“I can see the finish line, and I feel an emotional rush that transforms me from a mere mortal into a mythical creature with winged feet. Well, OK, maybe not winged feet. How about a mythical creature with webbed feet? Forget eagles and sparrows, it’s time to celebrate the power of penguins.”
Those words, originally written in May of 1994 on a lap top computer while riding in the back seat of a Dodge Minivan, on the way home from a half-Ironman triathlon, and intended to be seen only by me set in motion changes that no one could have predicted. They first appeared in public on the email distribution list of “The Dead Runners Society” in March of 1995 and eventually found their way into Runner’s World magazine in May of 1996. What began as a journal entry became the opening statement in the Penguin Phenomenon.
I started moving at aged 43. I say moving because what I was doing could hardly be called running. I did run some. I walked mostly. I had no idea what I was doing and certainly had no idea where I was going. At the time I was 100 pounds overweight, I had smoked for 25 years, believed the overeating was an art form, and drank well more than my fair share.
Something happened, though, that first day that I released myself from my self imposed life sentence of sedentary confinement. Even as a fat, smoking, drinking, over-eating, middle-aged man, I knew that there was magic in changing my life with my own two feet. I didn’t know where this life would lead me, but I knew that I was headed in the right direction.
Like nearly everyone else I over trained at first. I didn’t know how much was too much and how much was enough. I didn’t understand that I had gotten out of shape one-day – one cigarette – one beer – one extra large order of fries – at a time. I didn’t know that I couldn’t turn my life around in a matter of weeks or months. What I did know was that I was having fun. Real fun. For maybe the first time since I was a child.
Eventually, though, I came to understand that if I wanted to be active forever I’d have to get smarter about how I ate and how I trained. I also came to understand that the cigarettes that were my constant companions were not going to help me become a better runner. Eventually, I got it through my stone head that there was a right and a wrong way to train and that I was NOT the expert in that regard.
Soon I found myself competing in local 5K races. OK OK OK. I wasn’t exactly competing. I was showing up, paying my money, pinning on a race number, and running my heart out. It may not have looked like I was racing to anybody else, but those local 5K’s might as well have been the Olympic Trials for me. And I was having FUN.
The 5K’s lead to 10K’s and eventually a marathon. By then I was out of control. I was ready to race at any distance, anywhere, at any time. I was traveling hundreds of miles on the weekends to races is distant cities and states. I had a more elaborate race schedule than most professionals. It was a dream come true.
Eventually, a good friend suggested I try an Olympic Distance Triathlon. The fact that I was never a very good swimmer and hadn’t been in a pool in 25 years didn’t deter me. It was only the photo of me in a Speedo standing in a cold lake that made me worry about what I was doing.
Then, almost without warning, I found myself staring out into the Gulf of Mexico waiting for my wave to start my first half Ironman triathlon. 1.2 miles of swimming. 56 miles of biking. And a 13.1 mile run.
I finished dead last. Dead last by over an hour. But rather than being discouraged, I was elated. I had done it. I had finished. I had succeeded in accomplishing something that I never would have believed I could have done.
And in that same journal entry I wrote the words that have now become the Penguin credo. “The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.” I was confident that I would finish. I had prepared well. What I didn’t know was that I had the courage to stand on that beach.
I’m looking forward to sharing our stories of trials and successes as we all journey to find ourselves.
Waddle on, friends.