Britta Gustafson: Knowing when the race is done |

Britta Gustafson: Knowing when the race is done

We can’t let our pandemic guard down while we’re still in the race.

Britta Gustafson
Then Again

The cool baton slammed into my outstretched hand, and all that nervous energy I had been collecting from the starting line fused with a jolt, propelling me almost against my will. I was off, the third runner in the 400-yard relay for the Aspen Skiers at a track meet in Hotchkiss.

Without thinking about pacing, I sprinted around the first curve in the track. I had trained for this race all season, but had not yet had the opportunity to compete until now.

The excitement already a blurry streak behind me, I focused on the second 100-yard straight. Astonished at finding myself ahead of the pack, I discovered a second gear and shifted into a pace I was definitely unaware that I could access.

All silence, exhaling with each pounding stride, the baton clenched in my pumping hand, I kept it up rounding the second corner. I was going to seize this moment.

As the team’s manager, I had trained with my friends all season but had chosen not to compete. It wasn’t until the relay team came up one runner short in the second to last meet that I was asked to step in. I didn’t want to let them down. Here I was, taking the lead. No one had expected this, least of all me.

Rounding the final corner, the track lines began to blur. I could almost see my heart pounding, but I was in the home stretch, and winning! Struggling to fill my lungs with breath that I didn’t have, pushing my wobbly legs to their limits, motivated by shock and adrenaline, my stamina accelerated by sheer awe, I pushed on. Could I really be ahead, winning?

For a few moments while my body was running, my mind felt detached. I heard my coach, her arms waving wildly, and I saw the look of amazement and surprise on her face as I raced into the final 50 yards.

From my foggy periphery I still appeared to be in the lead. The silhouette of my teammate was just ahead, jumping and screaming, her hand outstretched to receive the baton. I could feel the victory, exhaled with relief and …

And then, there was the sky. Blinking, I saw its bright blue color come into focus as my coach looked down at me. Was I in the grass? Didn’t I win? My hands were bleeding. My concerned teammates surrounded me.

I’d crashed and burned in the home stretch. Completely passed out, pushed beyond my limits.

The disappointment was all mine. Everyone — my coach, teammates, onlookers — cheered my efforts with their best sportsmanship and applauded my reckless abandonment.

But I hadn’t paced myself; and my assumption that I had made it to the end allowed for that one misstep that took me, and the rest of my team, out of the race. Had I not selfishly tried to stay in the lead we could have placed, maybe even in the top three. Maybe first, if my lap had secured enough of a lead for the final runner.

There is a permanent scar on my right palm where the asphalt had torn the flesh right off of my hand as I had skidded into the crash-landing that closed the chapter on my high school sprinting days. It’s a constant reminder that pacing yourself is part of the journey, and that we each play our part on the team.

Now, when I look at my hand and think about what this past year has been about, I mask up and evade the temptation to let my guard down.

Because here we are, one year into a global pandemic that has felt like a marathon of wills. And that blurry finish line seems to be coming into focus. We made it this far, perhaps not without accumulating some permanent scars and experiencing some painful, life-altering losses.

But now is not yet the time to celebrate a win, because we could still crash and burn.

We have all been running our part in this relay. And yes, there is a sense of having each done our part to the best of our ability. But as the spring starts to flirt with our longing to re-emerge from a year of struggles, and even as hope seems to be sprouting out from a darkness that we had never before explored, it’s still prudent to bear in mind that we have not yet won.

Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind. After all, if we always agree, what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at

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