This moment just before the starter’s pistol fires seems to stretch into eternity. Within it, my past efforts and disappointments swirl together with my future hopes and fears. Crouched in my starting blocks with my fingers sizzling on the hot surface of the track, I can’t help but think about how, for months now, I’ve been fixated on a single goal, the same elusive dream. Throughout the entire track and field season, I have been within a breath of beating my school’s record for hurdles: 14.99, a record that has stood firm since 1999, the year I was born, a record I’ve convinced myself I was born to break. Week after exasperating week, I have found myself within three-hundredths of a second from surpassing it. That’s one-third the time it takes to blink an eye. But for me, that infinitesimal interval has become an ocean of time between the continents of Pretty Good and The Best.
I’ve always dreamed of being The Best. Maybe it’s just the lot of a little brother, but I’ve often had the feeling that no matter how hard I try, I’m always coming in just behind someone else. When my coach first pointed out that I was creeping up on the hurdling record, I reluctantly allowed myself to imagine actually beating it. And slowly but surely, I kept creeping closer until I was breathing down its neck. 14.99! The number flashed through my mind even while I slept. Beating it became an obsession, the Daisy to my Gatsby, Moby Dick to my Ahab, Iron Throne to my Mother of Dragons. But the season was winding down. There were only two more chances to beat the record. I’d come so close so many times. I knew that I could do it. But would I?
With a sport like hurdling, in which you train for hours upon hours to compete for a matter of seconds, you have to take a lot on faith. Training is laborious. There’s always discomfort and there’s often pain. You run in the wind, in the rain, and in the sweltering heat. Practice, it turns out, does not always make perfect. And so you try to prepare for everything, all the while knowing that beyond speed and strength and preparation is something that lies completely outside of your control: Luck, Mojo, The Lord of Light—that magical clicking-into-place of things, the feeling of being so effortlessly aligned with the present moment that you feel like a key that’s found its lock.
Usually, though, that’s not the way it goes. Most of the time, even when you commit your deepest, train your longest, and believe your hardest, something is off. You’re tired or injured or you botch your start; it just isn’t your day. But you keep going, reminding yourself over and over again that greatness doesn’t happen in perfect conditions; greatness surpasses conditions.
The pistol fires, and all at once I am in flight. My thoughts and worries evaporate like steam. I have no desires, no expectations, no fears. I am blood and breath and heart and feet.
And then it’s over. The world rushes back in smears of color—people in the stands, my coach and teammates and competitors, my parched lips and damp hair, my goal. I raise my eyes to the scoreboard, and again, time seems to stop: 14.92.
So many of our big achievements happen in such narrow slips of time. But in the end, their value has little to do with breaking records or being The Best, especially since The Best is always a moving target. The value lies in faith, and in those little fragments of time that burst like fireworks in our memory, motivating us to keep going when we feel defeated or despondent or overwhelmed, inspiring us to keep working, keep hoping, keep showing up. Because maybe today is the day you’ll do something amazing.