Thanks to a potent cocktail of ignorance and a refusal to accept my own physical decline, I’m currently locked in a nonnegotiable contract that will 100% end in me having to give my 9-year-old son $1,000.
Here’s the short version: Three years ago I told my son I’d give him that amount if he beat me in a footrace. We’ve been racing ever since.
I did this because I thought it was funny. I did this because I’m an idiot. It’s been a journey, and I’ve learned a lot. About being a dad. About what it feels like to realize your body is crumbling into a pile of ashes and dust.
Now for the long version.
The year was 2019. My then 6-year-old son, obsessed with Pokémon cards, was desperately trying to earn money to buy packs from the local Kmart. This clearly presented a learning opportunity of some kind, but my wife and I didn’t know how to proceed. Was he too young for an allowance? Is an allowance even a good idea for kids nowadays? We were unsure.
I had a “moment of clarity.” How about, I suggested, our two sons “earn” money if they set bold targets, struggle and then ultimately achieve them? Any kind of goal was eligible: academic, athletic, artistic. As long as the pursuit pushed boundaries it was worth a reward. It was a system designed to teach resilience, the importance of setting goals, hard work — all that good stuff.
Great idea, my wife agreed. Let’s do it.
We built a roughshod reward system operating on scale. If the task was easily achievable, the reward was lower. At 6 he earned $5, for example, for teaching himself how to spell his favorite word, “dragon.” A month later, after weeks of practice, he earned $20 for landing a backflip on a trampoline. Very impressive, I thought. Magnificent parenting. I’m doing great, sweetie.
But pretty soon my son asked me a question that has haunted me ever since.
“How much if I beat you in a race, Daddy?”
Some context here. My son is fast. He’s always been fast. He learned to walk at 10 months and one month later he could run. Properly run. Friends, neighbors, strangers at the park would comment: “He’s quick isn’t he?” “He’s really coordinated.”
Me, beaming with pride: “He gets it from his daddy.”
More context. I am also fast. At least I was fast. In a childhood filled with impromptu races, I don’t remember losing a sprint once. In high school I became a sports champion after winning the 100 meter, the 200 meter, the high jump and the long jump.
That was a long time ago. I’m 40 now, still in decent shape — albeit less explosive with a bum right knee. But in my imagination I am still that 15-year-old kid, bounding past competitors like a pasty Scottish gazelle.
“Daddy, how much?”
“$1,000,” I replied. “I will give you one thousand dollars if you ever beat me in a race. You’ll never beat me. Ever. I’ll crawl from my death bed to beat you.”
His eyes lit up.
“$1,000?” He whispered, almost to himself, trying to parse this impossible number with childlike wonder. Or calculating how many Pokémon booster packs it would get him.
“That’s right,” I said, again.
“One thousand dollars.”
I thought — hoped, dreamed — he might forget about our little deal. He didn’t forget.
In the meantime, my son also negotiated a race with my wife, his mother. One with slightly lower stakes, $20.
And thank god for that. A month or so later, just before bath time, my son challenged my wife to an official race. She’s not much of a sprinter, but she put up a fight. In the last 10 meters my son dropped the hammer. He cruised to victory. At 6 years old he was the second fastest person in our house.
I’ll never forget what happened afterwards. He took the $20 note from my wife and folded it neatly into his little dinosaur wallet. He turned back and pointed at me with a tiny, determined finger.
We battled regularly over the years, according to a loosely understood set of rules. First, the distance had to be agreed beforehand. Second, it had to be mutually understood that this was a proper-for-real race for the $1,000. He couldn’t employ trickery or dart off without forewarning and claim he beat me. Third, it had to be a sprint. It couldn’t be like a half marathon or something — we’re talking 50 to 100 meters here.
I was 37 years old when I agreed to this deal, still plenty of juice in the glutes. For years I was crushing it. I’d run just ahead, giving him the appearance he was closer than he thought. I wanted him to have something to aim for, a reason to keep pushing himself.
