By Mike Tenbusch | July 09, 2020
On a frigid, November morning in 1984, butterflies swarmed through my stomach as I lined up with 80 other boys in nylon shorts and tank tops waiting for the gun to sound and the Cross Country State Championship race to begin. I was only a sophomore at the time, and this was my first time running at States. My best friend was lined up next to me. He was a senior who had been here before, and he must have sensed my fears. “Don’t worry,” Kev said, “Just run your race, and attack the hills.”
Kev and I had been running together since his family moved into our block when I was six. Our block, street, and neighborhood in Detroit was almost exclusively white at that time, and Kevin was one of the first to integrate it, just as he had integrated his own family eight years earlier as a trans-racial adoptee born a few weeks after Detroit’s Riots in 1967. We quickly became inseparable, a short, African-American kid and a tall, skinny white kid, seemingly oblivious to the world around us, as most people who looked like me moved out and more people who looked like Kev moved in over the next ten years.
CRACK! The gun went off, and I suddenly found out what it felt like to be in a stampede. Adrenaline surged through my veins as every runner around me sprinted faster and farther than anything I had ever experienced. By the half mile mark, Kev and I were in a comfortable groove, together, but all by ourselves at the very end of the pack with 2.6 miles left to go. I was starting to freak out again. I had never been in last before.
“Don’t worry, man” Kev assured me. “Just run your race.”
Kev and I were used to running our race. Detroit was a city of a million people back then, and I’m pretty sure we were the only two kids from Detroit to make it to States that year. We used to train together every summer, running Outer Drive from our home near Six Mile up to Schaefer and back. When we ran alone, we were vulnerable. Young kids called me honkey and older kids wanted to fight him. Stray dogs and reckless drivers always seemed a bigger issue when we ran alone. But when we ran together, we were invincible.
“FIVE-FOURTEEN, FIVE-FIFTEEN…!” our coaches shouted as we passed the mile mark. I was well ahead of my usual pace but Kev and I were still by ourselves—in last place.
“All right, let’s go get these guys!” Kev said, as he put his pace in a whole ‘nother gear.
“I’m good.” I said. “Go get ‘em,” slightly slowing my pace as I said it.
The picture below was taken about a minute after that. You can see Kevin merging through the back of the pack. He kept going faster and took second that year, narrowly missing winning the state championship. I kept trying not to go slower and placed 41st that year, the worst I’d ever finished.
The thing is, I ran my race. I kept doing that the following year, after Kev had graduated. I was by myself but his advice stuck with me—Run your race and attack the hills—and it carried me to a 12th place finish and the coveted All State honors that came with it.
I hear Kevin’s voice a lot these days. In my own journey to thrive in the quarantine, I’ve begun running for the first time in years in hilly woods near my home. My mile pace is shockingly less than it used to be, but I keep going. I run my race. And no matter how I feel, how tired I am or how much it hurts, I attack every hill on my run.
I’m sharing this story and this message with you in hopes that it stirs your spirit for wherever you are in your own journey right now, and particularly for the times we face as a nation.
Run your race may mean to cut yourself some slack, or it may mean that it’s time for you to surge. We have to protect our spiritual and mental health with such uncertainty surrounding us each day. Take time to hear from the Lord the pace that you should be setting, regardless of the sounds and sights of people running all around you.
And attack the hills! These times, and our nation, need each of us to do more and to be more than we have in the past. Simply going back to work isolated and alone in your basement each day may be your hill, or it could be the daily stress of being a person of color in a world seemingly determined to defend itself against your experiences. I pray that Kevin’s advice and the Spirt of the Lord gives you the encouragement to keep fighting, keep forgiving and keep moving forward to get over the hills in your life, and to enjoy the relief that comes with getting to the other side.
Kev (kneeling) with me and friends from Detroit Benedictine High School after our race in 1984.
P.S. Kev has written a fascinating book about his experience growing up as a Black child in a white family in a Black city in a white world. He now works with groups across the nation helping them grow cultural intelligence and understanding.
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