• 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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Flashback Friday: The Original Penguin Chronicle

This is the VERY first Penguin Chronicle written after I finished a half-Ironman triathlon [now called 70.3]. It is unedited and was never intended to be published.

The Penguin Chronicles :: March 1995 :: You may be a Penguin
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, OK, 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.

The runner as Penguin? No way!! Gazelles, Cheetahs, thoroughbreds. The metaphors for runners always seem to conjure up images of fleet footed creatures moving swiftly across the landscape barely casting a shadow. What those metaphors miss are the thousands of us who plod steadily along undeterred and unmoved by glycogen depletion and lactate acid buildup.

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 10k qualifies as their long, slow 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.

You’ve seen us at the races. Or at least you’ve seen us at the races that are out-and-back courses. We are the ones with huge smiles on our faces. We are the ones coming across the finish line as you are getting in your car to go home.

You may be a penguin and not even know it. Take this simple test:

1) At your most recent race your goal was to:
a) set a new national age group record.
b) finish before the awards ceremony was over.

2) The food at the end of a race is usually:
a) a selection of fresh fruits, cookies, sports drinks, water.
b) bruised bananas and broken bits of oatmeal raisin cookies.

3) At a recent marathon you:
a) ran negative splits after mile 15.
b) stopped to get the rest room key at a service station.

4) At the finish line, the people are:
a) screaming because you just set a new national record.
b) related to you.
It may surprise the eagles to know that we, the penguins, are really and truly doing the best that 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. What one can do is to slowly but surely undo the years of emotional neglect and abuse of the soul.
We penguins run with more weight than the eagles and sparrows. We run carrying the burden of failures past, present and future. We drag with us our failures as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters. We carry on our shoulders the accumulated residue of diets that didn’t work, exercise programs that didn’t stick, and resolutions that were never kept.

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

You may be a penguin, or you may know someone who is. The running community has barely begun to attract and embrace the penguins in their midst. We are out there. We are looking for any chance at all to prove to ourselves that we can do it. We need to convince ourselves that we can persist against the odds. We are waiting to prove that we can succeed.

A word to the race directors: Most of you are, or were, probably at least sparrows, if not eagles. Most of you continue to be involved in the running community because of the pleasant and positive experiences that you have had. Most of you cannot imagine running a 10K in 60 minutes and being thrilled.

But, believe it or not, there are thousands of penguins out there shuffling and scuffling their way to the finish line. For them, as for me, the miracle is not that we finished, the miracle is that we had the courage to start.

If you want to do the nicest thing imaginable for the penguins, give us a round of applause at the beginning of the race. Let us take a minute to congratulate ourselves for standing at the starting line. Let us hear, maybe for the first time in our lives, the sound of a group of people cheering for our accomplishments.

Nearly everyone will be gone by the time we reach the finish line. If we are going to hear the cheers, it will have to be at the beginning. Once the race starts, as the eagles pursue absolute perfection and the sparrows reach for a new personal record, the penguins will be engaged in the search for their inner child. Our run is not measured by the clock. Our run is measured only by our own will.

So… fellow penguins… UNITE. We, the webbed-footed wonders will prevail. We do not march to the beat of a different drummer, we ramble to the syncopation of our own existence. We run free of the constraints of VO2 max and lactic acid. We seek a higher order of satisfaction.

And yes… fellow penguins… we are athletes. We are, perhaps, the greatest of all athletes. Whatever your chosen method of play, whether it is running or bicycling (oh yes, there are penguins out on the roads!!) or water aerobics, or anything else that gets you up and moving, you are an athlete. You personify the very best of the athletic ideal.

Waddle on, friends, the future is ours.

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3 Responses

  1. You always write great articles, but I have to say… this one has got to be my FAVORITE! Thank you so much for letting it be published. You are AWESOME!

  2. THANK YOU for publishing this. Once again you have brought tears to my eyes and have helped me push back the negative voice that tells me I will never be a “real runner.”

  3. Thank you. I’ve never been “athletic” in my life. Recently, I’ve started running (for about two months now) and have been wondering, “At what point am I no longer ‘learning to run’ and can say,’I’m a runner.’” Thank you for the validation that I am not some “Johnny-come-lately” to exercise. I run. Ergo, I’m a runner. Today, and not at some distant future time, I’m an athlete. I’m a penguin. :)

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