (finishing 5th out of 8 in his heat), so I should have a go too. Fuck!
I sized up the field.
A range of nationalities that would do the Olympics proud. None would claim to be English. Even if we did, few would be accepted as such. In the immortal words of Lin-Manuel Miranda: “Immigrants (we get the job done)”.
London is funny that way. A place where everyone is from somewhere else.
I was the oldest by at least 10 years. In one case I suspect the age gap was closer to double that. I was also the only white guy.
I figured that gave me novelty value. Possibly made me a crowd favourite. Definitely the underdog.
I would love to report that the event was a closely fought contest, where I powered through the pack, and scored an unlikely last gasp victory. Showered with kudos and glory. Hero worshipped by all who witnessed the awesome achievement. My performance becoming the stuff of legend, to be recounted forever more at sports days throughout the ages.
Alas, that would be a lie.
Back when I was their age I wouldn’t have been a significant threat to this group, but I would have been fast enough to make the winners work for their victory.
I’ve slowed a step or two since then.
Too much time driving a desk.
There are a multitude of contributing factors behind this inalienable truth. Mostly I just hadn’t done the work!
Management consulting instincts kicking in, I performed an inspired damage limitation manoeuvre.
I grabbed the old Ghanian guy standing next to me. He was a retread, onto his second family. A lovely fellow aged a decade older than me, who walks with a limp. Together we reluctantly approached the starting line.
The starter’s pistol fired. By the fourth step all I could see was the backs of shirts, as the jostling crowd of young bucks attempted to push and power their way to the finishing line.
I started to laugh at how ridiculous the competitiveness was. This was not the Olympics. The participants were not a group of professional athletes whose livelihoods, marketability and sponsorship would be influenced by the result.
These were bus drivers, personal trainers, shop assistants and uber drivers. Running in a suburban park on a sunny Monday morning in front of a cheering crowd of children.
My laughter proved contagious, the old Ghanian chuckling at my shoulder.
Twelve seconds after it began the race was over.
A photo finish.
A fight erupted over second place. The desperate dive of one father had taken out the legs of several others.
Miraculously neither myself nor the old Ghanian came last. We broke up the fight, then congratulated the winner.
He was strutting around like a peacock, chest puffed out, dissing all those he had left in his wake for being too old and slow.
The Ghanian whipped out his phone and snapped a photo of the boastful victor.
Then he held up the resulting image and observed: “age catches up with all of us fortunate enough to experience it”.
The peacock glanced at the picture, visibly deflated, then looked like he would be physically ill.
The picture of Dorian Gray
As we walked back over to the kids, I asked the Ghanian what he had shown the peacock?
He maliciously grinned and snapped a quick candid picture of me. Fast hands for an old guy.
Viewing his phone was like looking into Dorian Gray’s portait.
On the screen was a high-resolution picture of a slightly startled looking me, but me as an old man.
Older looking than my father or grandfather had been when they died.
It was viscerally disturbing, like a sucker punch to the solar plexus.
My lizard brain instinctively recoiled.
The kids surrounded us, delivering a high volume mixture of praise and ridicule about our running prowess.
My son sensed my disquiet and gave my hand a squeeze. He solemnly told me that I shouldn’t feel bad for being so slow, as long as I had done my best. I tousled his hair and thanked him for his wise words.
After helping to herd the children back to school, I walked down to the river in search of the calm provided by large bodies of water. That aged photo party trick had unsettled me far more than it should have.
Previous experiences confronting mortality had inevitably raised uncomfortable questions like “is this all there is?” and “if not now then when?”.
Those same questions swirled around in my head now.
I attended my first sports day as a parent a dozen years ago. Physically already past my prime.
Disappointing some people to make others happy.
Attempting to keep too many balls in the air.
Spread too thin.
Now here I was a dozen years later, and not much has changed.
Conscious choices about work/life balance have provided me with more time and less work pressure, at the material cost of foregone earnings.
We can’t have everything!
That works for me. It is an arrangement my lady wife finds deeply unsatisfactory.
The parties may have changed, but the disappointing some people to make others happy remains.
That is a choice.
Simple opportunity cost.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it easy. The important things in life seldom are.
It would be all too easy to still be leading this same existence when I reached the age shown in the photo.
In fact, that is the default outcome.
A virtual certainty in the absence of random chance or further conscious change.
By then the sports days would belong to my future grandchildren.
On the face of it, not a bad thing.
Yet my lizard brain was still panicking. Survival instincts in top gear.
There is a disconnect somewhere. A cognitive dissonance that will not allow itself to be dismissed as rounding error.
It will not be ignored.
Troubling that. Food for thought.