Looking up, I see the finish banner and clock. I pick up the pace, releasing the energy I’ve been saving for the final kick. I am gasping for air; my heart is pounding. I am going to have a PR. I am going to break 30 minutes for 5-K. What?
John Lennon may have been the Walrus, but I am the Penguin. I am the runner you’ve seen whose legs look as if they are tied together at the knees. I am the runner whose stride is the same as his shoe length. And I am not alone.
Why a penguin? Because metaphors usually used to describe runners–fleet-footed gazelles, cheetahs and winged-footed Mercury–don’t have much to do with my running style. I tend to resemble a penguin waddling across the frozen tundra more than a thoroughbred in the homestretch.
If you’ve seen a penguin run or walk, you know what I mean. Penguins walk as if their feet are killing them. Penguins, waddling and scurrying, are the ultimate expression of will over form. Their feet move as fast as possible, but their bodies are barely propelled forward at all.
Those of you who are gifted runners have seen penguin runners at races. Well, you’ve seen us at the races where the course is out and back. You rarely see us finish, however. We’re the ones who are finishing as you are getting in your cars to go home.
Actually, penguins are easy to spot. We keep moving farther and farther away from the starting line before the race begins. As the really fast and pretty fast runners complete their prerace warm-up and position themselves for the perfect starting spot, we penguins keep getting pushed back. In small races we can still see the staring line, but in bigger races we’re so far back we almost need a water station before the starting line.
Once the gun goes off, as the cheetahs and gazelles speed away from us in search of PRs and age-group awards, the penguins settle into the middle of the back of the pack. It’s then, when we finally have the course to ourselves, that the real race for the penguins begins–the race with our fears and insecurities. We are not racing anyone but ourselves. In many cases we are not running to anything, but away from everything.
My running shoes have become giant erasers on my feet. Every footstrike rubs away some memory of a previous indiscretion with food or smoke or drink. Every successful mile releases me from the grip of the demons of failure. Every starting line is another chance to prove that my past will not determine my future.
When I am running, in training or in a race, I imagine myself as strong and swift and elegant. When I am running, I imagine myself striding gracefully through life with courage and pride. When I am running, I forget my failures as a child or parent or friend or lover. Through running, I create myself as I have always wanted to be.
And I have discovered that I am not alone. As I have admitted my own fears and hopes, I’ve discovered that many in the running community share those fears and hopes. We, the webbed-footed wonders, are about to come into our own.
And we will run to undo the damage we’ve done to body and spirit. We will run to find some part of ourselves yet undiscovered. Together, we will continue our odyssey of affirmation.
Waddle on, friends.