Embrace Your Local Penguin

Sometimes it isn’t the miles but the people who make the run.

Of all the changes that running has brought to my life, maybe the most important one is my awareness of my need for people. Having spent most of my first 40 years as a musician, I became accustomed to spending hours alone in a practice room. The practice room became a sanctuary, a safe haven from the pressures of work and relationships and family.

I thought running would be the same. I thought that I could simply replace the time alone in the practice room with time alone on the road. I thought that I could hide from the responsibilities in my life by literally running away from them. I was wrong.

A group of runners helped me see the emptiness in my solitary pursuit. They taught me by embracing me, by welcoming me into their celebration.

The names of most of my mentors are ordinary enough: Andy, Jason, Jodi, Jim, Joe, Marlene, Mike, Tom, Terri. Others are a bit more eccentric: Pooh, Sick & Twisted, and Sonny the Older, to name just a few. I can’t begin to name them all, but these are truly extraordinary people who likely have no idea of the impact they have had on me.

This particular group happens to be in the Washington, D.C., area. But there are thousands of groups like them around the country. This motley crew of academics and government workers, young and not so young, men and women, fast and slow, share a weekly ritual of support and affirmation.

Someone probably knows how it started, but nobody seems to care at this point. What’s important is that every Saturday these runners join together in a celebration of the community they’ve created.

It’s not as if they actually run together. Oh, a few of them may form groups, but it seems that once someone takes a few tentative strides down the towpath everyone falls into their own comfortable pace. That pace ranges from 6 minutes per mile for the gazelles to 12 minutes per mile for the Penguins like me. The beauty is, it doesn’t seem to matter.

What does seem to matter is that they are together at the start. For those few moments, as the cars pull in and the sleepy runners drag themselves out into the morning air, they are a family. The greeting ritual includes a handshake or hug and the obligatory review of each other’s running attire.

As a newcomer, I was openly welcomed. Absent was all of the social posturing and strutting that sometimes occurs when someone new joins a group. No one knew or cared about education or income. I had shorts, T-shirt and running shoes on – that was all that was required.

The run is really only a prelude to the real business of the morning: the post-run meal. The group invades a local eatery and turns it into their clubhouse. The table gets longer and longer as folks finish their runs or bring in their children and spouses. Even those who have “cheesed” (slept in and not run, but arrived for breakfast) are permitted to join in the party.

I was allowed to join. And I felt a part of the community. With each cup of coffee and each pancake, the walls that usually separate me from the rest of the world began to crumble. I belonged.

There is still a time for running alone. There are still days when the rhythmic pounding of my shoes against the pavements brings solace and protection against the demons. But I now know that there are also days when it isn’t the miles but the people who “make” the run. There are days when pushing away my fear of being close to another human being does me more good than pushing my heart rate. There are days when finding the right words is much more difficult than finding the right pace.

Belonging has never been easy for me. The same may be true for you. But running and being social have helped me learn to belong. If there’s a group of runners near you, join them. If there isn’t a group, start one. If you don’t need the camaraderie, someone else might.

And to my mentors, thank you. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of you. Thank you for showing me that being who I am, right now, is all I need to be.

Waddle on, friends.

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