• 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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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

 

 

Friday Favorite: Stacking the Deck

lyubov-orlovaStacking the Deck

Imagine a marathon in shorts and a singlet in the shadow of a 10,000 year old glacier.

The 2001 Antarctic Marathon, or The Last Marathon as it is called, was exactly that way. I know. I was there. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When Thom Gilligan, of Marathon Tours, called to ask if I wanted to run with a bunch of penguins, I said “Sure!”. When he explained that the penguins were in Antarctica and that the only way to get to the race site was by flying to the tip of South America and then taking a 2 day boat ride through the roughest seas on the planet and that running the race meant spending 11 days on a ship my stomach sank. But, I was committed.

Let me admit right off the bat that my idea of roughing it is not having 24 hour room service. Let me further admit that my nautical experience has consisted mostly of trying not to drown while being dragged around head first behind a ski boat. And, finally, I must have been absent the one day we spent talking about Antarctica in my high school geography class, because I knew nothing except that the South Pole was there.

But, ever eager to take on new challenges, I set out to prepare for the adventure. I sought out cold and snowy conditions in which to train. I experimented with clothes and gear and shoes. I even found myself  shopping in “outfitter” stores for windblocker fleece and waterproof gloves. And to complete the look, I stopped shaving two months before the trip began. I wanted to have the rugged look that all the Polar explorers seemed to have.

When the departure date finally arrived, I was ready. I was prepared for anything the Antarctic could throw at me. Or so I thought.  I was ready to take on the cold, the wind, and the course. But, as I was soon to find out, when it comes to Antarctica, there is no being ready. This is a continent that is wilder and more unpredictable than any other place on earth.

My first lesson in the vagaries of Antarctica came on the first full day aboard the ship. We sailed through the dreaded Drake Passage, the point of convergence of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as if it were a quiet lake. It was like the continent was tempting us to continue, luring us deeper into it’s grasp. With our spirits high we sailed towards King George Island, the site of the marathon itself. And it was there that we learned that the Antarctic is a beast that no one can tame.

On our first evening off the coast of King George Island we watched the waves break over the bow. We were barely moving forward and yet the waves came crashing across the deck. The fog was so thick that we could not see 1/4 mile to the Uruguayan research base that would have been the starting line. The seas were so rough that we couldn’t get the advance team off the ship to mark the course.

The next morning the conditions were worse. We zigged and zagged helplessly up and down the Bransfield Straight waiting for any kind of break in the weather. Finally, late in the evening of the second day, the winds calmed down enough to get the advance team to the island.

We returned to King George Island late the following day to bring the advance team back on board, but it wasn’t to be. The winds were gale force by then. Undaunted, we gathered for the prerace pasta dinner in the hopes of running a marathon the following morning.

Race day dawned with more wind and waves. The advance team was stranded on shore. We couldn’t get to them, and they couldn’t get to us. The marathon was canceled for that day, and we sailed away in search of calmer water and clearer skies. That night, we returned to King George, ate another prerace pasta dinner, and waited for the dawn.

The weather on the second race day morning was the worst we had encountered. In addition to the wind and the waves, we now had horizontal snow which caused white out conditions on what would have been the first three miles of the course. Somehow, the advance team was rescued from the island and returned to the ship. But the race was now clearly in jeopardy. We had exhausted the time we had to wait. It was now or never.

At noon on the second race day, the announcement came which we had all feared. The race, the marathon, the chance to run on Antarctica, was canceled. We sat in stunned silence as we tried to absorb the reality of what was happening. After nearly six days aboard the ship, after traveling thousands of miles, after training for months, the marathon was not going to happen.

That might be the end of the story, if this had been a group of normal people. But, these were runners. We had all faced adversity in one form or another before. We had all learned to adjust our definitions of success. We had all stared defeat squarely in the eye and refused to give in. We were NOT going to concede to the frozen continent. We would run our marathon one way or another.

And so it was that at 3:10 PM on February 6, 2001, a group of runners began circling the sixth deck of the Byula Orlova as we steamed towards Neko Harbor. With each lap we were treated to giant floating icebergs, or whales spouting in the distance, or seals sticking their heads up to see what we were doing, and penguins playing beside the ship. We ran 400 times around the deck as the ship rolled and the waves crashed. We ran through the snow and wind. We ran because to not have run would have meant admitting defeat.

