06/11/2014 02:40 pm ET Updated Aug 10, 2014

Dare to Be 100: Slow Down Last

Ron Clarke was one of the very greatest middle-distance runners of all time. He is a friend. He carried the opening torch for the 1956 Olympic Games in Australia. We have exchanged home visits in Melbourne and Palo Alto several times.

Along the way he related his experience late in his running career when he was matched against Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett both world-class champions for a mile race. Ron recalled "for the first three quarters we were step for step, but then on the last lap the other two pulled ahead and left me."

He reflected "the race goes not to him who starts off first, but to him who slows down last. This has become a life lesson for me."

I have grappled this message into my program. As such it joins other precious guides for me, John Gardner: "he who would affect social change can not be of short wind." When I was finishing the Boston Marathon three years ago I was being ruddered to the end by two Harvard students who saw me staggering across the road at Coolidge Corner and somehow steered me to the finish line where a few remaining spectators gave me a clap or two. Among those there was a reporter for NPR who wrote his column "the last finisher." I am very proud to have this title in my repertoire, maybe even as proud as the first finishers who were there many hours earlier.

Endurability and courage were certainly among the essential ingredients of our Paleolithic ancestors whose daily challenges directly affected their survival. Many sporting contests are not decided until the last pitch is thrown or the last second expires on the clock. Maybe we even have a stick-to-it gene in our repertoire.

I have just finished the book Almost a Miracle. (1) It is a saga of Washington's troubles in our revolution. A lesser man would have given up years before with the trials and turmoils that confronted him. Besides the redcoats he encountered, the starvation, mutinies, traitors, cold, heat all endlessly battered at him. But because he continued to stand tall America emerged. He never slowed down. He gave proof all night long that our flag was still there.

All of this takes me back to my childhood favorite book The Little Engine That Could. (2) My folks must have read it to me thousands of times: "the little engine that thought it could and did."

Now in my 85th year I'm skeptical that I will ever be first in any future athletic contest, but the biggest contest, that of life, remains to encourage a last finish.

1. Ferling,J. Almost A Miracle 2007 Oxford Press NY, London.
2. Piper, W. The Little Engine that Thought it Could The Book House 1920.