And it worked. My son is skinny and tanned with pistons for legs. He’s absolutely rapid. He lives every second of his life like he’s on Ninja Warrior, his floppy brown hair flapping as he flips from the kitchen to the garden and back again. In some way, I think, this challenge played a part in his development. I remember one day I was coaching his soccer team and he challenged me to a race after training. His teammates joined in. I won, but my son was second by a considerable distance. No one else could keep up with him.
Then, just over a month ago, my son turned 9. I’m not sure how, but he leveled up. We went for a 5-kilometer (3 mile) jog down one of the trails near our house and I noticed a difference. His strides were more purposeful, more coordinated. He seemed able to effortlessly keep a pace he wasn’t capable of before.
I thought nothing of it. We hadn’t raced for over six months. I couldn’t remember the last time he even mentioned the $1,000. I was safe. Nothing to worry about.
Then a week ago, after a kick about on the soccer field, he dropped the bomb.
“Let’s race,” he said.
“For the $1,000?”
“Yeah, for the 1,000 bucks.”
“I’ll smoke you. You know that right?”
“Maybe. But I wanna try.”
We set it up. Serious business. His buddy did the countdown. I decided I wanted to teach him a lesson. I’d go full power, full speed. Show him just how far he was from defeating his old man.
Bang. We were off.
I was sprinting as fast as I could. Normally this meant peeling away from my son with relative ease. Not this time. Halfway through the race I looked back to see how far ahead I was. This time my son wasn’t behind me, he was right alongside me.
Literal nightmare scenario.
When in the good goddamn hell did he get this fast? I tried to accelerate but I couldn’t — I was already blowing a gasket, nothing left in the tank. I went into full panic mode. This little bastard might actually beat me.
In the end, I made it. Barely. In what amounted to a 70-meter sprint, I beat him by maybe half a meter? That was me running at full speed, no mercy.
I looked at my own son in disbelief. How did this happen? He’s just a kid. A 9-year-old kid who almost beat me in a foot race. What the hell happened to me? Was he getting much faster or was I getting slower? It had to be a combination of both.
That’s when I looked down and noticed: He wasn’t wearing any shoes. He’d been running in his bare feet the whole time. My son had almost defeated me in a race without any shoes on.
What would have happened if he’d put his running shoes back on? I don’t know. I don’t wanna know.
On some level I knew this was inevitable. I knew my son would get faster as I got slower. That the lines plotted on this graph would one day cross over, but this race — this infernal race — was pulling at twin blind spots in my parental psyche.
First, the refusal to accept the ravages of age. There’s a difference between knowing your body is slowly decaying and truly understanding it. It’s the reason punch-drunk boxers come out of retirement for “one last fight.” In our minds we’re always at the peak of our powers. In our absolute prime.
Part two of this paradox: It’s almost impossible to really imagine our children growing up, getting older in the same way everyone gets older. In my mind I’m still the same teenager, galloping past everyone at speed. My son, too, is frozen in my imagination. He’ll always be my baby boy, the 6-year-old spending entire weekends teaching himself to backflip on a trampoline.
Everyone is getting older all of the time. This race is a physical manifestation of that grand truth. Yesterday I was rocking my son to sleep in the dead of night, today he almost beat me in a 70-meter sprint. Children are a living, breathing reminder of the passage of time. And our own mortality.
But today, my inevitable defeat feels even more inevitable. I thought I had another couple of years. I probably have a couple of months. Tops.
Now my thoughts are focused on what I’ll do when he wins.
I have to give him the money, right? That seems clear. But do I give him $100 spending cash and put the remaining $900 in some sort of fund he’ll receive when he turns 16? That was my first instinct, but it feels lame. Too much of a “Dad move.”
My second instinct says “just give him the money.” Flat out give him every cent. Let him stuff $1,000 into his tiny dinosaur wallet and let the chips fall where they may. Whether he gives it to charity or blows it on Minecraft skins — it’ll be his choice. Maybe this will be a story he tells his own kids, another one of those “teaching moments.”
Because ultimately all I want is for my son — my wild, speedy little son — to learn to live with the consequences of his own choices.
Just like his dear old dad.