At 3:30 PM another group started running on the fifth deck. At 11:50 PM two runners ran in the light of the midnight sun. The next morning at 5:30 and 10 am [after a third pasta dinner] the rest of the field gathered to compete. Later that evening a woman ran a 1/2 marathon while her husband counted laps. And finally, after midnight of the second day, a young man named Zack ran his solitary marathon in the middle of the night.

What does it all mean? I’m not sure. I know that I have never felt more a part of something. I have never felt more connected to a group of people whose spirits could not be vanquished. I have never believed more deeply in the power of the will of a bunch of people who would not let their dream die. And I have never been more proud to be a part of the running community.

As the commercial says: Runners… yeah… we’re different.

EPILOG: February 28, 2014

The wonderful Lyubov Orlova’s fate has not been good since we were on her. Read the latest: Orlova becomes Ghost Ship

Finding the Strength

finish-lineAs one of the finish line announcers for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Series, I see a lot of people cross the finish line. In 2013 we estimated that I’d seen well over 200,000 people finish a half, or full, marathon. Most finishers just make their way across the line without much fanfare. There’s the occasional screaming and fist pumping. Once in a great while someone will do a cart-wheel across the line. [bad idea, by the way, because the timing mat may not record your time]

But this past Sunday, at the P.F. Chang’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Half Marathon finish line I saw something that truly moved me. A father was pushing a running stroller – not all that unusual. When he got about 30 yards from the finish line he stopped and took the blanket off the child in the stroller. It was not a baby in the stroller, or even a toddler. It was a child, a young girl, who was probably 8-10 years old, who was disabled. She also had a prosthetic leg.

The father gently lifted the young girl out of the stroller and set her on the ground. She was a little unstable at first as she reached out to grab his hand. When she had her footing her face lit up with a beaming smile. It was a look of pure, unabashed, joy. The father held his daughter’s hand and they walked, proudly, across the finish line. I will never forget the look of satisfaction on that young girl’s face.

It was a reminder to me, and I hope to all of you, that we need to spend more time being grateful for what we can do and less time stressing about what we can’t do. elenroose

That father’s life is very different than mine.  I don’t have a disabled child to love and care for. I don’t have to confront the emotional, physical, and financial challenges that he faces every day. And yet there are days when I think my life is difficult. I complain that I am inconvenienced by traffic or weather. I get angry when my day doesn’t go exactly as planned because something, or someone, changes the plan.

But I have a choice. That father and his young daughter don’t.

I wish I knew who they were. I wish I could congratulate them on their courage and their strength. I wish I could thank them for inspiring me to accept with grace whatever life hands me. The next time I get grumpy I’m going to remember the smile on that young girls face and say a quite word of thanks for all that I have.

Waddle on, John

Click here to get the digital version of the Penguin Chronicles every month in Competitor Magazine.

Flashback Friday: Running With Friends

cartoonrunnerstopThe “Penguin Chronicles” actually began in 1995 as a series of e-mails to a group called The Dead Runners Society. At that time the Internet was much smaller than it is now and most of the users were either academics or government workers. Marlene Cimons, a member of the DRS, sent several of the e-mail columns to the editors of “Runner’s World” and the rest is history. This column was one of the original e-mails, written in September 1995.

Over the years, I’ve seen some really fast runners. I’ve actually known some pretty fast runners. And, I guess I’d say that I’ve been acquainted with some kinda fast runners. But I’ve never been a friend with any really fast, or pretty fast or even kinda fast runners. All my friends are Penguins.

I’m not altogether sure why that is. It may be that at the beginning of races, the really fast runners talk to no one, the pretty fast runners try to talk to the really fast runners and the kinda fast runners talk to themselves. Me… I talk to the people around me. I talk to the group of runners who find themselves being pushed backwards as the field of really fast, pretty fast and kinda fast runners line up ahead of us.

I talk to Charles. Now Charles, on a good day, is a 60-minute 10K runner. Charles is the guy in lime-green spandex shorts. Charles is the guy who thinks that if he pulls his lime-green spandex shorts up high enough they will hide his sagging abdominals. They don’t. They do, however, reveal more about Charles than I wanted to know.

I talk to Will. I don’t know Will very well, but I think he must live alone. Will likes to talk. No, Will loves to talk. Mostly about Will. I’ve seen Will run a half-marathon in padded biking shorts because that’s all he had with him. That’s the way it is with Will. Don’t ask him how he’s doing, unless you have the time to hear the answer.

