Good for the Heart

by Brad Wilcox

Print Share

    The class was supposed to be teaching me fitness for life, but right then, death looked like an enticing alternative. The lead runner raced by me. I wanted to trip him.

    “This time you’re racing the clock.” The P.E. instructor held up his stopwatch. I lined up with the rest of the class on the university track. I tucked my standard, authorized T-shirt into my standard, authorized gym trunks, attempting to camouflage the spare tire around my waist, that although unauthorized, had become quite standard.

    “Ready!” the instructor called.

    The semester was just beginning. This was a pretest—11 laps equaling a mile-and-a-half run to assess our present fitness levels.

    “Get set!” Again the voice sounded. I leaned forward. When this fitness appraisal is finished, I thought to myself, I just hope I’m still fit enough to stand up.

    “Go!” The whistle blew.

    Like a herd of animals scared by the sound, our group lurched forward and stampeded down the track. After only one lap the herd sorted itself into two distinct groups: them and me.

    After two more laps I was so far behind I appeared to be leading the pack. “Just keep plugging, Brad,” I psyched myself. “Remember tortoise and the hare—tortoise and the hare—tortoise and the hare.”

    The group whizzed by me again. I noticed the lead runner. He was good. I admired his form. I studied his stride. I reflected on his reflexes. I wanted to trip him. Runners like Ken Williams make coaches proud and tortoises envious.

    I staggered ahead. By lap six, Ken was finished and probably showering. By lap eight the rest of the herd had completed the run and were headed to the watering trough as well. The instructor might have forgotten I was still running except for the sounds of wheezing and gasping he heard as I endured to the end. Oh, the indignity of it all, I thought. I wished I were a tortoise with a shell to hide under.

    Lap nine: My rubbery legs were protesting.

    Lap ten: My stomach was threatening a revolutionary uprising.

    Lap eleven: This class was supposed to be teaching me fitness for life, but right then, death looked like an enticing alternative. I crossed the finish line. My heart sank into my left tennis shoe, partly because of the ordeal, but mostly because of the embarrassing time announced too loudly by the instructor.

    “You’ve got a lot of work to do this semester,” the bored teacher proclaimed as he walked away.

    He was right. In the 12 weeks that followed I ran almost every day, and the only thing that kept me from being as bored as he, was memorization. It was an idea Dad gave me to keep my mind off my tortured legs and sagging arches. So with each of my daily 11 laps I memorized the corresponding article of faith. (Just don’t ask me to recite numbers 12 and 13. Shortly I moved into the scriptures. You know, “Run and not be weary …”

    The semester passed. “We’ll have our final run next Tuesday,” the instructor declared. “Final next Tuesday,” I wrote in my notes. “Wait!” I was horrified. “I’ll be in Nevada next Tuesday!”

    After class I tried to explain. “I’m in this play, see … this musical, and we’ll be performing in Las Vegas on Monday night.”

    “So?” the instructor intoned. “It doesn’t matter where you are on Monday night as long as you are here on Tuesday morning.” He seemed as mechanical and cold as the stopwatch hanging from his neck. “If you want a grade, you’ll be here.” Discussion ended.

    Tuesday morning came. Sure enough, I was there—physically, at least. I left Las Vegas immediately after the curtain call and drove all night long. I arrived in town with only minutes to change into track clothes. My body screamed, “You should be in bed!”

    “No,” my mind replied, “You should be in a mental institution for not being in bed.” My spirit was unwilling and my flesh was weak. But there I was.

    “We’ll run in two groups,” the instructor shouted.” So everybody gets a partner to count your laps and record your time.” Williams, the name next to Wilcox on the roll, became my partner.

    “Great,” I thought sarcastically, “the tortoise and the hare.” Remembering his performance during the pretest months ago, I already knew it would be easy to count Ken’s laps. My partner lined up with the first group.

    “Good luck,” I muttered through a near yawn. The whistle blew. Just as the other partners did for their runners, I kept track of Ken’s laps. Just as the other partners did for their runners, I held up a corresponding number of fingers as he passed. Just as the other partners did for their runners, I yelled encouraging words. Then, well ahead of other partners and their runners, I recorded Ken’s amazing time.

    Hardly pausing, Ken circled the track for a leisurely cool-down. He breathed heavily. His muscled frame gleamed with sweat.

