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All I want for Christmas

blog_jbdayhatFifteen years ago, long before even I had heard of “the Penguin”, a colleague and friend at Middle Tennessee State University, Lee Alsbrook and I were writing a monthly column for a local give a way magazine in Murfreesboro. We called the column “The Recess Bell”, met at Luby’s – a local restaurant – to discuss topics and text over cornbread and coffee. It was a simple time.

In 2009 my life has changed so much I’m not sure I’d recognize the guy sitting in Luby’s. I’m sure he was wearing running shoes since that was nearly all I wore in those days. I’m sure he was wearing a Timex 8-lap Ironman watch, since that’s all there was in those days. I’m sure he was keeping a very precise paper logbook, because that’s all there was in those days. But I’m certain that he – that is I – had no idea that in 6 months when the first “Penguin Chronicles” appeared in Runner’s World magazine that his – that is my – life would change forever.

As I leave Runner’s World at the end of the year and move “The Penguin Chronicles” to Competitor Magazine – along with this blog and the new “Ask the Penguin” blog on – I can’t begin to imagine what the next 15 years will bring. In 15 years I’ll be 76 years-old. YIKES. I’m sure that at 46 the idea of being 61 was just as frightening. But, I know that whatever comes next will be fun, satisfying, difficult, exhausting, and joyous.

What follows is that column from 1995. I hope you enjoy this look backwards.

December has always been a strange time of year for me. In addition to the holidays, my birthday is in December and so this month has become a watershed in my year and in my life. This was the month that society granted me important permissions. In December I became old enough to drive, old enough to get married, old enough to vote, and old enough to drink. In fact, I did get married once in December (actually twice, but that’s a long story), and I got my induction notice in December.

As a child, though, December could be summed up with one word: toys. Toys! My definition of a toy was fairly simple. If I could play with it, it was a toy. One year, my cousin and I both got full football uniforms with helmets and pads. We played some monumental one-on-one football that year. Those uniforms were toys.

I don’t remember when exactly, but at some point I stopped getting toys as presents. In fact, at some point I stopped getting gifts that I wanted and started getting gifts that I needed. I always thought that gifts should only be things you want, not things you need. If you need it, well, you NEED it, right? It shouldn’t count as a gift.

Looking back, I can see that, as my life evolved, what I wanted and what I needed changed. But probably the biggest change in what I wanted, and what I thought I needed, occurred when I became a runner. As a runner, the line between wanting and needing became hard to distinguish.

As a runner, some of the gifts began once again to look a lot like toys. And getting toys is MUCH more fun than getting things that you need. One of the toys on my list this year is a pair of shoes. No, I don’t NEED shoes, but I WANT shoes. Not regular shoes, obviously. Not the kind of shoes that require polishing. Not shoes that are a part of my professional uniform.

The toys I want have grid technology or gel or air pockets. I want toys with medial support. I want toys that cushion and stabilize and control. More importantly, I want shoes/toys that will make me faster than I am. If they can’t REALLY make me faster, I want some that make me FEEL faster.

This year my toy list includes clothes. Oh, I used to HATE getting clothes. I hated getting shirts and sweaters–no matter how well intentioned the thought. (My grandmother used to spend months knitting us sweaters.) Somehow, the gift of clothes always seemed to be too adult for me.

But this year I WANT shirts. I want toys that keep me warm in the winter and keep me cool in the summer. Not T-shirts please. I’ve got enough race T-shirts to clothe a small army. No, I want toys that wick and layer. Give me toys made from materials that sound like chemicals. Give me polypropylene!!

This year, I’m asking for underwear and socks. Can you imagine? Underwear and socks as toys! If someone had given me underwear and socks before I was a runner I would never have forgiven them.

But now I want toys that go 1,000 miles and are double layered or that are ultra thin and won’t make me blister. I want underwear that wicks and protects and won’t make me chafe!

What struck me as I began to assemble my list of wants and needs was that I had returned to my youth. I was asking for, and I had the hope of getting, toys. Toys! Gifts that I can use when I play. My shoes and socks and underwear have become items in my toy chest.

And I realized that in this December, as I creep without shame towards the half-century mark, I am really going backwards in time. I am going forward to the past. Not only is my body getting younger as I age, but my spirit is as well.

This December I get a little older, but I’m not growing up. So for me, and I hope for you, even if running does nothing more than bring back the joy of getting [and giving] gifts, that will be enough. Even if there are no other benefits, I will still put on my toys everyday and play with them.

Happy holidays. And waddle on, friend