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A perfect ten

A decade after first addressing his flock, the Penguin looks back on where he's been - and where he's going.

I can see the finish line, and I feel an emotional rush that transforms me from a mere mortal into a mythical creature with winged feet. Well, okay, maybe not winged feet. How about a mythical creature with webbed feet? Forget eagles and sparrows; it's time to celebrate the power of Penguins.

I wrote those words in May 1994 while riding in the backseat of a van returning from a half-Ironman triathlon in Panama City, Florida. I had finished dead last. As I jotted my thoughts down, I never imagined anyone else would ever read them. Boy, was I wrong.

Exactly two years after that van ride, the words I intended as a personal journal entry became the opening lines of the first "Penguin Chronicle" printed in "Runner's World". Since May 1996, the title of the column, the accompanying artwork, and the editors have all changed. But the power of Penguins, as described in the following selections from that original Chronicle, remains as unconquerable and inspiring as ever.

You've seen a penguin run. A chaotic flurry of feet. A living testimony to the dominance of will over form. And many of us, those for whom a 10-K qualifies as their long run for the week, represent no less a victory of will over form. With the indomitable force of the glaciers, we plod and shuffle our way through race after race. More amazingly, to you eagles and sparrows, we penguins are having the time of our lives.

Not so long ago, the very notion that someone with limited talent - okay, in my case, someone with virtually no talent - would enjoy being a runner was heresy. After all, running was a sport that celebrated speed. But from my vantage point in the back of the pack, I couldn't help but notice a change. A whole generation of slower runners began showing up at races. And much to the surprise, and chagrin, of some in the running community, these slower folks seemed to be having much more fun than those sprinting up ahead. This pure, unadulterated fun made running contagious.

It may surprise the eagles to know that we, the Penguins, are truly doing the best we can. One cannot undo the physical effects of 30 or 40 or more years of neglect and abuse in a matter of weeks or months.

At first, faster runners thought that Penguins were simply not trying very hard. They couldn't believe that anyone could train well and still not be able to run a marathon in less than five hours. In time, though, it became obvious that we really were doing our best. And that's all any athlete can ask of himself.

Our running shoes are really erasers. Every step erases a memory of a past failure. Every mile brings us closer to a clean slate. Each footstrike rubs away a word, a look, or an event, which led us to believe that success was beyond our grasp.

As it turns out, many Penguins weren't running to anything. We were running from bad habits and bad relationships; from the worst of ourselves in a desperate attempt to find the best of ourselves. Ultimately we discovered that running was the means to that end.

The miracle isn't that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.

Known as the Penguin Credo, these words didn't appear in the original Chronicle. Although it came later, the credo captures the spirit of this new generation of runners. For Penguins, the miracle is that we have found our way to the starting line. Getting to the finish line is simply the frosting on the cake.

These words also have a personal poignancy, since the miracle in my life isn't that I have written this column for 10 years. The miracle is that I ever wrote the first one. I look forward to sharing many more firsts with you.

Waddle on, friends.

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