I talk to Lee a lot. Lee is a friend. Lee has run 70 some-odd marathons. Well, OK, Lee has been in 70-some-odd marathons. Lee ran my first marathon with me. We talked a lot that day; it took us 5 hours. Lee likes to finish before they close the course. And usually he does. But not always. But that’s the way Lee wants it. The only time I’ve ever seen Lee run fast was when I told him that Will wanted to talk to him!

I talk to people whose names I don’t know, but who I see all the time. For them, I make up a name, like “the Leprechaun Man.” The Leprechaun Man is about 70, I think, and about five feet tall. In the winter he runs in a green wool sweater with a pointy green hat. He looks like a leprechaun. He’s a downhill runner. On hilly courses he passes me on every downhill and squeals “I’m a downhill runner!!”

I talk to the panty-hose lady. I’m sure she has a real name, but the panty-hose lady works just as well. She wears panty-hose under her running shorts. She wears them when it’s 20 degrees and when it’s 80 degrees. Sometimes they are sheer to the waist, other times they change colors about the middle of her thighs. I’ve always wanted to ask her how she decides which kind to wear.

Sometimes, though, if I go to a race I’ve never done before, I don’t see any of my old friends, so I’ve developed a system to help me make new friends. This system has been thoroughly tested at running events around the country. I pass it on to you for your use.

  • Never try to talk to someone who isn’t wearing socks. I don’t know why, for sure, but people who don’t wear socks also don’t talk.cartoonrunnercut
  • Don’t try to talk to anyone with a tattoo on his or her ankle.
  • If the temperature is below freezing, don’t talk to anyone who is wearing only running shorts and cotton gloves.
  • Don’t talk to anyone who is wearing a shirt from an impressive event. They want to tell you about it.
  • Find someone who is standing alone near the back. They haven’t done many races and will welcome the company.
  • Look for people near the back wearing new shoes.
  • Look for someone wearing a shirt from some other sport, like a professional bass fishing tournament. They’ve got stories to tell.
  • For races over 5K, get into a sprinters crouch. If the person next to you looks over and does the same thing, they know less about running than you do – and you’ve found a partner for that race.

I make new friends at almost every race using this system. I met a woman from Pittsburgh who trained for a marathon as a declaration of independence from her husband and children. I met a stroke victim who could only really run with one leg while he dragged the other. I met another man whose arthritis had twisted his back so severely that he almost ran like a crab. I have laughed myself silly. I have cried my eyes out.

It doesn’t matter what the location or distance, these interesting folks are there. They are among the most interesting people I have ever met. Their stories are as fascinating as they are. Because it takes us so much longer to run the races, we have the time to tell each other our stories. I’ve told mine many times and never had one person say that they couldn’t talk because it might cost them a PR for that course!!!

And maybe, in the final analysis, that’s why all my friends are Penguins. Maybe for us, the running is just a means to an end. Maybe we’re slow because our stories are long and need time to be told. Maybe we know that we can’t hear others, or ourselves, when the blood is pounding in our ears.

Waddle on, friends.

Back to The Penguin Chronicles Archive

It’s a Small World After All

BLOGJohn_mickeyI spent most of last week at the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend. Yep. I know. A weekend is a weekend. Two days. But this weekend is now a week and that’s great.

The first time I went to, what was, the WDW Marathon Weekend was in 1999 as part of the Runner’s World Pace Team. I couldn’t have been more excited. I had only been to Disney World once before, in 1974, when my son was 3 years old. Walt Disney World in 1974 was The Magic Kingdom, at that was about it. You bought packs of tickets that were lettered to indicate what ride you could get on. The BIG rides, like Space Mountain, required an “E” ticket. You still hear people refer to something exciting as an “E” ticket ride. And that’s where it came from.

Being there with the Runner’s World team was magical – if you pardon the expression. The column “The Penguin Chronicles” had only been in the magazine for a couple of years and there were already signs that the “Second Running Boom” was getting traction and that the running event industry was going to change. Gone were the days when only skinny dudes showed up and tried to run marathons in under 3 hours. By 1999 the tide was shifting.

