I’m standing at the finish line, my arm lined with medals. All the 5K and 10K medals have been awarded. It’s only half-marathoners crossing the line now.
After the runners cross they go through with their various ways of recuperating- stretching on the grass, re-hydrating, getting a massage. Many of them come back around and wait at the finish line, or line the sides of the last 30 feet of the the run. Cheering erupts as people see their friends and family, and the crowd goes wild when two runners practically carry an older man across the finish line. One man swoons across the line, weaving back and forth and finally catching himself on the rail well past where most people stopped. I see a woman crawling, literally crawling, through the crowd after she received her medal and bottle of water. There’s a lady stung by a bee on the lip as she ran, a limping woman whose husband informs the crowd she has a fractured leg, and the young runner boasting he’s only eleven-years-old. I could hardly contain my own emotions when a woman pants across the line and promptly bursts into tears.
There is so much excitement and relief and sweat. It’s exhilarating.
As the top honors are handed out, best performers for each age group, gender, and distance, people continue to steadily trickle past the finish line. The cheers for the winners drown out the cheers for the people finishing the run.
And then people start to leave. Within half-an-hour probably seventy-five percent of the small island we’re on has emptied. I’m told about eighty people are still expected to finish. My fellow staff are all called to clean-up projects and I’m left alone, staring down an empty lane, waiting.
Tables are being set down, canopies folded away. Event staff scan the grass for abandoned water bottles and garbage.
I wait. Every ten to fifteen minutes someone crosses and by now I’m the only one cheering. I clap and yell “YEAH!” and call out “Good job!” and “Congratulations” as I hand them their medal and water bottle. One chipper couple assures me the only running they did was that last ten second sprint across the finish line. A few people are limping from the minute I set my eyes on them, all the way to the medical tent.
Then I’m waiting twenty minutes, and thirty. A young man with Down Syndrome finishes fourth from last and his mom proudly informs me it’s the first race he hasn’t finished last, but all I can think is what a dedicated and determined fellow he is to have completed any run, much less multiple runs. He’s run more in his young life than I have in mine.
Then I start thinking (because I’m a bereaved mom and my experiences make it impossible for me to see this as just a run) about how Aiden started his life at a sprint- how most of us do- but a tumor in his brain tripped him up. I watched his run slow to a limping walk and, over the course of eleven months, turn to a slow scooting on his bottom, and then I carried him until he had to stop. I carried him to my room and he stopped right there, in the middle of my bed.
I saw these last runners and no one was cheering them despite them never giving up. They didn’t have strength and speed; they didn’t get accolades though they overcame more obstacles than the rest. I wondered if my lone clapping and cheering sounded flat on their ears, if the music echoing in the near-empty space around them was louder than the sense of accomplishment they had.
I started thinking, as I sat and waited on a pack of unopened water bottles, how we belong to a gloriously backwards kingdom where the last is first. In God’s order of things, those stragglers at the end march right onto the elevated boxes and everyone cheers them. The one lagging behind despite pushing forward steadily doesn’t run alone before crossing the finish line with a single lady clapping hollowly; he runs the entire race with a great cloud of witnesses at every turn and when he finishes he doesn’t get a cheap medal, he gets a crown and the arms of his Father God wrapped around him. “Well done. You were faithful. You plugged away and completed the race. Welcome home.”
I hope there are media rooms in Heaven. I want to see that moment when Aiden stopped on my side, and burst through the veil at full speed on the other. Ain’t no grave gonna hold him down.