Where the Winner Finishes Last

Sheryl Rosen, May 31, 2016

They were a swarm of women, matching in their frayed, grey T-shirts.  They huddled around Michelle, the slowest runner in the 10K race, willing her the final quarter mile.  It was one more lap around a field they have all lapped a thousand times – in summer, then winter, then summer again. 

The field is plain and flat.  A royal blue, three-lane track hugs the edge.  Beyond it stand two high fences crowned with curlicues of shiny, silver razor wire.  Beyond that, the perimeter guard in his pickup truck has paused his own endless circling. 

An hour earlier, race morning began much like any in the outside world. The runners chattered with a whiff of nervousness, wondering aloud whether they ate too much for breakfast or got enough sleep.  They affixed their “Seriously Strong” race bibs supplied by GWTC to their clothes and stretched their hamstrings.  GWTC volunteers assembled the race clock and finish chute. 

Soon the women were called to the start.  Then the starting commands were given, and they did what now came naturally.  They were runners.  They had earned that title now.  They knew the value of working mile by mile toward a positive goal – one that, before prison, many never thought they would reach. 

Within the first two miles, Jennifer had gapped the field.  She finished the 25-lap course with an unassailable lead, her first win after completing perhaps 10 previous races on the compound with her quiet strength.

After nearly everyone else had finished, a benevolent conspiracy washed over several women debriefing at the finish line.  They were going to run the last lap with the slowest runner Michelle, and they had recruited every other runner to join the effort.  They soon had engulfed her and met her pace.  As they all rounded the final bend, the group spilled out beyond the confines of the narrow track, a solid wall of sound.  Someone took Michelle’s hand and raised it to the uncaged sky as she shuffled across the finish line.

It was a rare moment when the students became the teachers.  A small group of volunteers from GWTC has been visiting the Gadsden Correctional Facility, where the prison’s own running club has trained for about three races a year since 2012.  Watching the whole field of runners join in that final lap was as pure a showing of sportsmanship and camaraderie as any we had seen.  As volunteers, we came to teach them about fitness and perseverance.  This time, we were the ones gleaning wisdom from a place where the loser is as celebrated for her tenacity as the winner is for her skill.  May we all follow that example.