It all began in the back seat of a Dodge mini-van coming back from a Half Ironman triathlon in Panama City, Florida. Somewhere in Alabama, while reflecting on my last place finish, the words “The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.” were written. And that, my friends, was the beginning of a 20 year journey of writing, speaking, and learning. [read the original column here]

For those of you who don’t know the story: I posted my reflections on finishing last with an internet group called The Dead Runners Society, Marlene Cimons read it and shared it with Amby Burfoot, then the editor of Runner’s World, and the next thing I know I’m columnist. I have NO background in writing, I’m a terrible runner, and suddenly my idle thoughts are being published.

The rest, of course, is history. “the Penguin” became the icon for the Second Running Boom; a motley group of adults who wanted to enjoy running and walking and were tired of being told they weren’t good enough. I was good enough. THEY were good enough. All of us who put on our shoes and took the risk of discovering the truth of our abilities were good enough.

It wasn’t all lollipops and unicorns. The running industry, based on the increasingly frustrating search for speed, did not embrace a former overweight, former smoker, slow runner advocating for joy and a sense of accomplishment irrespective of pace. But we, the plodding joyous masses, were not to be denied. As the t-shirt said: We’re slow. We know. Get over it.

So what happened? For one thing the running industry began to see us less as the destroyers of the sport of running and more as an untapped economic force. The shoe and apparel industry didn’t care if we couldn’t run 7-minute miles as long as we bought shoes and shorts and tops. For another, the racing events didn’t care if we couldn’t run a 7-minute mile as long as we were prepared to plunk down ever increasing entry fees.

In addition, charities began to understand that someone with a modest talent for running might also have the passion and resources to raise small and large sums of money. Before long every major race was a collage of t-shirts of charity colors emblazoned with charity logos.

And finally, there was the “Disney Phenomenon.” Not content to run a marathon on Sunday, the 2nd Boomers began to run a half marathon on Saturday and THEN the marathon on Sunday. But they weren’t done. What was once the Walt Disney World Marathon became a week-long celebration with a 5K, 10K, half-marathon, and marathon. And I’m convinced that if they had put a Jiminy Cricket Mile on Tuesday of Marathon week, people would have shown up to run it.

Nothing lasts forever. Just as the nylon-shorts generation gave way to the second running boom, the second running boom eventually gave way to the “capri” generation. What was once a deeply personal challenge to mind, body, and spirit morphed into a social celebration of birthdays, anniversaries, and friendships. And that ain’t all bad.

So the question before us, or at least before me, is where does “the Penguin” fit into all of this now? Does the message of joy in honest effort still resonate with the Capri generation? Has training at one’s personal limits been replaced by a sense that we are all entitled to medals just because we paid the entry fee?

I don’t know the answer. I hoping maybe you do. Or maybe that together we can find the answer. In any case, we’re going to try.

Waddle on…


  • The 1701 says:

    “Has training at one’s personal limits been replaced by a sense that we are all entitled to medals just because we paid the entry fee?”
    I do hope not, I know I for one still strive to be the best I can despite the fact that I will never make the Olympics. I hope there’s still a place for those of us that try, we do the training and seek to improve.

  • Joy Hyzny says:

    I know that the races have been critical for Back-of-Pack runners as participation can transform health and life. I feel that everyone I have met tries to excel, but a combination of circumstances, despite all the training, does not necessarily enhance our speed. Unfortunately, as each year passes, we tend to get slower. Several runners I know no longer wish to register, knowing that time limits will not be achieved. Regardless, I continue to meet runners who begin the journey of training for a 5K in the hopes of simply crossing the finish line, totally unsure if it is possible. Many times, those runners become faster than I ever was. I think we need to put the sport into perspective. We are not getting paid to do it. It’s not an occupation, so I feel that anybody who has the courage to start should be allowed to finish. I am also not opposed to those individuals receiving a medal. They earned it just because they had the courage to start!

  • Barry Ward says:

    At age 67, 5 years ago, I wondered whether I could “run” a 5K — so I started training to do it. Now, at 72 years old, I am wondering whether I can complete a full marathon (after 165 x5k parkruns , numbers of 10Ks and three half marathons. ) So I am now training for that . I’ll never know if I don’t give it a try – and I am running out of time.

  • Ignazio AMATO says:

    For the everyday runner, being allowed to enter an event without the pressure of time limits is crucial. This simple fact, may be the single determining factor in making someone decide to start running as a means to embark on a healthier lifestyle …. at least this was the case with me.
    At 59 years of age , and unhealthily overweight …. the fact that I can enter a running event was a big motivating factor ….. being able to participate , being allowed to finish and getting a medal for having the courage to show up ….. well that was the clincher ! This was my roadmap to health.
    Sticking to a running regimen has not been and is not easy … I promised myself I would persevere …. but being able to feel part of a sport that embraces and encourages me will make the journey possible .
    showing up is the battle that needs to overcome time again and again . That participation medal validates my efforts and encourages me to hit the pavement in preparation for the next event . And THAT is worth gold to me!

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