Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland
Back in 1997, I attended a daylong seminar on mentoring. The things I learned at this event had a big impact on my thinking and my life — and are among the key experiences that cultivated my interest in aging, especially in how we think about and achieve successful aging.
The seminar concluded with an after-dinner program, where the speaker was the late Howard Hendricks (1924-2013). Hendricks, a longtime professor at Dallas Theological Seminary and author of nearly 20 widely-read books, was also former chaplain of the Dallas Cowboys.
Hendricks was a pioneer thinker in many areas, including aging. As far back as the early 1990s, when the first baby boomers were more than a decade from retirement, Hendricks was among the first to write about “finishing well,” a topic he addressed that evening in Denver.
He began his talk with a story about marathoner John Stephen Akhwari.
The scene is the 1968 Olympics. It was 7 p.m. Oct. 28. Only a few thousand spectators remained in Mexico City’s vast new Olympic stadium.
More than an hour earlier, Mamo Wolde, of Ethiopia, crossed the finish line, winning the 26-mile event — by some accounts, looking as fresh as when he started the race.
As the remaining spectators prepared to leave, sounds of police sirens and whistles filled the air. As they grew louder, all eyes turned to the stadium gate.
There, coming through the gate, was a lone figure wearing No. 36 and the colors of Tanzania. His name: John Stephen Akhwari.
Akhwari was the last man to finish the marathon. He had fallen early in the race, suffering severe injuries to his knees and ankle. When medics came by to pick him up, he waived them off as he wrapped his injured leg with a torn T-shirt.
Now, with his leg still bloodied and bandaged, he entered the stadium to begin his last lap around the 400-meter track, grimacing in pain with each hobbling step. The remaining spectators rose at the sight of this staggering man showing remarkable determination and an indomitable spirit.
Applause cascaded around the stadium, filling the air with the encouragement of spectators, athletes and coaches. Even the media joined in to honor the courage and perseverance of this determined young man from Tanzania.
After crossing the finish line, Akhwari slowly walked off the field. Reporters rushed up, surrounding him. The first asked the question on everyone’s mind: “Why did you keep running after you were so badly injured?”
His reply: “My country did not send me 9,000 miles to start the race. They sent me 9,000 miles to finish it.”
There were many victors that day in Mexico City. But more people remember Akhwari (and watch his finish on YouTube) than Mamo Wolde, the winner whose name is in the record books.
The lesson according to Hendricks: The way you run the race and how you finish are just as important as where you finish. And finishing well in life, as in sports, often depends on how you played the game.
Think of the NBA. The fact is that more than 80 percent of NBA basketball games are decided in the last five minutes of play, provided teams are divided by 8 points or less.
Think of a long-distance bicycle race in a high-banked oval track called a velodrome. You don’t see a lot of this on TV because, well, it’s boring. But if you were to watch, you would see the bike racers ride slowly around the track, jockeying for position, sometimes for 8 to 10 laps — and then with only one or two laps to go, they sprint to the finish. It is a sport about how you finish.
Think of NASCAR, which we do see a lot of on TV. Even though NASCAR racing machines speed around the track at speeds exceeding 200 mph, each finish, after 250 or 500 miles, is measured in seconds and sometimes even in tenths of a second — despite all kinds of hazards that slow things down and interruptions to change tires, refuel and make repairs and adjustments,
Think of checkers and chess. In the early periods of the game, the board is covered with pieces. Players make their ploys and gambits, sacrifice pieces for gain or position as the game goes on. Then comes the later stages, when the sacrificial moves have been made and you have positioned yourself for the final moves. That’s when the game gets really interesting. It’s how you execute your finishing strategy that makes you a champion. The purpose, again, is to finish well.
But when it comes to the game of life, our culture only gets part of the story. We invest heavily in young people and rightfully so. We raise them up, educating them and giving them a good start in life. We encourage their passage into and through the world of work where people use their gifts to earn a living, help others and improve the world.
And then — just when they’re at the top of their game, at the very moment in life that they are flush with knowledge, wisdom and skills — they are encouraged by the culture to shut down, go on hold, retire.
Encouraging people to go on hold doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Instead why not expand choices for seniors in the workplace and in the volunteer sector? When we do that, those who choose to continue to use their knowledge, wisdom and skills will have fulfilling options in a purpose-driven environment.
As a society, we will better recognize that people are, in the words of Julian Simon, “the ultimate resource.” We still have a way to go.