• He's been called the Pied Piper of the Second Running Boom. Once an overweight couch potato with a glut of bad habits, including smoking and drinking, at the age of 43 Bingham looked mid-life in the face—and started running.

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Monumental Running

typing penguin copyPenguin Chronicle :: August 1996 :: Monumental Running

We all have favorite places to run. Sometimes a route is so familiar that we can run it on autopilot, allowing our minds to rummage through stored thoughts and feelings. Other routes are new and require our full attention, thus distracting us from the physical act of running.

Still others contain remnants of past runs and promises of future ones. These routes become special not so much because of what or where they are, but because of the events that occur while running them. Running on and around the Mall in Washington, DC is such a route for me.

I lived in the Washington area for 10 years. These were the early career years, the early marriage and family years, and the years of total unawareness. Too young to see the damage I was doing to my body and soul, and too old to ask for help, I staggered blindly through that decade.

Now, some 15 years after leaving, I return with the wisdom and scars earned in the Coliseum of life. I return not so much victorious as grateful. Grateful to have gotten past my ignorance, grateful to be given a second chance.

Some of the monuments are the same. There is the stoic Lincoln Memorial, the ‘mine is bigger than yours’ Washington Monument, the dignified Jefferson Memorial, and at the far end, the Capitol with its cathedral-like dome. Others are new, like the Vietnam Memorial [The Wall], the Nurses Monument, and the Korean War Memorial.

Starting across the river at the Marine Corps Memorial, commonly called Iwo Jima, the odyssey into my past is marked by more personal monuments. I had looked over this same scene hundreds of times traveling to and from work, to and from friends, to and from lives; and yet it is all different now.

Crossing the Memorial Bridge, I can see that the once polluted Potomac River is now alive and well. There are boaters and skiers and sightseers. Below me is where the old Watergate Barge was docked. That barge, long gone, was the site of many Tuesday night summer concerts while I was in the Army Band.

I can see the faces of friends and family, also gone, still etched into the steps. As other runners pass me, I wonder what they are seeing. I

wonder if they see the children playing. I wonder if they hear the applause. I wonder if they know how much of me is still there, just at the water’s edge.

Arriving on the Mall, I am confronted by tourists. I am running in my own world now, but I know that my presence is just one more inconvenience as the packs and herds of visitors move through history. Adorned in t-shirts and ball caps, armed with guidebooks and cameras, the tourists become a moving obstacle course.

I usually let my mood dictate my route, but I always make my way back to “The Wall.” I cannot run past the Wall. I don’t know how anyone my age can. I know names on the Wall. And so I walk. I walk, and I remember, and I hurt. I remember myself as a young man in uniform and I realize that I don’t understand war any better now than I did back then.

Crossing back over the river I look up at Arlington Cemetery. I see the gardens of stone, the flame on John F. Kennedy’s grave, and the tomb of the unknown soldiers. Suddenly I am aware of my legs and lungs. I am aware of the effort of running. I am aware of my fatigue.

I am aware that I am alive. Truly alive, not just living. I am running because I can, not because I must. I am free to continue and free to stop. I am surrounded by the monuments, large and small, to the individuals who have made those choices possible.

And for just a few minutes, in a monumental way, I am connected to them all.

Waddle on, friends. 

Read more Classic Chronicles

 

The Penguin Mind: Unpublished

The Penguin Mind :: The Penguin Chronicles :: April 1995

Standing at the starting line–no, actually standing well away from the starting line, the nervous energy begins to build. I find myself trying to hide in the crowd, afraid that the race director will spot me and ask me to leave. “Hey you!” he calls out in my nightmare. “What are you doing here? This is a race for runners!”

We penguins have different things on our mind at the beginning of races than you eagles and sparrows. In the front row, the talk is always the same. This is just a tune-up race before some big national event. “Oh, I’ll probably cruise this at about a 6 minute pace.” Yeah, right!

In the middle of the pack, it’s a sports medicine convention. All you hear about is injuries: plantar something, IT band, chrono-mono-chromo-alexandria, and other very scary sounding things. Everybody is either: 1. suffering at that moment, 2. has been suffering up until that moment, or 3. will be suffering soon.

In the back, we are worried about the really big issues; will I be able to go the distance, will there be any food left by the time I finish, and most importantly, where am I going to go to relieve myself on the course. Oh yes. This is THE big concern. Especially in distances of 10K or more.

Look, if I’m going to be out doing a half-marathon in 2 1/2 hours, I’m going to need to go to the bathroom. Heck, at my age I can’t SLEEP for more than 2 1/2 hours without having to go to the bathroom.

I knew I was in trouble at the very beginning of a recent 1/2 marathon. I’d read about proper hydration, so I’d been guzzling water for days. I spent 20 minutes in the porta-potty line before the race, 18 minutes of which was standing in front of an empty john because the guy in front of me got out at the precise instant that I turned around to wave to my wife.

