I’m Competing With My Own Son For $1,000 Because I’m An Idiot

Thanks to a potent cocktail of ignorance and a refusal to accept my own physical decline, I am currently locked into a non-negotiable contract that 100% end up with me having to give my 9 year old son $1,000.

Here’s the short version: Three years ago I told my son I would give him this amount if he beat me in a race. We’ve been running ever since.

I did it because I thought it was funny. I did it because I’m an idiot. It’s been a journey, and I’ve learned a lot. About being a father. About what it’s like to realize your body is crumbling into a pile of ash and dust.

Now for the long version.

The year was 2019. My 6-year-old son, obsessed with Pokemon cards, was desperately trying to earn money to buy packs at the local Kmart. This clearly presented some sort of learning opportunity, but my wife and I didn’t know how to proceed. Was he too young for an allowance? Is an allowance a good idea for kids these days? We were insecure.

I had a “moment of clarity”. How about, I suggested, our two children “make” money if they set bold goals, strive for, and finally achieve? Any kind of goal was eligible: academic, athletic, artistic. As long as the quest crossed the line, it was worth a reward. It was a system designed to teach resilience, the importance of setting goals, hard work – all those good things.

Great idea, my wife agreed. Lets do this.

We built a rough reward system operating at scale. If the task was easily achievable, the reward was less. At age 6, he earned $5, for example, for teaching himself to spell his favorite word, “dragon.” A month later, after weeks of practice, he won $20 for landing a somersault on a trampoline. Very impressive, I thought. Magnificent parenting. I’m doing great, honey.

But soon my son asked me a question that has haunted me ever since.

“What if I beat you in a race, Daddy?”

Some context here. My son is fast. He was always fast. He learned to walk at 10 months and a month later he could run. duly run. Friends, neighbors, strangers in the park commented, “He’s fast, isn’t he?” “He’s really coordinated.”

Me, beaming with pride: “He inherited it from Dad.”

More context. I’m also fast. At least me he was fast. In a childhood filled with impromptu sprints, I don’t remember missing a sprint once. In high school I became a sports champion after winning the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the high jump and the long jump.

That was a long time ago. I’m in my 40s now, still in good shape – though less explosive with my right knee. But in my imagination I’m still that 15-year-old boy, swiping past competitors like a pasty Scottish gazelle.

“Daddy, how much?”

“$1,000,” I replied. “I’ll give you a thousand dollars if you beat me in a race. You’ll never beat me. Never. I’ll crawl from my deathbed to beat you.”

His eyes lit up.

“$1,000?” He whispered, almost to himself, trying to analyze this impossible number with childlike wonder. Or calculating how many Pokemon boosters he would get.

“That’s right,” I said, again.

“One thousand dollars.”

You’re next

I thought – hoped, dreamed – that he might forget about our little business. He didn’t forget.

Meanwhile, my son also negotiated a race with my wife, his mother. One with slightly lower stakes, $20.

And thank God for that. About a month later, just before bath time, my son challenged my wife to an official race. She’s not much of a sprinter, but she fought. In the last 10 meters my son dropped the hammer. He crossed to victory. At age 6 he was the second fastest person in our household.

I will never forget what happened next. He took my wife’s twenty-dollar bill and carefully folded it into his little dinosaur wallet. He turned and pointed at me with a tiny, determined finger.

“You’re next.”

Let’s run

We’ve battled regularly over the years, according to a little-understood set of rules. Firstly, the distance had to be agreed beforehand. Second, it had to be mutually understood that this was a real race to the $1,000. He couldn’t employ tricks or fire without warning and claim he hit 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 with plenty of juice in my buttocks. For years I was crushing it. I ran ahead, giving him the appearance that he was closer than he thought. I wanted him to have something to aim for, a reason to keep pushing.

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This is not my son. My son would smoke this kid.

Javier Pascual/EyeEm

And it worked. My son is thin and tanned with pistons in his legs. He’s absolutely fast. He lives every second of his life as if he’s in Ninja Warrior, his flowing brown hair fluttering as he leaps from the kitchen to the garden and back again. Somehow, I think, this challenge played a role in its development. I remember one day I was coaching his football team and he challenged me to a race after practice. His teammates joined in. I won, but my son was second by a considerable distance. No one else could accompany him.

So, just over a month ago, my son turned 9. I don’t know how, but he leveled up. We did a 5km run on one of the trails near our house and I noticed the difference. His steps were more determined, more coordinated. He seemed able to effortlessly maintain a pace he hadn’t been able to before.

I didn’t think anything of it. We haven’t competed in over six months. I couldn’t remember the last time he mentioned the $1,000. I was safe. Nothing to worry about.

Then, a week ago, after a kick on the football field, he dropped the bombshell.

“Let’s run,” he said.

I took a break.

“For the $1,000?”

“Yes, for the 1,000 dollars.”

“I’m going to smoke you. You know that, right?”

“Maybe. But I want to try.”

They were out

We configure. Serious business. Your friend has counted down. I decided I wanted to teach him a lesson. I would go full force, full speed. Show him how far he was from defeating his old man.

Bang. We were out.

I was running as fast as I could. Usually, that meant walking away from my son relatively easily. Not this time. Halfway through the race, I looked back to see how far ahead I was. This time my son was not behind me, he was right next to me.

Literal nightmare scenario.

When the hell did he go so fast? I tried to accelerate but I couldn’t — a gasket was already bursting, there was nothing left in the tank. I went into total panic mode. This little bastard can really beat me.

In the end, I made it. For very little. In what was a 70 meter race, did I beat him by maybe half a meter? This was me running at full speed, mercilessly.

I looked at my own son in disbelief. How did this happen? He’s just a boy. A 9-year-old boy 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 shoes. He was running barefoot all the time. My son almost beat me in a shoeless race.

What would have happened if he’d put his sneakers back on? I don’t know. I do not want to know.

Mortality

On some level I knew this was inevitable. I knew my son would get faster as I got slower. That the lines drawn on this graph would one day cross, but this race – this hellish race – was pulling 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 deteriorating and truly understanding this. It’s the reason drunk boxers come out of retirement for “one last fight.” In our minds, we are always at the height of our powers. At our absolute peak.

Part Two of This Paradox: It’s Nearly Impossible truth imagine our children growing up, aging the same way everyone else does. In my mind, I’m still the same teenager, galloping past everyone at high speed. My son is also frozen in my imagination. He will always be my baby, the 6-year-old boy who spends entire weekends teaching himself to somersault on a trampoline.

Everyone is aging all the time. This race is a physical manifestation of that great 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 vivid reminder of the passage of time. And our own mortality.

But today, my inevitable defeat still seems most inevitable. I thought I had a few more years. I probably have a few months. Tops.

Now my thoughts are focused on what I’m going to do When He wins.

I have to give him the money, right? That seems clear. But do I give him $100 in spending money and put the remaining $900 into some kind of fund he will get when he turns 16? That was my first instinct, but it feels bad. Too much of a “parent movement”.

My second instinct says “just give him the money”. Give him every penny. Let him shove $1,000 into his little dinosaur wallet and let the chips fall where they can. Whether he gives to charity or explodes in Minecraft skins – it will be your choice. Perhaps this is a story he tells his own children, another one of those “teaching moments.”

Because, ultimately, all I want is for my son – my wild, fast son – to learn to live with the consequences of his own choices.

Just like your dear father.

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