    “Second group to your mark!” the instructor shouted. Some of the “jocks” who had already finished running began slipping out. They had just completed the last requirement of the semester and certainly didn’t plan to spend any extra time following up on this “partner” business.

    Ken came toward me. I suggested, “Hey, you don’t have to stay. I can count my own laps.”

    “It’s okay,” he said.

    “Don’t feel obliged,” I tried again. “Some of the others are leaving and the instructor doesn’t care. Just go ahead and shower.”

    “No,” Ken flopped on some nearby bleachers, “I’m kind of tired. I’ll just sit here for a minute and count your laps.”

    “I’m afraid it’ll take more than a minute,” I warned.

    “Second group ready!” the instructor called. “Get set,” the whistle blew.

    We charged forward. Now’s your chance to prove you’ve worked hard during the semester, I reminded myself. Now’s the time to make those hours and laps pay off. Come on now. “We believe in God the Eternal Father …” I recited silently as I ran. It helped.

    Lap two passed. Lap three passed. Already I was wavering.

    You’re pacing yourself too fast, I panicked. But this is the pace I’d kept for weeks.

    Lap four: “We believe the first four principles and ordinances of the gospel are … are … are what?” My head started spinning. The long night’s drive was showing up. I was slowing up.

    “Adrenaline!” I demanded of my body. “Sorry,” my sleepless self yawned. “You left it in Las Vegas.”

    I swayed and tottered like a sleepwalker. I was exhausted.

    Lap five: “We believe … we believe …” I can’t do it, I thought. My head throbbed in rhythm with my pounding heart. My strength was gone.

    Just as the other partners did for their runners, Ken held up his fifth finger as I passed. Just as the other partners did for their runners, Ken yelled, “You can do it!” or some such nonsense. Then, noticing my distress, Ken Williams did something very unlike all the other partners on the sidelines. Ken started to run and caught up with me. Loping along at my right, he offered the tail of his T-shirt.

    “What’re you doing?” I gasped.

    Again Ken extended the shirttail. Without further question I reached over into his lane and grabbed it. Then Ken began to run, forcing me to keep up. He was still sweating from his own final test, and now he was exerting himself again.

    “By love serve ye one another” (Gal. 5:13). It was one of the scriptures I had memorized while running on that very track.

    Lap six: “Come on,” he urged.

    Lap seven: “Run, Brad, keep it up.” He wasn’t shouting from the sidelines. He was encouraging me step for step.

    Lap eight, nine, and ten: Ken didn’t just pace me for a while. He ran with me to the end. He gave me the shirt off his back and went the extra mile, literally.

    My drained body finally drooped across the finish line. I wanted a gold medal. Under the circumstances my time wasn’t that much better than the pretest taken months earlier, but I wanted a gold medal. I wanted it for Ken.

    Mosiah 4:15: “Teach them to love one another and to serve one another.” I had memorized that one, too. I memorized it; Ken lived it.

    “Thanks,” I coughed, when I finally felt that I could talk at all.

    “No problem,” Ken panted.

    Still leaning heavily on his shoulder, I clutched my aching side. “You didn’t have to do that.”

    “I know,” he said.

    “Verily I say unto you, insomuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:40). I memorized that or I had learned it in Mutual activities when we used to clean widows’ yards and go to the stake welfare farm because our advisers insisted. We quoted it in seminary, also, when we subbed for Santa and donated money to help foreign seminary students because we knew we should.

    “Ken,” my chest was heaving. “I’d never have made it without you. Thanks.”

    “It’s okay,” he smiled. “I wanted to help.”

    No adviser insisted. No seminary teacher told him he should. I wasn’t a welfare assignment. I wasn’t a home teaching obligation. There was no space on the elders quorum roll where Ken could report his extra-mile laps and get the credit he deserved. Ken helped me because he wanted to.

    “Want to”—“have to.” On paper the difference between these two phrases is minimal. Each one even has the same number of letters. But on a fieldhouse track, in a ward, neighborhood, school, or elsewhere, the difference between “want to” and “have to” is continents wide.

    It was quite a lesson Ken taught me a few semesters back as we ran together on the fieldhouse track. He probably doesn’t remember now. He probably didn’t even realize it then, but the exercise he showed me, this exercise called willing service, has been particularly good for my heart.

    Photography by Craig Dimond