My son has always been a great athlete, and while I admit I brag about this, it really is true. The problem is, I have yet to find a sport that he will stick with. Each time I enroll him in an organized sport, he gets bored with it mid-season. I wondered if he would do better with something that’s more independent, like long-distance running, so I signed him up for a 5K race, a benefit for Hopecam.
The Hopecam non-profit, based in Reston, Virginia, provides children with cancer who are homebound or hospitalized with technology, in the form of Internet access, webcams, tablets or laptops, to help them stay in touch with their families and friends while they are separated. My company, Vibrent Health, happened to be the title sponsor of the event, which fell on the same day that Vibrent was celebrating the launch of All of Us Research Program, the most ambitious health data collection research in history, for which my company serves as the Participant Technology Systems Center. It was an exciting day for me in many ways, professionally and personally, and I wanted my son to do his best on his first 5K.
My son is a competitive boy, and being his first running race, I did not expect him to break any records, but I didn’t want him to be the last to finish, or else I worried he would never want to try it again. So I gave him all the advantages of a good meal and a good night’s rest the night before. Since the race began early, and we live about an hour away from the race start a office building plaza in Reston, we checked into the Westin Reston Heights, less than two miles from the race location.
We got a fabulous suite with not one but two big screen TVs, so I was easily able to convince my son that we should stay in for a quiet night in the hotel, and an early bedtime. He was out by 9 PM and I followed shortly after. We got up bright and early and checked out of the hotel by 6:30 AM, and we’re on our way to the race. My son felt good about getting plenty of rest, and it was a good thing he had a good meal the night before because, as is his habit, he did not want to eat breakfast, despite my protestations that he needed some fuel for the race.
When we got to the event, the organizers were just putting out some fresh fruit and registering all of the participants. Stephen’s donned his fluorescent lime-green Hopecam 5K shirt, and he proudly pinned on his first race number, 436. He was too excited to sit still, so he hit the bounce house, where a crowd of onlookers gathered, watching him jump six feet and effortlessly perform endless front and backflips. Like I said, he is an amazing athlete. I advised him to save his strength and get some fruit or a cereal bar in his stomach, but he kept jumping joyfully, unworried that he would ever run out of energy.
Right before the race began, when all the competitors were lining up, my son decided he had to go to the restroom. Despite my efforts to get us there early so he could relax and prepare himself mentally, now he was a frantic. He rushed off to take care of business, then got back just as the race began. The sea of runners in their florescent green shirts were crowded together at the starting line. Like a slow-motion break of billiard balls, they slowly began to spread out and run, with my son bringing up the rear. He finally crossed the starting line, at least a minute behind the first wave or runners.
Once free of the crowd, he quickly ran ahead of the pack. Some of the seasoned runners saw him charging ahead and gave him some friendly advice, “Pace yourself.” But this boy didn’t think he would ever run out of steam, so he just kept booking at full speed, passing one sprinting green shirt after another.
Since I was helping out at my company’s booth, I wasn’t able to run in the race myself, but I could cheer on my co-workers and my son from the sidelines. About 10 minutes into the race, I I got in my car with an associate and we drove to the last quarter-mile of the race where we waited for the runners to go by, and that’s when I saw the small runner, dwarfed by the grown men flanking him, who was my son.
I quickly grabbed my camera and snapped a couple photos as he ran by. While I cheered him on, what I saw on his face was agony. He was gasping for air audibly and clearly exhausted, but he did not miss a stride. He plowed on, barely acknowledging me. He was in the zone. All of the runners following him and the few runners ahead of him were adults who appeared to be very fit and experienced runners. I was proud but worried about my little boy. He was trying his very hardest, which is something I always encourage him to do, but in this case, he was physically pushing himself to the limits, and I could see the pain in his gate and his face.
