The random musings of David Beazley, an independent Chicago-area software developer, teacher, and author.

Running a 5K versus Field Day

June 7, 2015

One of the more interesting parts of being a parent is getting to relive parts of your childhood—and as the end of the school year has arrived, I find myself thinking about the joy and misery of my experience with the annual grade school "field day" event.

Yep, that’s me. Look at my special ribbon—for something.

Yes, as a child of the 70s, field day was that one special day of the year where you got to forego the usual grade school activites of tag, dodgeball, and taunting in favor of a highly competitive kiddie version of the decathalon in which everyone got to pretend that they were Caitlyn Jenner at the 1976 Olympics. There was sprinting, throwing, high jumping, long jumping, rope climbing, and of course, everyone’s favorite event—participation. Good thing that participation event-- no matter how badly the whole day would shake out, at least you’d still get to go home with something just for being you.

In any case, I still remember the anticipation of field day each year. My brother and I would sometimes go out in the yard and practice the few events in which we might have a chance of placing—typically high jumping and, of course, participation. Mostly though, my memories of field day are of disappointment. Coming home year after year with no ribbons (except for the aforementioned participation event and occasionally from a group activity such as tug-of-war).

6th Grade Tug-of-War. Preparing me to fight the Soviets probably.

I’m sure the school’s intentions were noble, but if the goal of field day was to instill a love of sport, it failed miserably with me. In later grades, I occasionally remember having to do things like run a 100 yard dash or even a lap around the track-- usually characterized by a lot of side-stitches and shin splints. I hated every second of it. By some stroke of good fortune, my deliverance from PE came in the form of a decision by the school to count marching band as physical activity. Honestly, I never really figured out that whole calculus. Then again, I guess sweating away 5 pounds of body weight in the hot sun watching a football game had to count for something. So be it. I digress.

Flash forward about 40 years and I find my son, now 6 years old, nearing the end of first grade. As an end-of-year activity, his school was going to have him run a 5K. In fact, every kid grades 1-8 runs the 5K. It is not optional. Many of them are joined by their parents. It sounded like a perfect opportunity for me to run a 5K despite never having done so before.

In anticipation of the start

I must admit I was a bit skeptical about the prospects for successful completion of this 5K run. Thinking back on my childhood, I don’t recall running a distance even remotely close to that. Honestly, I wasn’t really sure what was going to transpire. Was the kid going to go out sprinting about 200 yards and then collapse into a kind of whining misery for the remaining 3 miles? Would I have to carry him back home? With six year olds, you just never know sometimes.

Even for myself, this was going to be a challenge. I hated running as a kid and although I’m pretty active with biking, going out and running a 5K with no preparation didn’t seem very feasible (especially in light of my clydesdale non-running computer coder body and the fact that I was also recovering from a broken rib). In fact, I did about 6 weeks of training prior to the 5K day—mostly just running increasing distances around the neighborhood in the early morning hours before I had to take the kids to school.

Running Day

Running day arrives and I find myself in the local park with all of the kids and parents. Each grade is to start the 5K run at staggered times with the first graders leading the whole thing off. The kids gather with their parents in the starting area and the rest of the school gathers in front of them. We’re off and the first graders blast out of the starting area like rockets. The whole school is cheering "Go first grade! Go first grade!" It is amazing.

After the initial excitement of the start wears off, the kids settle into a more steady pace and spread out a bit. I’m running alongside carrying some water. At every turn, people are cheering my child by name and offering high fives as we pass. It is inspiring.

From time to time, we stop to walk a bit and have some water. However, for the most part we continue to run along—often inspired by some fast 2nd graders who pass by and offer encouragement. It is about this point that I’m starting to think about just how awesome this whole experience is compared to "field day." Most field day events are over-and-done in a matter of a few seconds (a long throw, a jump, or whatever) followed by a lot of time standing around to think about how crappy you just did and how you won’t be getting a ribbon once again. Running a 5K is a whole different game altogether. Aside from it being a non-bullshit accomplishment for someone at any age, the kid is out there running nonstop for maybe 30 or 40 minutes. How did the school actually prepare my kid to have the focus and stamina to do this? My mind is blown as we continue to run towards the halfway mark.

We reach the halfway point and the head of the school is there to greet us, give us a special hand stamp and send us on our way back in the direction that we just came. As an out-and-back running route, we’re now passing by all of the older kids as we continue to run. People are offering encouragement all around—especially to the first graders. The pace accelerates a bit as we reach the 30 minute point and the finish line is nearing. The kid is still hanging in there and running along as I’m watching in disbelief.

As the finish line approaches, we’re now being cheered by a crowd of eager kindergarteners who have been watching the whole affair in anticipation of their turn to give it a go next year. We cross the line with a total time of about 39 minutes. "Not too bad" I’m thinking (confession: as part of my training, I ran a non-stop 5K the week before just to see if I could do it—that took 35 minutes).

After the run

Some Thoughts

Running the school 5K with my child easily ranks as one of the most beautiful things I’ve witnessed in my whole life. In fact, I’ll admit that I shed a few quiet tears of joy thinking about it the days that followed.

Many of my thoughts focus on just how awesome the run was on so many levels. There’s the immediate satisfaction of simply having completed it. I didn’t know if I could run a 5K and I certainly had no idea if my kid would do it. Seeing it happen was deeply moving. In preparing for the run, I also realized that running wasn’t nearly as bad as I remember from childhood. Although I don’t see myself running a future marathon, I’ll admit that it felt pretty good to go out there and run a bit in the morning. In fact, I’ve continued to run a bit even though the 5K is over. Involving the parents was a pretty neat move if you ask me and made the whole affair so much more about community than being a mere footrace.

At a deeper level though, so much of school these days seems to be focused on fierce competition. Competition for test scores, for sports, for science fairs, for the arts, and the race to get into the most elite schools. I think the real genius of the 5K was that it was none of that. For the first graders, it was simply a challenge to see if they could complete a non-trivial goal. In the coming grades, the 5K now offers them an opportunity to compete against themselves in a challenge of continuing self-improvement and to offer their support to the younger kids. In the end, maybe that’s the most important lesson they could learn. There’s a lot of wisdom in that.

So, I say let the lame "field day" competition go. Go run a 5K with your kid instead. Better yet, get your kid’s school to do it.