False Start, Back to the Starting Boxes
Track and Cross Country were a large part of my college experience for four years, so competitive running often enters my mind as an analogous explanation for the world around me. Anyone who has seen a Gold Medal sprint during the Summer Olympics—even those who don’t follow track—can understand the tension that builds up as the athletes set themselves in their blocks before the race. The beginning of a sprint is everything. The race can be won or lost right there at the start. Each athlete explodes out of the box using his/her own self as the guide when to do so. This is necessary to a successful finish, but it can also lead to a false start—the quickest way to loose in track. In a false start, all of the energy builds up to the point that a fuse is blown—an athlete takes off early—and the whole event is shut down and re-set. The field decreases by one and the tension builds by ten.
False starts are devastating but decisive in a sprint. I was two meters away from the starting line of the 200m Division III National Indoor Championship when a female athlete got herself disqualified by false start. My brain immediately went to visualizing all of the alternate realities in which this woman won the race as if to make up for the fact that she no longer even had the chance in our own reality. It was cold to imagine all of those possibilities suddenly extinguished. I was struck by how calm the athlete was as she accepted her punishment and left the track. Perhaps she had already accepted—long before the race began—that she lived and died in one single moment.
Maybe I couldn’t understand this athlete’s collectedness because I was a distance runner.
In longer races, there are no false starts. There are rules against them, but I don’t know what they are because I have never seen one happen. A distance runner stands on the line of a big race not in anticipation of the gun but in preparation for the long road ahead of him. The beginning is only of minor consequence, and the faint electricity still present is kept alive not by anxiety but instead by the buzzing questions each athlete is asking himself: “Which of my competitors will go out strong? Who will start conservative? Where do I need to position myself in the pack?” The coaches have strategized answers to these questions beforehand, but they’re long-gone—waiting at the first mile marker for splits—and each runner is left to face the uncertainties on his own.
The beginning of an 8k or 10k college championship does nothing to determine the winner, but it does unleash a frenzy. All of the athletes jockey for position, try to stay alive in the stampede, and attempt to keep pace with their strongest competitors all while fighting to harness and control their energy so that it will be better saved for the middle and end of the race. Runners who keep their wits during this bolt will recognize the valuable information available in the first minute of the race. Those who wish to be aggressive and those who wish to be tactical show themselves, and if you pay attention, you can adjust properly.
The beginning of events like these usually go off without a hitch. Like I said, there are no false starts, but there is another circumstance in which a distance event can be called back to the start. If any runner falls within the first 200m of the course, the whole field is called back without penalty for a re-do. This only happened twice during my career and only once in a race that I competed in.
Getting corralled back to the start line in a cross-country race was the most bewildering moment of my athletic career. I was about one hundred and fifty meters into an 8k when I heard another blast from the starter’s gun. The entire pack was still in a mad flock and nobody wanted to risk slowing down in case their ears had deceived them. The starter fired several more times in succession, and the pace slackened. One fallen runner had warranted the gun, but the mix of tightly bunched legs now decelerating at different rates brought several more people down in a tangle. Back in the box for the second time, there was less anticipation than expectation. Everyone’s strategy was exposed, and everyone’s jitters were gone. It was simply time to start the race and focus on the task at hand.
The start of my second semester teaching in Indonesia begins tomorrow, and I feel like the cross-country runner who has been called back to the boxes to start a race over again. After being dropped off at my school in Banyuwangi, the first semester was a quixotic mixture of expectations and reality. Emotions and workplans got shredded and re-solidified by a blender turned on by the hand of inexperience. I had never taught in Indonesia (I had never taught period), my counterparts had never taught with a foreigner, and most of my students had never spoken to a foreigner. There were tons of questions left unanswered: “Who will be flexible and who will be rigid? What will students respond to? How will I adjust my role accordingly?”
It took almost the whole first semester for answers to a lot of these questions to formulate. I learned who I could trust and who would work with me. I watched lessons fail, and I watched some succeed. A few students came to every English club, and others only came once. The details of what happened last semester—the lesson plans I followed and the vocabulary studied by my students—is less relevant than the total sum of the experience.
Now my feet are wet; I’m back in the box. I’m at the beginning of another semester, but in some ways I’m simply at the beginning. Nothing has changed yet everything is different. The challenges that were present last semester still lie before me, but the whole environment has been illuminated.
Luckily, Peace Corps is not a sprint. It’s an endurance test. Success isn’t measured by the furious pace you set for yourself without regard for the individuals around you. It’s a slow process that requires taking in information and responding to it. Sometimes plans need to be attacked aggressively, but other times they need to be completely thrown out the door. In my case, expectations, visions, and goals for the second semester have been re-evaluated since the beginning of the first semester. Hopefully this new knowledge, gained through five and a half months of experience, will provide the framework for greater success and satisfaction in the next semester.
Good luck on Semester Two ID-5!
Kick ID-4, Kick!