One Tale of Grit

Last month, I was at Jonah’s track meet waiting for his race. It was one of those big messy meets with a dozen teams and lots of heats that included freshman, JV, and varsity. The freshmen get their own races, because the boys especially haven’t hit puberty yet. Their little skinny legs can’t keep up with the older boys.

When the gun went off for the 4 x 800 JV race, two teams pulled out in front immediately. Those towns specialized in track and field and even their JV runners were great. The other five teams loped far behind. One team, in particular, was terrible. Their runners fell further and further behind. By the time, it came to the last runner on the relay, they were a full lap behind the two really great teams and a sizable distance away from everyone else.

I watched that last runner starting his leg of the race and felt bad for him. It’s pretty miserable to be so far behind everyone else. Getting lapped is humiliating. It’s depressing to still be running, while the officials are waiting for you to finish, and the runners for the next race are anxiously pacing waiting to line up to run. Hundreds of parents are watching you alone on the track.

Even from far away, I could see that the last runner was terrible. He was slow and had an awkward stride that had to compensate for a huge butt and hips. As the runner came around the track closer to me, I could see why. He was genetically a girl. His shaved head couldn’t hide the hips and the butt.

Testosterone is a real bitch. Guys are always faster than girls, because they’ve got it. Freshman boys don’t have it, so that’s why they get their own races. This runner didn’t have it. And this runner was so curvy that he wouldn’t have even been a good girl runner.

As the runner came around for the second lap, the lap that he had to take entirely by himself, I cheered wildly. Go! Go! Go! You’re almost there! How much courage does it take to defy genetics, so you can do something that you really, really want to do?

After the JV race, the varsity runners ran. Jonah breezed by in 2 minutes and 3 seconds and then promptly ate a second lunch of the day.



32 thoughts on “One Tale of Grit

  1. I believe Plato’s Laches canvassed all that is to be said about wise endurance and foolish endurance (or productive grit and pointless grit), so perhaps the transsexual runner (or whatever, the situation could be more complex) should be advised to consider what is said there.


  2. There, you have to think the goal for the boy in question is public acceptance of competing as a boy, rather than doing particularly well. I mean, he might have been better advised to pick a sport where he had more of a shot at being competitive, but it probably came down to which coach was supportive.


  3. At swim meets, I was often the last person in the pool for 30 seconds or a minute or more. I really sucked, but my parents wouldn’t let me do no sport at all and sucking a swimming seemed much less horrible than sucking at football.

    Anyway, there’s a 10-year-old kid I know who ran his fifth of the marathon relay at about 30 seconds a mile faster than I ever ran a single mile on a flat track.


    1. Hmm, I would never suggest to anyone who asked my advice (as one’s own children sometimes do) that they persist in something they were really bad at, must less force them to do so. Take up piano, or painting, or computer programming, or something where you’re in the top ten percent. Admittedly, here in NYC, it would be possible to find almost every activity, for any age, in a way that might not be possible elsewhere.


    2. Yeah, there are some phenomenal little kid runners. My middle kid has recently run a 5k and a 10k, race and there have been some amazing littler kids.

      I think individual sports/events are generally going to involve less humiliation than team sports.


    3. Ugh. I don’t understand that middle class must do a sport thing. If you like sports fine but why not do something you like?

      My sister loved cross country and track. I worked on the school newspaper. To each their own.


      1. How do you know you suck at it if you don’t give it a decent try? Especially if you’re a boy and nobody knows what puberty will do to you. If you wait until you’re 16 to see what kind of strength you have, you’re too late regardless of what testosterone does.


  4. Speaking of grit, our president is saving taxpayer money. During the 80s and 90s, the government paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to Robert Hanssen for him to give secrets to the Russians. Trump eliminated the middle manager role.


  5. I wish I’d have had the opportunity to do a sport. I was awful at many things (a teammate literally looked around the basketball court and wondered why our team had fewer players, once in PE). Now in middle age, I have no memory of being active.

    Potentially, I could have learned to be active, but I was a kid who would have needed structure and some kind skill to be acquired and company to be active. Not someone who would have walked, or hiked on my own.


    1. I ran x-country in high school and x-country and track at my D3 college. In elementary and middle school I was the scrawny kid who was picked last for any team sport in gym, and it was a revelation in high school to realize that I could be good at something athletic. I also enjoyed running, but wasn’t nearly motivated enough to do it on my own, so being made to run was really good for me. After college, I stopped running almost completely. Sometimes I miss being really in shape and take it up but I never stick with it long enough to get good enough to enjoy it again.

      My mother hated tennis lessons as a kid, and so she didn’t make us learn tennis. I really regret that, because I love watching tennis and it looks like tons of fun, but my few times trying to play made me realize how beneficial it would have been taking lessons as a kid.


    2. Now in middle age, I have no memory of being active.

      Middle age isn’t dead. Even around here there are soccer leagues for moms (I have no idea what childless women do) and running clubs and hiking groups. Hiking is good, except for the small risk of getting lost in the woods and starving to death.


