Somewhere, in a box buried amid the clutter of accumulated memorabilia, a dented trophy, if I took the time to unearth it, would remind me of the real rewards of competition.
The tiny statue depicts a baseball player in midswing, and the nameplate is inscribed Little League All-Star.
I received it after my last appearance in a team uniform, in which I competed for the last time in the last at bat in the last inning of the last game of the season.
Our team was trailing by one run. The bases were loaded. The two batters before me had struck out.
As my predecessor at the plate trudged back to the dugout dragging his bat, he turned to me and tried to offer encouraging advice about the pitcher.
“You can hit him. He’s sloooo-oow. “
I nodded, adjusted my helmet, and strode to the batter’s box.
The first pitch whistled past, knee high.
“Stee-rike one!” the umpire cried.
I winced, dug in deeper and waggled my bat.
The next pitch seemed outside and I let it go.
A chorus of groans emanated from the dugout. I squeezed the bat in a death grip.
The pitcher wound up, let loose and I swung mightily.
A wild cheer from the rival team followed the next sound, of the ball smacking the catcher’s mitt, and then a pointless bellow from the umpire: “Strike three! You’re out!”
Afterward, the coaches handed out trophies to everybody – even the kid who had struck out with the bases loaded to end the game. While carrying it home I felt as if a giant “L” had been stamped on my forehead.
I kept the trophy on a shelf in my room for a while, but eventually stuck it in a box. Why remind myself, or inform anybody who cared to ask, what I had done to earn it?
I never was that good, anyway, at baseball, basketball, football or any other team sport, and over the years learned to appreciate not only the loneliness of long-distance running but also the elegant simplicity of other individual pursuits: kayaking, mountain-climbing, hiking and camping.
Like most runners my bureau drawers are filled with T-shirts from various races, whose organizers have learned that most participants crave some small reward for competition. The same is true of kayak and canoe races, which I also have competed in regularly over the years with varying degrees of success.
I was awarded my biggest trophy, nearly the size of the Stanley Cup, for coming in second place in a small canoe race on the Pawcatuck River. Never mind there were only a handful of competitors in my division.
My most cherished prizes are the nine medals I earned for completing the 26.2-mile Boston Marathon, finishing each time at least an hour and thousands of places behind the winners.
A couple of weeks ago, loyal readers may recall, my kayaking partner and I won our second consecutive Essex River Race in Essex, Mass., in the tandem division, and those medals are hanging on a wall lamp alongside the Boston Marathon medals and assorted other hardware from other contests.
I guess I’m more vainglorious than my old friend, the late-great Johnny Kelley, former Boston Marathon victor, two-time Olympian and eight-time national marathon champ. I’d visited Kell at his house countless times and don’t ever remember seeing a trophy or medal on display.
Every year my favorite races are 3-mile fun runs at Groton Long Point during May and June, in which I present a bag of sand (the Dreaded Sandbag Award) to the runner who underestimates his time by the greatest margin, and The Around the Island, Anything Goes No Motors Race in Rangeley, Maine, where my family often vacations, that is open to kayaks, canoes, sailboats, windsurfers and any other form of human- or wind-powered vessel.
Nancy Kettle, the longtime race organizer, hands out grab bag prizes to just about everybody who competes. Most often winners receive Gummy Bears.
Up in Rangeley I’ve also run an annual race at a festival to benefit the town library a number of times and one year came in first in my age group at the same time my son, Tom, also won his age division.
After the morning race we walked up to organizers and asked when the awards ceremony would take place.
“Later on,” was all they would say.
We hung around for hours at the park, where ladies displayed homemade quilts and kids engaged in pie-eating contests.
Finally, in late afternoon just when the tents were coming down and tables folded up, an announcer proclaimed over a loudspeaker, “Time for the prizes!”
We scrambled forward.
“In first place, in the quilting competition…”
They awarded about 150 medals and ribbons to quilters, pie-eaters, face-painters and balloon-animal makers, before finally getting to the road race.
“And now, before we go, to all of you who ran the road race this morning, let’s give a big round of applause!”
All right, I admit coveting my trophies and medals, but quite honestly the greatest rewards from years of racing have been the many friendships I’ve formed among fellow competitors.
In every race we greet each other warmly at the starting line, wish ourselves good luck, and then shake hands after that wild sprint to the finish, regardless of who prevailed. At that transcendent moment, a universal truth becomes apparent: We are all winners.