young man running
1ST PLACE || 2020


by Jessica Bender


The sun shines clear with hardly a cloud in the sky to dwarf its glare. It’s a crisp day. I can feel the breeze tousling my hair, whipping it back and forth. If I tried, I’m sure I could hear the call of the birds in nearby trees. But I don’t care, I have one objective. Feet are pounding behind me, people are yelling and screaming, stomping and clapping. I’m leading the pack and I can feel the mass pushing against me, but I surge ahead, adrenalin taking over, egging me on. No slowing down now. Then my eyes lock on the goal: a billowing purple ribbon.

As I near it, I feel a sudden surge of excitement. Off in the distance, I hear my mom scream, “Go, Josh!”

The crowd is growing restless with anticipation. One hundred yards. Fifteen. And then all of a sudden, I see someone next to me. I strive harder, but in the end, he pushes on and crosses the finish line before me.

I jolt awake, breathing hard, my covers are damp with cold sweat. But only one thought slashes through my dreariness. Second.

Impulsively, I glance at the clock in my room. Illuminated red numbers tell me it’s only 3 a.m. Groaning inwardly, I try to fall back asleep, but the thought persists. Second.

It snarls with smug satisfaction. You got second.

On any other occasion, second place would be a huge feat for me. Ecstasy and pure love of the sport would be the order of the day. Yet in those few seconds that the kid was running next to me, I recognized him. Will.

After tossing and turning for hours in a pitiful attempt to fall back asleep, I got up. Dressing and getting ready for the day, I tried to shake the ensuing feeling of gloom. As I plunk down the stairs, I can’t help but think, I could’ve been first.

I slide into one of the barstools at the counter in the kitchen. Mom watched me as she cooked (she’s good at multitasking). I pulled out a bowl from the cupboard and a spoon from the drawer, noting that the spoon wasn’t put away in the proper drawer. While I’m rummaging through the cereal cupboard, Mom broke the silence.

“I’m making black raspberry pancakes,” she announced.

“Oh.” I don’t try to hide my lack of enthusiasm.

“There’s whipped cream in the fridge.”

I heard the smile in her words. When I failed to respond, she put her spatula down. Leaning down, she looked at me curiously.

“Josh, honey, I thought those were your favorite.”

“Mph,” I sigh, looking for a way out. Suddenly I bolted.

“Sorry Mom, I got to go. The bus is here.”

I gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, grabbed a granola bar, slung my backpack over my shoulder, slipped my shoes on, and headed out the door before she can say anything.

As I settle in my seat, I felt a little bad for how I acted with Mom. But soon enough, I set my mind on other things.

School dragged on and I didn’t pay any attention because my mind was elsewhere. I kept drawing and redrawing on a little corner of notebook paper until my fingers cramped.

Beeeeeep! The bell signaling the end of school.

I changed into my gym clothes and met up with the rest of my Cross-Country team. I tried to temper the feelings that surge through me when I see Will. It’s not that I don’t like him, it’s just that he’s better than me. I’ve tried different ways to make me feel less miserable. Pointless justifications like he’s younger, has less to worry about, blah, blah, blah. Maybe I’m just jealous of his confidence. Whatever the reason, I HATE losing to Will. I used to beat him, but now I can’t seem to. It fills me with ungrounded resentment towards him, which I shouldn’t have. I’m constantly in bitter remorse, kicking myself, wishing I could beat Will just one more time—even though deep down I know once will never be enough. Plus, he already qualified for state. Are you kidding me! I’ve tried so hard this whole season, and still haven’t qualified. Not that he brags about it or anything, but every time I see him, I’m hit square in the chest with this feeling of guilt, like I could’ve, should’ve done better. But the feeling goes beyond just seeing Will, it follows me everywhere, a burdensome shadow I can’t escape.

My only consolation is that I’m still able to beat him in practices, but even that’s hard sometimes.

When I return home after practice, I head straight to my room and fling myself on my bed, exhausted. Still, I can’t just lay here sulking. I have homework to do.

I grab the family computer and begin with difficulty. I finished one page of homework and my brain is so dead; I wasn’t attentive in classes today!

As my mind wanders back to Will, I gazed around the room and spotted my bookshelf. Yes, a distraction (my only valid excuse to Mom for not doing my homework right away—reading)! I discovered a huge, old leather-bound book and pulled it off the shelf. I nearly dropped it when a whirl of dust sent me into a coughing fit. Sputtering, I glanced at the cover and recognized it as the Bible my great-aunt Tammi had given me before she died. There are a couple of faded, ancient sticky notes. Intrigued, I flipped the yellowing pages carefully, noting the beautiful illustrations of shepherds, lambs, and crosses. Hardly visible yellow streaks of what must have been highlighter, emphasize verses reading, Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. Proverbs 3: 5-6.

I flipped to the next marked page and read yet another faint highlight. This one proclaims, For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Jeremiah 29: 11.

All my breath released in a whoosh. Those passages really hit home. Now, I know Jesus as my Savior, but somehow these passages shed a different light on things. I couldn’t find the words to describe it.

Suddenly, it hit me. Peace.

At peace is how I felt; and that gave my life a whole new meaning.

Meet after meet, I still lost to Will, but it didn’t hurt as much. The reminders still stung, but it was only a faint pang compared to the joy I had found.

I’m free!

Jessica lives in southeastern Indiana and has seven siblings. She loves running and being active. She enjoys cooking, reading, and spending time with GOD (especially in nature). She hopes to be a missionary.