Over the Memorial Day weekend, two of the year’s biggest motor races vividly depicted a sobering reality of life: It’s not how you start, but how you finish.
In the 100th Indianapolis 500, rookie JR Hildebrand seemingly had victory firmly in his grasp. But while passing a lapped car in the final turn of the last lap - checkered flag waving in the distance - Hildebrand’s car lost its grip and slammed into the outside wall, allowing trailing Dan Wheldon to race past for the prestigious victory.
Hildebrand, sliding across the finish line on three wheels, still finished second. But in racing, second place is simply the first loser.
Hours later, in NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600, the circuit’s longest race, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. seemed victorious. However, also on the last turn of the final lap, Earnhardt’s car ran out of gas, allowing Kevin Harvick to get the checkered flag. Five other drivers passed before the Earnhardt vehicle coasted across the finish line.
If racing were a morality play, its moral last Sunday was in your face: It’s not how you start, but how you finish that counts.
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One appeal of sports is they offer a microcosm of many situations we face every day. They model teamwork and cooperation; show the positives and negatives of competition; the rewards of dedication; importance of following the rules, and striving for excellence.
And the value of perseverance: Anyone can start well, but how many people remain in the race to finish well?
Now in my early 60s, I realize more of my earthly life lies behind me than ahead of me, but I’ve not reached the end of my own race. As poet Robert Frost wrote, I have “miles to go before I sleep.” So the challenge before me remains – how well will I finish?
A friend in California that I met 30 years ago recently observed his 91st birthday. Most remarkable about his life is not the decades he’s spanned, nor his continued good health, but his zeal. Bob’s overriding desire is to finish well.
That’s why the apostle Paul’s last words remain so poignant. Exhorting his disciple, Timothy, Paul – who often used athletic metaphors – wrote, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness…” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).
Paul wasn’t boasting. He had witnessed many that began strong but failed to finish. And he had overcome more than his share of obstacles along the way. It seems that knowing he was in his final days, Paul was breathing a sigh of relief, saying, “I see the finish line. I’ve made it!”
My hope is that I – and you – will one day be able to say the same.