1987 was a good year. Taylor Swift would argue 1984 was solid, but 1987 was right up there for me.
For starters, I was selected to run the 5000 metres for Western Australia in the National Track and Field Championships. This was good – it was my representative debut on the track. Better still, the 1987 National Champs were at Perry Lakes – local soil.
It was also my last race as a junior at a national level, and I was keen to make a big dent in a strong field.
I’d been training the house down and felt like I’d peaked right on time. The race even had a 4:50 pm start – always a good thing when you’re spending twelve and a half laps on the track on a potentially hot October day.
It was strange driving to a Nationals in my own car, I’d been more accustomed to arriving by team bus.
I was living with my parents in Winthrop – a 20 minute drive away. Overseas at the time, they’d sent me a telegram earlier in the day (yep, it was 1987!).
I headed to the track at 2:45 pm. That seems early, but when you’re required to check in with officials an hour before the race, it seemed conservatively appropriate.
As I headed over Mount Henry Bridge, traffic slowed. A lot. It was impossible to see why, but it was pretty much at a standstill. As 3 pm rolled by, my departure time suddenly didn’t seem so conservative. I was stationary, yet to reach Canning Bridge.
Minutes ticked by with the occasional one or two car length shuffle. It turned out that there’d been a big accident on the Narrows Bridge, but I wouldn’t know that for a while yet; the Narrows seemed an eternity away.
Finally, we began to heave forward. I crossed the Narrows just after 3:30 pm. Checking in by 3:50 pm seemed tight but possible.
If it were mid-morning, it would have made for plain sailing through Subiaco, but in the decade of the long lunch and the early Friday knock-off, it meant heavy traffic. I crawled through Subiaco.
I parked the car at 3:52 pm and ran to the registration area, puffing my way in there at 3:54pm…four deep in the line to register.
“I’m checking in for the Men’s Under 20 5000 metres,” I blurted breathlessly.
“Sorry, you’ve missed the cut-off, you’re too late,” they replied, dispassionately.
“You don’t understand; I got stuck in traffic…there was an accident on the Narrows Bridge…I left with plenty of time…”
They were unmoved.
“Please,” I pleaded, “I know it’s meant to be 3:50 pm and I’ve missed the cut-off by 5 minutes, but I gave myself more than an hour to make a 20-minute journey. There was an accident. There was nothing I could do.”
To ease my angst (or stop me talking) another official cut in and said: “You just go and warm up, Simon, we’ll see what we can do.”
I headed for the warm up track, confident that all would be well.
It’s pretty common to feel sluggish as you’re warming up before a race. When I was younger still, I’d be discouraged by this and think ‘oh crap, this race will be ordinary – my legs feel tired’. I’d learned to doubt that sluggish feeling, realising it has little bearing on the race you’re about to run (unless you allow it to).
But this was not one of those days.
With each warm up lap, I felt stronger. I swapped my training shoes for my racing shoes – it only made me feel better.
I moved into the main stadium for some last stride-throughs. Normally the Fremantle Doctor blew hard down the home straight at Perry Lakes. Not on this afternoon. It was still. As I was running my final stride-throughs, I felt like I was running out of my skin.
A 5000-metre race starts diagonally opposite the finish line. Timekeepers and officials are stationed at the finish line while the starter does their thing at the 200-metre mark.
The starter began.
“Men’s Under 20, 5000 meters to your start,” he commanded.
“On your marks,” he called, as we all crouched down.
As we crouched, awaiting the gun, I heard a voice in the distance yelling “wait, hold up, wait”. The voice was getting louder, carrying across the infield. It was an un-mercy dash from the start/finish line.
The official went straight to the starter and said something to him. Us runners, still crouched in anticipation of the gun were told ‘stand up, gentlemen’.
The starter then called out “Race Number 1069, Western Australia, please step off the track”.
I looked down forlornly, knowing it was my number, desperately hoping that it wasn’t.
He called again impatiently: “Race Number 1069, Western Australia, please step off the track”.
I stepped off.
Immediately, he called: “Men, on your marks”. The gun fired.
I stood, dumbfounded and devastated as I watched the runners disappear around the top bend.
The explanation from the official was perfunctory at best. “You were late for check in,” he said while walking away, seemingly peeved that I’d been the cause of his dash across the infield.
I still remember the entry in my running diary for that day. Four words: “Well, I didn’t run”.
An accident had caused a traffic jam which had caused me to be five minutes late for checking in, which had cost me a race in the Nationals, and probably the most breathtaking, PB-destroying effort anyone had ever witnessed! Probably.
Was it fair? Well, the law said that I deserved disqualification. The law said ‘check in 60 minutes before your event’. Yes, I deserved to be disqualified.
Mercy would have stopped me receiving what I deserved. I deserved disqualification, mercy would have let me race. Mercy would have waived the law so that I didn’t receive the punishment that justice demanded.
This is mercy. The withholding of the consequences of my law breaking. It’s not getting the punishment you deserved.
Then there’s grace.
Grace would have given me something I didn’t deserve whatsoever. It would have given me the gold medal even though I didn’t earn my place in the race (admittedly, a grace of the cheap kind). It would have run the race for me and handed me the medal that He’d won on my behalf. And it would have been all about the giver of that gold medal rather than me.
What I deserved was a disqualification. What I’d hoped for was mercy. But grace is something higher still.
John’s Gospel tells us that when God puts on skin to be with us in the person of Jesus, He comes ‘full of grace and truth’.
He doesn’t pretend that I wasn’t late or that I haven’t sinned prolifically through what I have and haven’t done. To make that pretence wouldn’t be truth. He does something altogether better. With the perfect light of His truth exposing the reality of my ‘helpless estate’, He pours out grace through the shedding of His blood.
How macabre and glorious.
He knows what we need most for life and more life, so He gives us himself. This is grace. It has nothing to do with karma. Karma connects with law; grace transcends it in the person of Jesus. It acts towards me undeservedly not because of who I am, but because of who He is. There’s a price, but the price which I could never pay is paid for me, not by me.
On that afternoon in 1987, I received neither mercy or grace.
The good news is that it’s been offered to me for eternity.