And, of course, this was the one porta-potty without a lock, so now I am trying to use the facilities AND hold the door closed so that the vision of me with my running shorts down won’t be burned inextricably into the collective memories of the other participants. Plus, I know people are waiting and performance anxiety sets in. So I start the race already looking for a place to go.

The place for me can’t be just ANY place. Ideally it will shield me from view on four sides and from above. I am in complete awe of those of you who can just go whenever and where ever. My hat is off to the woman who, in the middle of the 14th Street Bridge at the Marine Corps Marathon, just made her way to the side of the road and let it all hang out.

Part of the problem is that because I am on the course so much longer, I also consume more water over a longer period of time. I’ve seen the front runners come through a water table. It’s a ballet movement. You grab the cup, tossing exactly two ounces into your mouth in a perfect arch, splashing the remainder in your face, without losing a step. Amazing!

We penguins, on the other hand, often walk up to the water table as if it was the buffet at Shoney’s. I want to look into the cups and decide which ones I want. I am not inclined to grab a cup from the hands of a volunteer who seems to have a chronic nose drip and who has had his or her fingers in MY water.

And, by the time I get to the tables, the volunteers are trying desperately to get rid of the water. So, I end up drinking a couple of cups there, and then carrying one with me. Believe me, by about the third water table, I am looking for some place to go.

But, in the end, it is all of this that makes the experience so pleasant. Most of you in the front have no idea just how nice the volunteers are. I thank everyone of them. I shake the hands of the young ones. I blow kisses to the older ones. I thank the cops at the intersections. Because I’m not in such a big hurry, I have had the time to get and give hundreds of smiles.

To those who are cruising your 6 minute pace, I would encourage you to run just one race with us. You might find out that we have something figured out. We not only get to do something good for ourselves, but very often, we get to do something nice for other people. And for many of us, that contributes to the satisfaction we get from running.

Waddle on, friends.

The Era of My Ways

typing penguin copyI never thought much about eras. I understand that time moves on and things change. I don’t use a rotary phone anymore – or even a “Princess” phone for that matter. I don’t have to check my oil every time I stop for gas – heck – I’m not even sure my car has a dipstick. And I don’t have tin foil on my TV antenna so that the picture is clearer. So, yes, I get it.

But I never thought of myself as having lived in – and through – an era until I was interviewing my friend and colleague Mario Fraioli and he kepted referring to “my era” as a writer. I don’t know that he intended it this way but it sure sounded like he was using the past tense.

Suddenly I felt like the fins on a 1959 Cadillac. I was no longer unique. I was emblematic of an era. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling.

I come from the era of print journalism. What I wrote was published and printed on paper. For 14 years at Runner’s World magazine, and 3 years at Competitor Magazine, my words were in a magazine. In the Runner’s World era you would read those words once a month, when the magazine came in the mail or you bought one on a newsstand.

If you liked the column – or didn’t like the column – you had to wait a month to like – or not like – the next one. If you liked the columns you’d wait eagerly for the next month’s magazine. If you were like me, even before I wrote for Runner’s World, late in the month you’d anxiously look in the mailbox hoping that the new magazine had arrived.

The good news for me, as a print columnist, is that I only had to have 12 ideas a year. Even a guy like me probably has at least 10 good ideas a year and a couple of more that aren’t all that bad. In my “era” it was pretty simple.

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Not now. In the “digital era” writers are writing non stop. They are writing digital columns, blogs, Facebook posts, Tweets, and a whole host of social media outlets that I don’t even know about. [I have Instagram and Pinterest accounts. I just don’t know what they’re for]. If you like a writer you can read their current columns, their archived columns, their daily musings, and their pithy 140 character observations.

It may be too much of a good thing.

In another era even the most fervent musical aficionado would be lucky to hear a Beethoven symphony once or twice in a lifetime. These days, you can buy – or download – hundreds of performances by great orchestra with great conductors and compare them side-by-side. You can actually get tired of listening to some of the most important music of all time because it’s available.

And maybe that’s true for writers. Maybe too much of a good thing is too much. Maybe being able to read, see, hear, email, text, and touch your favorite writer [or athlete or movie star] lessens the impact of their message.

I’m not going back to a rotary phone or to changing my own oil but I am going to find a place in this era that is comfortable.

Waddle on, friends..

 

 

 

The Final Countdown

jumpingjohn copyThey say a photo is worth a thousand words. This photo is actually worth over 160,000 words. 18 years. 12 columns a year. 750 words per column – give or take. And that’s just the written words. There’s no way to calculate the number of spoken words over the course of the past 18 years. From small gatherings in running specialty stores to hundreds of people at race expos to thousands of Team in Training participants at inspiration dinners I’ve talked to, tried to inspire and motivate, and made giggle more people than I could possible count.

