The Man in the Mirror…

How a single run can become the road to the future

By now most regular readers of this column know how I came to called “the Penguin” . For those of you who don’t, and for those of you who have forgotten, I’ll give you a thumbnail sketch. I had been running for about 6 months, had lost a few pounds [about 50 ], and caught sight of myself in a glass storefront window in Appleton, Wisconsin. Rather than seeing the thin, gazelle-like figure that I imagined I was I saw instead a short, fat, middle-aged man with his stomach hanging over the waistband of his running shorts. I looked for all the world like a penguin. The image, and the nick-name, stuck.

Not long ago I had the chance to visit Appleton for the first time since that fateful run. A full ten years has passed since the last time I had ran in Appleton. Much has changed – for me and for the city – but some things were just the same. And walking down the main street I came upon Gabriel’s furniture store and it’s offset window. There it was once again. There, like 10 years before, stood the image of “the Penguin”.

I took the time, this time, to reflect not only on the image staring back at me, but at the maddenly unpredictable sequence of events that started with that single run. More accurately, the sequence that led to me writing these very words started not just on that run, but in the precise instant that I looked up and saw myself looking back at myself.

I allowed myself to wondered how my life would have been different had I not looked up at that instant. What would have happened to the thoughts and feelings and experiences that have shaped my soul and filled this column? If I had been distracted for a mere second, I would have missed the moment that has come to define me. Pretty heavy stuff for a single, mid-week, easy, junk-mileage run.

We all have those runs. We all leave the house with low expectations. We put on the shoes and shorts and head out more out of habit than out of passion. We cover the distance and log in the miles because we’re runners and that’s what runners do. We run because at some point not running isn’t an option. And too often, I’m afraid, we run with our eyes and our spirits closed to the possibilities around us.

Too often we leave our imaginations in the house when we head out on the road. We see ourselves only in terms that we understand. We see only those parts of ourselves with which we are already familiar and comfortable. We are fast, or slow. We run 5k’s or marathons. Our PR’s are ahead of us, or behind us. However it is, or whoever it is, that we see as ourselves, it’s an image that we have seen 1000 times. And in replaying those old images, we miss the very opportunities that are present.

Every run, every single run, has the potential to transform us from who we are to who we’re becoming. Every step on every run could be the one that begins our metamorphosis from who we’ve always been to what we’ve always wanted to be. Every instant has the power show us who we are. it doesn’t matter if that’s in a small town like Appleton, a big city like Chicago, or a trail in the middle of the forest. Who we are is there before us. All we need to do is look up.

We put our runs in categories. We do our long runs, and tempo runs, and speed work. We devise elaborate training plans that take months to complete. We log our miles with more precision than we keep our checkbook, and yet I think for all the accuracy we may be missing the most important element in being a runner. The possibility of discovering something about ourselves that only running can reveal.

We can discover our tenacity at the end of a long run. We can discover our courage as we dig deep in the final miles of a difficult race. We can discover our frailty as we push ourselves beyond the limits of our bodies. And we can discover our humility as we congratulate a competitor that has bested us. But as important as those things are, they’re not the same as seeing ourselves as we really are, stripped of our mask and costume.

As this New Year starts, I challenge you to run with your eyes open. I challenge you to run with your heart and not just your feet. I challenge you to find yourself looking back at yourself. It may not be a penguin that you see, but I can assure you that whatever it is, it will be the closest you’ll ever come to seeing the real you.

Waddle On, friends..

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