As teenagers, my two sons and their friend entered a paintball tournament hosted by a local business. Their only experience consisted of backyard woods-ball with their friends, a few paintball party events and some random targeting just for fun. They named their ‘team’, paid a fee, wore matching camo and packed their gear in beat up duffle bags and worn out backpacks.
Tournament day arrived and so did we. We walked from the car to the field through an intimidating midway of canopy tents filled with teams dressed in professional, colorful, matching jerseys. They were unloading some of the most expensive air-ball guns the kids had ever seen. Under their canopies were numerous parts, accessories and tools mostly housed in multi-drawer tool carts you’d find in a well-organized garage. Many had coolers and a few had table-top grills. As we walked, we overheard conversations of their past experiences and victories as well as their boastful confidence for the day’s competition.
There were a few realizations that occurred as we observed everything and everyone. For one, the boys had woods-ball not air-ball guns -which have the advantage of firing faster. They were dressed in camo because that’s what you wear where to hide behind trees and bushes. But this field had no trees. Most of the obstacles were inflated and bright colored. The boys had no canopy tent and their tool kit was a simple assortment of Allen wrenches. We hadn’t thought to bring a cooler but they had some granola bars, Gatorade and money for hotdogs at the snack bar.
Though this tournament took place more than 15 years ago, the memory and the feelings associated with it rolled through my mind last weekend as I challenged myself to participate in a 12 hour ultra-marathon event. My boyfriend, Michael and I tent camped at the event the night before. When daylight broke, I walked from our campsite toward the start/finish area. Runners and their family and friends were already arriving and I found myself walking through another midway of intimidating canopies. I overheard conversations and reminiscing of previous, popular and hard-to-qualify-for races among runners. They spoke of ultra’s of one-hundred miles or more, ultra’s with 7000 feet of elevation, ultra’s in other countries, in deserts, up mountains, through flooded trails, in the dark and among wild night-creatures. I had run a few local 50k’s (rather slowly) but experienced nothing like what I had overheard.
My J.C. Penny running shorts happen to match a hand-me-down shirt from a friend and I felt pretty comfortable though I admit I was a little envious of some of the other runner’s clothing. I carried my Publix shopping bag with extra socks, my older trail shoes I planned to rotate with the newer ones I had on, a bag of pretzels, some Swedish fish and a pair of flip- flops for post race. I had rehearsed a few mantras to help me persevere through the day but the only thing I could think of now was “what the %#@! are you doing here, Polly?” And an overwhelming sense of insignificance and inferiority momentarily stole my hope along with whatever confidence I thought I had.
I made it to the aid-station where Michael was volunteering and an enthusiastic friend asked me how I was feeling. I couldn’t stop my bottom lip from quivering but I managed to stifle the tears and making close eye contact with her I admitted my overwhelming sense of insignificance. I don’t think she was expecting that answer. She admitted her own anxiousness and reassured my heart with some kind words I obviously needed at the time and wish I could remember now.
The paintball tournament lasted most of the day. The boys were actually holding their own for much of the competition but eventually the process of elimination caught up with them. They had fun, made some great memories and most importantly, persevered without allowing the trap of comparison hinder their confidence.
It’s interesting how certain experiences, memories and lessons will surface when confronted with similar situations. When the air horn was fired and the race began I deliberately made a choice. Instead of allowing insignificant feelings dominate my thoughts, I decided to be thankful. Thankful for the opportunity to be a participant, thankful for a healthy body, for my best friend, Michael, being there with me, for the beauty of the trail, for the friends I’ve made in the running community and how privileged I was to actually mingle with runners who’ve experienced amazing races all over the world. Twelve hours later I finished what I had started with 43.2 miles behind me.
The boys had dreams of winning the tournament. I had a dream of 50 miles. Neither came true. Though the lesson is simple, it bears repeating. That is, success is not necessarily measured in dreams fulfilled, rather in the journey attempting to reach them.