This December that all comes to an end. I’m going to retire.

In the next few months I’ll take time to articulate all the reasons for retiring. The obvious: I’ll be 66 years old. I worked through college, had a full-time job in addition to being in the Army Band, worked through a master’s degree and doctorate, had careers as a musician and academic, created and sold a race management company, and since 1996 have been an evangelist for living a healthy, active lifestyle as “the Penguin.” I’m tired!

Hunter Thompson wrote: “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”  Take my word for it, I have done my very best to live up to that admonition.

The few people that I’ve told have asked me what I’ll do with my time. I don’t have a great answer. But, then aJOHN_CGIa copygain, if you had asked me in 1996 what I thought would happen with “the Penguin” I wouldn’t have had an answer either. What I’ve learned is that no plan that I could ever have had could have possibly been as great as what happened. I have faith that whatever happens next will be every bit as exciting and fun as what has gone before.

I’ve got a handful of Rock ‘n’ Roll events left: Seattle, Chicago, VA Beach, Philly, Savannah, Las Vegas, and the last hurrah in San Antonio. I’ll also have a few more columns on Competitor.com, and then it’s time to turn the page and look forward to the next chapter.

To be honest, I do have few ideas. There are races that I’ve always wanted to run but couldn’t because of my schedule. I’m looking forward to lining up with a few hundred – or a few thousand – of my closest friends and challenging myself. I’ve also got a motorcycle or two that are begging to be ridden. I haven’t ridden cross-country since my son and I did it to promote the 1999 Suzuki Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon.

I’m looking forward to getting my hands dirty again. There’s something both peaceful and cathartic about working in the garage. Bringing an old bike back to life, or keeping a new one looking and running well has always been one of my favorite things to do.

What will I miss? You. You, the readers. You, the runners and walkers. You, the wonderful people who were kind enough to allow me to enjoy the life that I’ve lived these past 18 years. Without you, none of the joy that has defined my life would have been possible.

So stay tuned. It ain’t over till it’s over, as Yogi Berra said.

Waddle on, friends.

John

 

 

The Long and the Short of it.

The Long And The Short Of It

Although the miles may pass slowly, the logbooks fill up fast. A running life, re-examined.

Published

November 2, 2006

When my twin grandchildren were born, my son and daughter-in-law worried that they would never get past the constant care and feeding of the babies, the lack of sleep, and just the general chaos. I told them that, from my experience as a parent, the days were long but the years were short.

I was reflecting on this when I realized that the end of 2006 marked the end of my 15th year as a runner. Fifteen years! I can remember when I first started running, I would hear people talk about running for 10 or 15 years and think, How is that possible? At that point, I was struggling to run consistently for a week at a time. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could keep it up for a decade and a half.

As it turns out, running is a lot like parenting: The days are long, but the years are short. In my early years as a runner, I could recall in detail nearly every one of my runs. And if I didn’t remember all the specifics, I could always look them up in my logbook where I painstakingly recorded every mile completed.

In the beginning, I could also describe at length my preparation for and participation in every race I attempted. From my first 5-K–the Balloon Race in 1992, where I went out too fast and crashed and burned at the finish–to the Half Ironman triathlon in the spring of 1995 where it was so hot on the run that I started hallucinating, I knew exactly how I had trained, what I ate, drank, and wore on race day, whether or not I got any sleep the night before, and how I had done in the event.

Now, after 15 years, I’d guess I’ve run about 15,000 miles–although don’t hold me to it. And I’ve lost count of the number of races I’ve done. I can’t even remember how many marathons I’ve run, let alone how I trained for each.

To be sure, there have been perfect days and great miles, as well as horrible days and awful miles. There have been times when I couldn’t wait to run and times when I couldn’t believe I had to run (as well as times when I simply refused to run). And there have been runs I wished would never end and runs that seemed they would never end. During the latter, I’d often toy with the idea of collapsing just so that I could get a ride back home.

But even the longest runs end. Even the worst races are over eventually. The days and the miles and the races keep adding up. And before you know it, you are someone you never expected to be. You are a runner.

And as a runner, you keep heading out–again and again and again. Because with your first step you may have become a runner, but it’s with every step you take after that you stay a runner. And if you’re lucky, like I am, one day you’ll wake up and 15 years will have gone by right underneath your feet.

Waddle on, friends.

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Flashback Friday: Running Off At The Mind

Imagining the worst is never best

Published

August 14, 2007

A few weeks ago, I was running on my brand spankin’ new treadmill, which currently resides in the middle of my living room in Chicago. It’s a fairly high-end model with lots of bells and whistles: one-touch pace adjustment, instant elevation options for both incline and decline, built-in television screen. About the only thing this machine doesn’t do is run the workout for you.