    1. I know it’s not the case, but I’m getting a small pleasure thinking that this comment is a reply to MH’s comment about the small risk of getting lost in the woods and starving to death.


      1. I didn’t read the whole story, but I grew up near the Olympic National Park, and there were not infrequent fatalities involving solo hikers who wandered off the trail.

        We did a lot of back country trips (including totally off-trail ones where we’d try to get from point A to point B) when I was a kid and I personally don’t get the concept of solo back country hiking.


      2. …I personally don’t get the concept of solo back country hiking.

        It is true that in a group, you have the Donner Party Option, but that doesn’t guarantee you won’t be the kebob.


      3. MH said:

        “It is true that in a group, you have the Donner Party Option, but that doesn’t guarantee you won’t be the kebob.”

        Occasionally there’s some kind of disaster involving a large party:

        But in practice, I think you usually only get multiple fatalities in a group when there’s unusually bad weather or unexpected conditions, as with the Mount Hood Disaster. I’ve never heard of a large group winding up collectively getting hypothermia and fatalities when there’s no unusual weather, whereas solo hikers wind up dying in perfectly normal conditions.

        Hypothermia is SUCH a big deal where I’m from, even in normal weather.

        “The symptoms to look for in others or yourself are the actions of someone who seems to have been drinking heavily — except they haven’t been. Clumsiness, slurred speech, poor fine motor skills and crankiness are all symptoms of hypothermia.”

        Obviously, it’s easier to watch for this stuff in a companion than to notice it happening to yourself.


      4. I’ve gone on two or three short trips (1 or 2 nights) by myself. I guess there are some risks, but I think that they are still smaller than the risk of accident on the road while driving to the trail. But the country around here isn’t really very empty.


  6. Yeah, there are reasons to do a sport intrinsic to the activity that don’t rest on outside measures of success: exercise, camaraderie, establishing, lifelong good habits, even pushing oneself past previous limits can be really rewarding. (To a point, making someone do something they don’t like is worthwhile, because most activities are drudgery starting out and only get enjoyable with some level of learned skill, which is one of the few places I agree with Amy Chua.)

    Plus, .0001% of runners are going to end up professional or even really make any money off it. From a purely practical perspective, even the top athletes at a high school track meet are doing it as a hobby as much as the slow kid.

    I love singing and playing instruments (violin and erhu). I am middling at all of them, but I do them because playing or makes me happy. I like the sound of my own music, even if I know objectively it’s not all that great. In China, no one could understand why I’d take erhu lessons for two years and not take the national erhu exam. “Don’t you want to know what level you are?” people would ask, and honestly, the answer was no, because the joy I get out of erhu doesn’t come from being a “level 7 erhu” player.


    1. I do agree with encouraging kids to put time into building a skill. But there comes a point where individual interests should be cultivated. By high school I certainly knew what I liked doing. I was pretty good at track but hated the whole sports team culture and never regretted quitting in favor of student journalism and art classes.


      1. Which makes me wonder whether we only regret the things we never did. Which sounds kind of quoteworthy, except that I’m also thinking that if you never did it, you only know the fantasy version, not the reality, and, of course fantasies are always pretty great.

        I am smart enough to realize I would not have been misty Copeland even if I’d stuck with ballet lessons.


      2. I do think kids should have to remain active, even without team sports, and that being active is like learning algebra, something that children should be forced to do, regardless of their interests.


      3. bj said:

        “Which makes me wonder whether we only regret the things we never did. Which sounds kind of quoteworthy, except that I’m also thinking that if you never did it, you only know the fantasy version, not the reality, and, of course fantasies are always pretty great.”



  7. BJ’s comment about kids being active reminds me of some interesting studies from a while back about the success of PE curriculums that focused more on lifetime fitness rather than traditional sports. Specially there was a school in Oakland CA where a school implemented a fitness curriculum in place of teaching team sports, which most students did not participate in. (Lower SES students in that district generally couldn’t afford sports). They saw improvements both in objective fitness levels and in non PE class performance.


    1. We’ve had some issues with those issues, as our kids are tragically bad at team sports and we’ve done as little as we could get away with. (Seriously, it was torture watching C attempt to serve a volleyball.)

      However, C (the 9th grader) has gotten a lot out of yoga in PE and D (the 6th grader) has been getting a lot out of future-adult type fitness activities like running, swimming, and rock climbing.


      1. My high school PE class was sort of sadistic in lots of ways (e.g. lining us up in sports bras in the girls locker rooms to measure our fat with calipers, then announcing the number out loud, and grading us for a letter grade based on our percentiles in the president’s fitness exam), but one thing I appreciated is every unit we had a team sport/individual sport option. So, e.g. lacrosse vs. track, or basketball vs. gymnastics. I managed to avoid the social death that was middle school PE by always choosing the individual sport, some of which I was actually decent at.

        For some reason we did all have to do volley ball (my worst sport ever), but luckily I was on a team with other people who also sucked so we were able to have fun in our terribleness.


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