In the slide show of the first 5K my daughter and I ran together, parents radiate happiness as they cross the finish line with their kids. One mom high-fives her little boy. A dad lets his son cross a few steps before him. Another dad extends his arms while lifting his face to the sky, as if to give thanks for the race’s end while his small son wipes away tears.
It’s three minutes and 42 seconds into the slide show before I see my own 9-year-old daughter, Charlotte, crossing the finish line alone.
I know it’s important that kids do some things by themselves, but I didn’t realize crossing a finish line should be one of them until I see that picture of Charlotte, mid-stride with her ponytail flying, beaming under the inflated arch.
We began the race together, a few rows behind the crush of older elementary school kids who had ditched their parents for their friends — and for the opportunity to put their toes against the starting line. Once the race started and the crowd around us dispersed enough so we could run, I felt Charlotte pull past me in her first few strides. I had to quicken my pace to keep up with her. Before the first mile marker, however, she was breathing hard and had to stop.
“It’s okay,” I told her. “You can walk.”
“I don’t want to walk!”
After a few steps, she starting running again. Before the second mile marker, she was crying, telling me she could not go on.
“Walk,” I begged her, as I slowed to a jog.
This time she did, but only a few steps. The next mile continued in much the same way, her claiming exhaustion, me allowing her to give into it and her ignoring me, finding new bursts of energy that amazed us both. When I spotted the finish line, we were about a quarter mile away. I started sprinting like I always do at the end of a race. Habit, not what was best for my daughter, was behind that decision.
When I saw the picture of Charlotte crossing the finish line alone, I first felt regret. All those other parents have their race photos to remind them and their children of the race they did together. But Charlotte and I have no photographic evidence, just our race bibs and memories.
Was I selfish to choose a fleeting, finish-line high over being part of my daughter’s race finish? Perhaps, but I lucked into the right call.
In many races, especially when I first started running, I felt frustrated with myself. I ran too slow or started too fast or competed with the balloon of self-doubt inflating in my chest. But I finished every race, and I always felt good about myself afterward. Running is a solitary sport, as are its pains and victories. Charlotte and I were together when I thought she needed me, but I couldn’t cross the finish line for her.
After watching the slide show, I asked her how she felt when I left her on the course. She looked at me for a second before answering.
“I thought, I have to get her!”
By leaving my daughter, I made her run faster.
Her favorite photograph in the slide show is not the one of her crossing the finish line by herself.
It’s the one of her wearing a medal. Third place, Girls, Ages 9-10.
Jacqueline Marino is a journalism professor at Kent State University, who also writes about parenting, medicine and culture.