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Of Penguins and Prefontaine

The measure of a true runner has little to do with speed.

Steve Prefontaine, arguably the heart and spirit of American distance running, once said, "To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift." At first glance, that may not seem like a Penguin point of view. But it is. This summer at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, on the very track where "Pre" established his dominance over his opponents and his demons, I saw that same spirit overcome some of the least suspecting runners.

We had come to the University of Oregon for the first annual Penguin Invitational Track Meet. If we were going to have a meet, why not hold it where the greats have always gathered? If the goal was to test our own wills, why not do it where generations of runners have tested theirs? And so, we did.

It wasn't a large group - about 18 runners - and there weren't many people in the stands. In fact, there weren't any. No media, no cameras, no fans, no nothing. It was just us - a group of runners who had come to this special place to see if we truly belonged.

We had come to answer questions that mattered only to us. We had come to test ourselves, with only ourselves as witnesses. The victories that 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. 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.

Any doubts about the magic of Hayward Field and the power of Pre's memory were erased during those first heats. Runners who had never considered themselves competitive exploded off the starting line and ran with furious abandon. It was the first ever head-to-head race for many of them, and their times were of little consequence. It was the intensity of the challenge that mattered.

The next event was a 4x100 relay. Again, these mild-mannered Penguins were transformed into fierce competitors. Their strides opened up, their lungs gasped for air, and their legs burned. They were finding their limits and exceeding them with every step. They were testing themselves and discovering they were up to the challenge. They were running with free souls.

Next came the 200-400-800 relay, which was contested at a fevered pitch. The opening 200s were blistering, the middle 400s run with precision, and the closing 800s run with blind determination. It was now clear to everyone: This place, this day, this competition changed 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 it was only "non-competitive" in the sense that each runner ran solo. As each of us toed the line, it was clear to all that this mile was the moment of truth. This was when we would find out for sure if we deserved to be on that track.

I set out to find out how much pain I could endure, how much I was willing to give. Like the others around me, I wanted to know what would happen if I let go of all the constraints I normally place on myself. I wanted to know - no, I needed to know - if I could push past my own demons.

And so I ran the fastest mile of my life. World-record pace? Hardly. It wasn't even very fast for my age-group. But it was fast for me. It proved to me that I have the spirit, if not the body, of a champion.

That's what we all discovered on that track. We discovered the truth in Pre's admonition to accept only our very best. We discovered that our best sometimes resides deep inside of ourselves, in remote parts 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 each of us.

Waddle on, friends.

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