As quickly as I could, I made my way to the end of the race, to see how my son had fared. When I arrived, I saw him sitting on the grass with a friend of mine who had been waiting for him at the finish line, and she was comforting him. Breathlessly he informed me he had just thrown up, all over his arm. He was soaking wet, from sweat and because he had dumped a bottle water on his head. He had truly giving it his all, including what little was in his stomach
He seemed dazed, not able to understand my questions to him about how he felt. He held up one finger like he needed a minute before he could speak, but then he just sat there holding up his finger in silence, looking straight ahead, mouth open, body slouched. I rubbed his arms and shoulder and patted his head telling him how proud I was that he had tried so hard. I told him no matter how long it took him to finish the race, the most important thing was that he had tried his hardest and done his best.
After about five minutes he started to perk up a little. By now the DJ had cranked up the music, and the atmosphere was getting lively and festive and more runners arrived and reunited with their families. The DJ cut the music momentarily and called out for number 436 to report to the registration tent. Wait a minute! That was my son’s number! We went to the table, where one of the organizers asked my son’s name and age, and then she said, “You may or may not be a winner. We still have to get all the runners’ times, but you did well.”
We retreated into the crowd enjoying the music and atmosphere, and then the emcee said it was time for the awards presentation. My company’s CEO, Praduman Jain, known as “PJ” to co-workers and friends, lead off the presentation ceremony with an inspiring speech about how health research and precision medicine is helping to changing how diseases like cancer are managed – with treatments specific to individuals, instead of the same treatment for everyone – and he talked about the promise of digital health data providing answers that will accelerate discoveries in the future.
It was a wonderful introduction to a young boy, a third grader from Centreville, Virginia, named Fletcher, who was being treated for a brain tumor at St. Jude’s Hospital for Children. Fletcher took the stage in his wheelchair, with his face painted colorfully, and a smile that showed he was clearly enjoying the festivities.
My son looked closely at Fletcher. It was not because he was staring at a boy in wheelchair, but because my son is a highly sensitive soul. Since his kindergarten days, he has always looked out for other kids, something his teachers have remarked on, “that can’t be taught.“ He looked at me and looked at Fletcher, and I know he was wishing that boy could get up and run and play with him. It
I had brought along a gift bag for Fletcher, filled with trinkets from my company, and I had handed it to Stephen and asked him to give it to Fletcher, when we found the right time. Stephen had the bag in his hand as we sat watching Fletcher and the founder of the race, Len Forkas, announcing that the race had helped raise funds for Hopecam to the tune of $53,500! The event had been a great success!
It was time for the medals to be handed out, and the first one was for the kids. For boys, 11 and under, with a time of 24:02, the winner was number 436, Stephen Brown!
I tapped Stephen on the shoulder, because he still couldn’t believe they had called his name. They wanted him to come to the front of the stage. Len held a medal hanging on an orange ribbon, but instead of walking to get his medal, Stephen crossed the stage and handed the gift in his hand to Fletcher. It was finally the right time. Fletcher took the gift and smiled. The people in the audience let out a collective”awww.” Stephen and Fletcher exchanged a few words and smiles.
Stephen then walked from the stage, forgetting his medal. Len and PJ called him over, and he stood holding his medal while I took a photo. It was a proud moment for me as a mother, for many reasons.
Stephen won the race for his age group, and that was a wonderful accomplishment, but more than that, I was proud of him for putting his heart and soul into something, for doing his best, and I was most proud of him for being himself and for being a child who feels deeply about the well-being of other children and other people.
For him there was no crowd of hundreds of people, which might be intimidating to a 10-year-old boy. There was just him and another little boy, a year younger than him, who he knew could be him or any other child, who just had the bad luck of getting cancer. I told Stephen before the race why we were participating. I explained to him how Hopecam helps children not feel so far away and alone from family, friends and classmates during a tough time in their lives. He asked a few times, if us being there was going to help the children, and I told him yes, and that seemed to make him even more determined to do his best in the race.
It was a gratifying day for me. My son may have found a sport that he shows promise in — and he just might stick to it; but more than all that, it was one of those days when my son shows me what he is made of, inside and out, and that is what made me most proud.