In the third part of the Lopez Lomong series, Lopez shares his thoughts as he races at the 2007 NCAA 1500m championships. As he runs, Lopez reflects on the role that running has played throughout his life. Previously, running meant escaping rebel soldiers and the harsh realities of life within a refugee camp. As a student and athlete at Northern Arizona University, he dreams that running will be the key to a better life for the lost boys and the people of South Sudan.
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“First call for the 1500,” the loudpeakers announced. I gathered my things and walked toward the start line.
Outside I put on my game face. Sunglasses on, stern look of determination on my face, I looked ready to dominate.
Inside I wore a huge grin. How could I not smile? Although this was the biggest race of my life up until this point, I did not run for my life. I ran that race a long time ago when I took off in the night with my three angels. We knew the rebel soldiers might open fire at any moment, which made us run even faster.
Once we arrived in Kakuma, I ran every day, not just to play soccer but to take my mind off of my empty stomach and the harsh realities of the refugee camp. Today I ran for pure, absolute joy. My past set me free to enjoy the present moment. I planned to enjoy it to the fullest. No man ever felt so blessed by God as I did in that moment.
“Second call, 1500 meters.”
My 11 competitors gathered near the start line. This was a strong field. Both defending the 1500 meter outdoor champion, Vincent Romo, and Leonel Manzano, the indoor 1500 champion had made the final. Any one of a half-dozen guys could easily win this race. I had to run smart.
I looked down at my navy blue jersey and the yellow letters across my chest: Northern Arizona University. Tom Hightower had told me that this place and Coach John Hayes would take me to the Olympics, and he knew what he was talking about. But over the past couple of years it had become so much more than that.
When I arrived on campus, I found they had one of the best hotel management programs in the country.
God planted the idea of me majoring in this area back when I got a part-time job at a local Best Western, near my home in Tully, New York. My goal then, and now, is to build a hotel in South Sudan and help open the area to tourists. Tourists bring money, and money will allow my people to build schools and hospitals and dig water wells. My success as an athlete can also make these things happen.
The lost boys of Sudan made the news back in 2001, but people have short memories. The more successful I am as an athlete as a former lost boy, the more people will talk about where I came from and the greater focus I can put on the needs of South Sudan. Then, with my education from NAU, I can lead the way in doing something.
None of this made me feel pressure as I lined up for the 1500 meter final. Pressure is trying to make a UN food allotment stretch for 30 days. Pressure is watching people die of malaria and wondering who in the camp will be next. Pressure is writing an essay that will determine your entire future in a language you do not know. A footrace, even a championship race, did not make me feel pressure.
“Third and final call for the 1500. Runners to the line” the loudspeaker announced. I stepped up to the start line in the sixth position, right in the middle of the field.
The gun sounded. I took off, five guys inside of me, six outside.
Everyone descend toward the middle of the track before the first turn. I don’t worry too much about running out too fast. The first lap of the 1500 doesn’t count for anything. Rabbits sprint to an early lead, but never count for anything.
Before the first turn of the second lap, I sped up, moving from sixth to fourth. My place overall did not matter as much as the distance I wanted to keep between myself and the leader. The second lap is all about positioning yourself.
I stayed loose but focused through the third lap. We crossed the start line. A bell rang out.
The first lap does not matter. The second lap is all about positioning. Lap three is where you prepare to strike. And lap four? Lap four is “Help me God!”
Just a little bit more, I said to myself as we moved towards the back straightaway. Up ahead was the 300 meter mark. The moment my feet crossed it I started to kick. I darted into second. Up ahead, Leo Monzano sprinted hard. My legs felt strong through the final curve.
…. I pushed myself as hard as I could. Manzano pushed as well. Fifty meters to go. He stayed one step ahead of me. I sprinted with everything within me. I moved to the outside. At the 30 meter mark, I pulled nearly even with Manzano. A dead heat. At 20 meters I pulled just ahead. I never saw him again.
Head up, eyes focused on the finish line, I ran as hard as I had ever run in my life for the win. I cruised through the finish line, took a few steps, punched the stopwatch on my wrist, then collapsed on the track in joy. I looked up at the heavens and made the sign of the cross.
“Thank you God, Thank you God! May you multiply this gift more and more.”
My prayer had to do with far more than running.
Want to read Lopez Lomong’s whole story? Check out his book, “Running for my Life.”
Lopez is partnering with World Vision to bring help and hope to the people of South Sudan through interventions like clean water, education, nutritious food, and healthcare. Join him in the fight for a better life for his home country by visiting 4SouthSudan.org.