I knew before the race started that it would be tough—a four-mile cross-country trek through the sandhills. There were plenty of ups and downs, and several places where your feet sank into the sandy soil and slowed you to a walk.
I knew it would be hard, because I’d helped my dad mark out the trail two days before. He’s the gym teacher at my school. It’s his job each fall to choose and mark out the route for the divisional cross-country races.
“I want it tough, David, but fair,” he said to me as we tied up small blue ribbons to mark the route. “There’ll be good runners as well as some who race just to get an afternoon off school. I want the course tough enough to challenge the serious runners.” He grinned at me and said, “You wouldn’t want it too easy, would you?”
I grinned back and shook my head. This was the first year I could be in the race. Each year I’d heard Dad talk about it, and I’d heard the older kids at school say it was really tough. I was eager to compete in it.
I’m in fine form, I thought. I’d been practicing for six weeks, and my legs and lungs felt ready. In gym class I easily beat the other boys at two miles, but we’d never run the whole four miles. That, plus all the hills, might make a difference. And, of course, kids from five other schools would be in the race too. I’d heard rumors that one of the other schools had a really good runner in my division.
When we lined up for the first race of the meet, I knew who it was. His classmates called him Mike, and urged him on. I was determined to beat him, even though he was a good six inches taller than me. That meant his legs were a lot longer—I’d probably have to take four strides to cover the same distance he did in three!
The route began with a really steep hill with stunted oak trees scattered over it. “Why did you put the start here?” I’d asked Dad when we set it up. “Do you want to scare everybody at the start?”
“That’s the idea!” He grinned, then explained that the actual reason was to make the runners spread out instead of bunching together. “They’re less likely to bump into each other that way.”
Now, racing up Heartbreak Hill, I saw what he meant. Everyone was soon walking, including me! At the top I resumed running. Only one runner—Mike—was ahead of me as I followed the course-marking ribbons down the other side. I didn’t try to catch him. This side was much shorter, but steeper, so I was careful to keep my legs under control.
At the bottom, the trail flattened out and wound through poplar trees. Then it took a sharp right turn through an open wire gate before twisting alongside a creek for half a mile or so. By the time we turned away from the creek, Mike was about a hundred yards ahead, going at a steady lope. The rest of the runners were so far behind that I couldn’t see anyone else.
We were more than halfway there, and I was beginning to wonder if I’d be able to catch Mike. My legs were straining on “automatic,” but his long legs seemed to carry him effortlessly up the hills. Even the sandy places didn’t slow him down much.
My breath was getting ragged. I thought about walking for a while, but I didn’t want to let Mike increase the distance between us. My classmates were counting on my winning, and even Dad had hinted that it would be nice to see my name on the trophy. I forced myself to keep running.
Then Mike suddenly slowed and turned his head from side to side as if he were lost. He’s right where the trail branches, I thought. He can’t tell which way to go.
The trail was marked to turn right, but he turned left and picked up speed again.
I’ll catch him! was my first thought. Then, Why didn’t he follow the ribbon?
In a moment I was up to where he’d turned off. There was no ribbon visible, though I’d seen Dad put one there. I took a few strides in the right direction, and there it was, fallen to the ground, and half hidden by grass.
He’ll soon figure out that he’s wrong, I thought and took a couple more strides. But it was almost as if I could hear Dad’s voice: “Winning is important, but it’s not the most important.”
I stopped running. “Mike!” I called loudly. “You’re going the wrong way.”
“Is this a trick?” he shouted, turning back.
“No trick,” I called. “See? Here’s the ribbon.” I held it up and tied it to a branch for the later runners to see.
I waited for Mike to pass me, and when he was a hundred yards ahead again, I started running. Even so, I figured I’d gained a small advantage, since I’d had a short rest and hadn’t gone quite as far. My breathing was easier, and slowly I managed to lessen the distance between us.
Mike went up and over the last hill. In the distance I heard a cheer as the crowd sighted him. I topped the hill and saw that he wasn’t more than fifty feet ahead.
I’m going to catch him, I thought. He was almost staggering, and I urged my legs to move faster.
The gap closed. Mike glanced back, saw me coming, and made one last effort. With two feet to spare, he crossed the finish line ahead of me.
I walked around slowly to catch my breath. Dad was standing near the finish line, recording names as later runners crossed, and he gave me a thumbs-up signal. I knew that he didn’t mind that my name wouldn’t be on the trophy—but it sure would have been nice.
When I saw Mike recovering, I went over to congratulate him. “Good race,” I said, “but just wait till next year!”
He gave me a funny look. “Why’d you do that?”
“Call me back to the trail. And then give me a head start.”
I shrugged. “It was only fair,” I said. “You were ahead, and the ribbon had fallen, but I knew where to go.”
“But you’d have beaten me.”
“It wouldn’t have been right,” I said. “Not that way. You’d have done the same thing.”
“I don’t know, really,” Mike said, his smile uncertain. “What I know for sure is that I hope I would have.”
“What I know,” Dad said, coming up to us, “is that you’re both winners in my book!”