During this particular run, I found myself struggling early on after setting the pace at four miles per hour (an easy 15-minute-per-mile jog). My heart rate was elevated, my breathing was labored, and my legs were heavy. I slowed the pace down a bit, but it didn’t help much. After 2.25 miles, I had to quit. Although puzzled–and a little alarmed–I told myself I was just tired.

The next couple of runs I did were out on the roads. Because I was still worried about whatever had caused my failed workout earlier that week, I took it very easy. A few days later, I got back on my treadmill. But this time it was even worse. Only one mile into the workout, I was really pushing. Yes, I was still trying to regain my fitness after time off for a back injury, but this was ridiculous.

Within a matter of minutes, I had myself convinced that (1) I’d contracted some mysterious disease that was primarily manifesting itself in my running; (2) this disease was going to force me to give up running forever; (3) since I would no longer be able to run, I would be fired from Runner’s World; and (4) because I would be jobless, I would soon be living in a cardboard box on Lower Wacker Drive. I was beside myself.

Later that evening, my wife walked into the living room, looked at the treadmill, and asked me if I had the elevation raised. Before I could ask her what she was talking about, she turned the machine on and pointed to the display screen. Sure enough, the elevation was set at four percent–not exactly Mt. Everest, but certainly enough of an incline to increase my effort level. Apparently, I hit the four percent instant incline button instead of the four miles per hour button. (Note to self: Wear reading glasses when programming the treadmill.)

I wasn’t afflicted with some mystery disease–I was just stupid! And then I added to my stupidity by overlooking the simple, obvious explanations for my problem. In the realm of folk wisdom, there’s a saying that applies: “When you hear hooves, think horses not zebras.” In this case, I had black-and-white stripes on the brain, big-time.

Maybe it’s human nature to always assume the worst. I know that’s often the case for me–whenever I come down with the sniffles, I’m always convinced it’s malaria. And the thought of not being able to run had set in motion the fear that my whole life was about to come crashing down around me. Somehow it was easier to believe that I was on the threshold of doomsday than to wonder if I had made a simple mistake.

In my running–and in my life–I need to do a better job of holding back the fear that too often defines me. The first step is learning that the best answer is almost always the most obvious answer.

Waddle on, friends.

Read more Classic Chronicles at: RunnersWorld.com

The Curse of Talent

Talent-AttitudeMost days I love my job. I’m not always happy when I’m repacking a carry-on bag that I just unpacked, but for the most part traveling to races around the country, meeting runners and walkers of all shapes, sizes, ages, and abilities is very satisfying. Even more so, lately, I’ve enjoyed getting to spend time talking to, and learning from, the sport’s very best.

Recently, in a conversation with Deena Kastor, arguably the greatest runner of this generation, I asked her about her early running days. She said she knew at 11 years old that she had talent. And that having that talent identified so early on in her career was actually a curse. Knowing that she had talent meant she could rely on talent rather than hard work. According to Deena, it wasn’t until she had finished her collegiate career that she decided to see what the combination of talent and hard work would yield.

Most of us, it seems to me, curse the fact that we don’t have enough talent. Many of us are convinced that if we had more talent we’d be more successful. After all, if it was easier for us to run faster, or sing better, or think more clearly, wouldn’t life just be a piece of cake? Turns out, the answer to that may be no.

In the years that I was in the music industry, as a performer, teacher, and administrator, I often had students who were blessed with talent. I also had students who had a bare minimum of talent but had drive and ambition to spare. In music, at least, those students with talent most often excelled early on – until their talent ran out – and then those with more modest talent but a more determined work ethic prevailed.

It sounds like, if I understand what Deena was saying, that the same is true in the running industry. I can think of a number of professional runnerrunners who seem to have tons of natural talent but who, for some reason, never seem to be able turn that talent into race wins.

As a musician, my talent ran out my freshman year in college. I had been able to get away with not practicing, I got admitted into a music degree program, and even managed a small scholarship all without really trying. That all changed the day I walked into my first Millikin University Jazz Lab Band rehearsal. That day Roger Schueler, the band’s leader, made it clear the he didn’t care how much talent any of us had. He was going to make us work.

The result of his insisting that we push ourselves beyond our comfort level was a Jazz Band of relatively modest talent that became a world-class ensemble.

While I don’t have an Olympic medal, or a victory at a World Majors Marathon [or two in Deena’s case] I do have memories of working hard and playing well, and feeling like on that day, on that stage, I had done all I could. Whatever modest talent I had as a musician, I think I made the most of it.

Unfortunately, I exhausted my running talent in about a week. It just wasn’t there. Running didn’t come easily. Improvement didn’t come automatically. Running form and efficiency didn’t come naturally. What did happen almost immediately was that I knew that I liked being a runner.

So, if you’re feeling like your talent isn’t equal to your ambition, maybe it’s time to relax. Your talent is what your talent is. That won’t change. But what you do with it is what will matter most.

Waddle on, friends.

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