The Penguin Mind: Unpublished

The Penguin Mind :: The Penguin Chronicles :: April 1995

Standing at the starting line–no, actually standing well away from the starting line, the nervous energy begins to build. I find myself trying to hide in the crowd, afraid that the race director will spot me and ask me to leave. “Hey you!” he calls out in my nightmare. “What are you doing here? This is a race for runners!”

We penguins have different things on our mind at the beginning of races than you eagles and sparrows. In the front row, the talk is always the same. This is just a tune-up race before some big national event. “Oh, I’ll probably cruise this at about a 6 minute pace.” Yeah, right!

In the middle of the pack, it’s a sports medicine convention. All you hear about is injuries: plantar something, IT band, chrono-mono-chromo-alexandria, and other very scary sounding things. Everybody is either: 1. suffering at that moment, 2. has been suffering up until that moment, or 3. will be suffering soon.

In the back, we are worried about the really big issues; will I be able to go the distance, will there be any food left by the time I finish, and most importantly, where am I going to go to relieve myself on the course. Oh yes. This is THE big concern. Especially in distances of 10K or more.

Look, if I’m going to be out doing a half-marathon in 2 1/2 hours, I’m going to need to go to the bathroom. Heck, at my age I can’t SLEEP for more than 2 1/2 hours without having to go to the bathroom.

I knew I was in trouble at the very beginning of a recent 1/2 marathon. I’d read about proper hydration, so I’d been guzzling water for days. I spent 20 minutes in the porta-potty line before the race, 18 minutes of which was standing in front of an empty john because the guy in front of me got out at the precise instant that I turned around to wave to my wife.

And, of course, this was the one porta-potty without a lock, so now I am trying to use the facilities AND hold the door closed so that the vision of me with my running shorts down won’t be burned inextricably into the collective memories of the other participants. Plus, I know people are waiting and performance anxiety sets in. So I start the race already looking for a place to go.

The place for me can’t be just ANY place. Ideally it will shield me from view on four sides and from above. I am in complete awe of those of you who can just go whenever and where ever. My hat is off to the woman who, in the middle of the 14th Street Bridge at the Marine Corps Marathon, just made her way to the side of the road and let it all hang out.

Part of the problem is that because I am on the course so much longer, I also consume more water over a longer period of time. I’ve seen the front runners come through a water table. It’s a ballet movement. You grab the cup, tossing exactly two ounces into your mouth in a perfect arch, splashing the remainder in your face, without losing a step. Amazing!

We penguins, on the other hand, often walk up to the water table as if it was the buffet at Shoney’s. I want to look into the cups and decide which ones I want. I am not inclined to grab a cup from the hands of a volunteer who seems to have a chronic nose drip and who has had his or her fingers in MY water.

And, by the time I get to the tables, the volunteers are trying desperately to get rid of the water. So, I end up drinking a couple of cups there, and then carrying one with me. Believe me, by about the third water table, I am looking for some place to go.

But, in the end, it is all of this that makes the experience so pleasant. Most of you in the front have no idea just how nice the volunteers are. I thank everyone of them. I shake the hands of the young ones. I blow kisses to the older ones. I thank the cops at the intersections. Because I’m not in such a big hurry, I have had the time to get and give hundreds of smiles.

To those who are cruising your 6 minute pace, I would encourage you to run just one race with us. You might find out that we have something figured out. We not only get to do something good for ourselves, but very often, we get to do something nice for other people. And for many of us, that contributes to the satisfaction we get from running.

Waddle on, friends.


  • Nice vintage post! Being a 14-15 minute miler in a half, I am well-accustomed to completing my race at a nearly empty finish line and finding the post-race partiers all packing their wares and going home. It was long ago impressed upon me by this that you have to be a lot faster than me to be celebrated by festivities and treats. Some water, a banana, and the knowledge that your dog will be happy to see your new medal when I get home–that’s the thanks welcomed by the slower runner. Good thing we run for other reasons! I for one will never stop.

  • kristinwhatch says:

    oh so spot on with the am/was/will be suffering!

  • I am one of the slower ones. But I don’t run for the win…I run for the joy of running, the sense of accomplishment. I too thank the runners. If they weren’t willing to volunteer their time, I wouldn’t get to run the race. In one 10k race I ran, I was the last one across the finish line. The ambulance followed me about 1/2 of the course with their lights on. (I figured I would be the last one before the race – just being realistic, not a debbie downer – and decided to have a good attitude about it.) As I approached the volunteers with the ambulance on my tail, I told them I felt important because I got an escort with lights! Those same paramedics were driving the ambulance for another race I ran 2 months later. Officially met them and thanked them for their time. They told me they admired my tenacity to continue running and were rooting for me to keep going. (The second race was an out and back and I actually passed them in that race!)

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