Back to the Future…

jumpingjohn copyThe first “Penguin Chronicles” wasn’t even called the penguin chronicles. It wasn’t called anything. It was just an email.

It was June of 1995, I’d been running for a few years, had been having a lot of fun participating in events, including a couple of duathlons and triathlons, and I’d heard of a group on the internet called “The Dead Runners Society.” In those days The Dead Runners Society was sort of a secret email server group made up mostly of academic and government types who shared their running and racing experiences with each other.

Somehow I got invited to join and I shared a journal entry I’d written after completing – just barely – a 1/2 Ironman triathlon. It was in describing that experience that the phrase “The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.” came off my fingers. Yes. Riding in the back seat of a van heading home from Panama City, Florida I typed in the words that would come to be the “The Penguin Mantra.”

Marlene Cimons, a journalist with the LA Times, contributor to Runner’s World, and member of the Dead Runners Society sent that email, and a few others, to Amby Burfoot, then executive editor of Runner’s World. She thought there was something in the voice, and Amby agreed, and just like that I’m being asked to write 8 columns for Runner’s World.

In the May 1996 issue, ironically celebrating the 100th running of the Boston Marathon, “The Penguin Chronicles” appeared on the next to last page of the magazine. Not the last page as some think. The next to last. All this was, I believe, a way of not confusing the new column as a replacement for the irreplaceable, late, Dr. George Sheehan.

The column’s first editor, Mark Will-Weber, was a superb writer and sub-2:20 marathoner who probably wondered why he was being asked to edit a column by a slow, former fat-guy. Mark edited with the skill of a surgeon. He took out ONLY what needed to be taken out, and left the rest alone.

The next editor was Susan Lindfors who was, in addition to being an editor, a wonderfully creative singer-songwriter. Susan made the columns lyrical. She smoothed out the traditions between paragraphs, replaced stuttering text with flowing words, and just made the voice, and the column more – well – musical.

After a couple of short term editors, including the incomparable Mark Remy, who was so much smarter than me and had such an expansive vocabulary that sometimes I had to look up words in my own column, the editorial task was turn over to Jane Unger Hahn.

What Jane did, in ways that I couldn’t always understand, was make the columns better. She’d change a word here, punctuate a sentence there, and somehow make the column read better than when I submitted it. She edited with a gentle hand that allowed the voice to be heard.

After leaving Runner’s World in January of 2010 I arrived at Competitor Magazine at a time of transition; for me, for the magazine, and for the publishing industry. Digital was coming on strong. Everyone wanted to be a blogger. Anyone with a computer and internet access could publish their own wit and wisdom without fear of editorial correction or complaint. It was the wild west. Still is.

No one really knew what to do with “The Chronicles.” More importantly, no one knew what to do with a seasoned writer with a well-defined voice and style, that seemed somehow out of place in the new digital world. As Mario Fraoli would put it, I was from a different era.

So, to Bill Hermann, and others who fondly remember the early columns, you’re right. They were better. There was a collaborative spirit that made the columns more than the words I wrote.

And now, with that renewed spirit and the freedom to not have to fit into anyone else’s editorial fantasy, I am liberated to become that which I was; an honest voice for those, like me, who were simply trying to squeeze all the joy we could out of life.

Waddle on, friends.


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