Of Penguins and Prefontaine

Steve Prefontaine, arguably the heart, soul, and spirit of American distance running is quoted as saying, “To give less than your best is to disrespect the gift” On the surface, that wouldn’t seem like a penguin point of view. But it is. And at Hayward Field,  on the very track that “Pre” established his dominance over his opponents and his demons, I saw that spirit overcome some of the least suspecting runners.

We had come to the university of Oregon for the first annual Penguin Invitational Track meet. I figured, if we’re going to have a track meet, why not have it where the greats have always gathered. If the idea is to test your own will, why not do it in the shadow of the same stands where runners for generations have tested theirs? And so we did.

There wasn’t a large group of us, about 18 runners all totaled. And there weren’t very many people in the stands. In fact, there weren’t any. And of course, there was no media, no reporters, no cameras, no nothing. It was just us. Just a group of runners who had come to this special place to see if we truly belonged.

We had come to answer those questions that mattered most only to us. We had come to test ourselves against ourselves with only ourselves as witnesses. In some ways it is the purest form of competition. The victories on this day would be recorded only in the memories of those who were there. But the impact of those victories would be felt for a lifetime.

After dividing into teams, we squared off in threes for the 100 meter dash. Each heat was scored separately, and the team with the most points at the end of all the heats would be declared the winner of that round. Three by three we lined up. Three by three we looked down the barrel of our fears. three by three we ran with the champions.

If there was any doubt about the magic of Hayward Field and power of Pre’s memory, it was erased during those first heats. Runners who had never considered themselves competitive exploded off the starting line and ran with furious abandon. For many, it was their first ever head-to-head race. Their times were of no consequence. It was the intensity of the challenge that mattered most.

The next event was a 4 X 100 relay. The energy had already begun to change from excited to sober. A few of the runners recognized early on that they were standing on the fault line of their own expectations, and that there was great danger of discovering some hidden truth about themselves. That truth was becoming clearer with every step.

Again, these mild-mannered Penguins were transformed into fierce competitors. Their strides began to open, their lungs were gasping for air, their legs were burning. They were finding their limits, and exceeding them with every step. They were testing themselves, and finding that they were up to the challenge. They were running with their souls free.

The 200-400-800 relay was contested at a fever pitch. The opening sprints were blistering, the middle 400’s run with precision, and the closing 800’s run with blind determination. By now it was clear to everyone. This place, this day, this race was changing people before our very eyes. In the furnace of their effort, these runners were forging a new identity.

The meet closed with a non-competitive memorial mile. But the non-competitive referred only to among the runners. As we toed the line for that mile, I think each of us knew that this would be the moment of truth. This would be when we would find out for sure if we deserved to be on that track.

For my part, I set out to find out how much pain I could endure. I set out to find out how much I was willing to give. I wanted to know, like all the other runners around me, what would happen if I took off all the constraints I have placed on myself. I wanted to know – no – I NEEDED to know if I could push past my own demons.

And so it was that I ran the fastest mile I have ever run. World record pace? Not hardly. Not even very fast for my age group. But it was fast for me. More importantly, it proved to me that I had the spirit of a champion, if not the body.

In the end, I suppose, that’s what we all discovered on that track. We discovered for ourselves the truth in Pre’s admonition to accept only our very best. And we discovered that OUR best resides ONLY inside of ourselves. It lives in the deepest parts of our psyches. It hides in the darkest corners of our souls.

And we discovered that it is only by releasing ourselves from our self-imposed limits that we can finally see the power and beauty of the runner inside of us.

Waddle on, friends.

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