I was leading the 5-hour pace team. 5 hours. That was our goal. It wasn’t an absolute. We kinda wanted to run it in 5 hours, but, a lot depended on how many characters we saw and how often we stopped for photos. My buddy Sid  – a now retired Navy Senior Chief – was there with me then and he was there at the expo this year. I think Sid is as much a part of the WDW Marathon Weekend as Mickey and Minnie.johnmickey4book copy

The event has expanded from a marathon, to a half and a full marathon on the same day, do a half on Saturday and a full on Sunday – the “Goofy Race and a Half Challenge” to the “Dopey” challenge of running a 5K on Thursday, 10K on Friday, half-marathon on Saturday, and full marathon on Sunday. Not everyone does every event, but this year some 7,000 of the total of 65,000 participants took on the Dopey challenge.

And that’s how the weekend turned into a week. And that’s how the singular challenge of finishing a marathon in a specific time turned into enjoy 1, 2, 3, or 4 days of running and walking and taking photographs in the theme parks. Even the most visionary of us would never have predicted the number and kinds of participants that are at the WDW Marathon these days.

But I like to think that Sid, and I, and the others that paced with us back in 1999 had a little to do with it. We had a soft goal, of finishing in 5 hours, and a hard goal, of having the most fun we could possibly have on a marathon course in the happiest place on earth. We accomplished both goals that day.

So to everyone who was there – to everyone who wanted to be there – and to everyone who is thinking about being there in 2015 – all I can say is that the experience is unlike anything else on earth. It is the best “E” ticket ride that there’s ever been.

Waddle on,

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Sticks and Stones

sticksandstonesRunners, and walkers, seem to be getting lot of attention lately. And not the kind that we want. Or at least it might not seem that way.

First someone wrote about how we were the slowest generation of runners. Of course, that’s not true. World records at nearly every distance are being set all the time. We, the less fast, are not doing anything to prevent the really fast from getting faster.

Then they said we didn’t care about how fast we were. As evidence they pointed out that the “Color Runs” weren’t even timed. Imagine that. A group of healthy, active people get together and run – or walk – just for the FUN of it. What could be WORSE?

Then, a one-time marathoner writes about her experience and passes terrible and possibly deadly advice. They used to say that an expert was someone with a briefcase that was 25 miles from home. These days, an expert is anyone with internet access.

And finally, some guy at the Wall Street Journal is upset because people put 26.2 stickers on their cars. I guess he’s not bothered by the “My Child in an Honor Student” stickers, or the “father, mother, 3 kids, 2 dogs and a cat” stickers, or my personal favorite, the “Child peeing on the Ford logo” sticker. He’s also troubled because people seem to run outside where he can see them. For PETE’S sake.

He’s my response to ALL of them. I was not put on this planet to make you happy, or to make your life easier, or to make sure that I don’t do something that you don’t like. Period. I run. I walk. I run slow. I wear running clothes. I wear a running watch. I do because I know that living an active life is the life I want. And I don’t care what you think.

Nearly everyone knows that I lived a very sedentary life until I was in my early 40’s. In fact, I describe it as sedentary confinement. No one put me inquote-roosevelt-comparison-joy sedentary confinement. I did it to myself. Then I walked a little, and cycled a little, and ran a little. I quit smoking, ate better, drank less and discovered that I was happier than I had ever been.

HAPPIER THAN I HAD EVER BEEN! And do you think I’m going to let some pin-head columnist tell me that I can’t do what makes me happy? And that I can’t be proud of my accomplishments? And that I don’t have to worry about how what makes me happy compares to what makes someone else happy. Do you REALLY think that for one minute I’m going to stop doing what makes me happy because it makes someone else UNhappy. NO WAY.

I don’t have bumper stickers on my car. But, I’m thinking about getting some. I’ve run 45 marathons. That should pretty much cover up the scratches and dents on the back of my car. I think I’m going to start wearing my electric yellow running jacket EVERYWHERE I go. And I think I’m going to try to find the brightest, loudest pair of running shoes that I can find and wear them everywhere.

More than anything else, when I run, or walk, or cycle, I am going to smile until my face hurts. I’m going to show my teeth to every passing car and people that I meet on the street. I am going to show them, in no uncertain terms, that being active makes me happy. And I hope you will too.

Waddle on, friends.

For more Penguin wit and wisdom go to: The Penguin Chronicles Archive

Flashback Friday: City of Hope

NYCM1A few things that New York City Marathon runners – and spectators – can teach the world.

One of the biggest thrills of my former life as a trombonist was working with Frank Sinatra. And one of the biggest thrills of working with Sinatra was performing “New York, New York” – it just doesn’t get any better than that. So standing with more than 35,000 runners on the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge at the start of last year’s ING New York City Marathon and listening to Frank blasting through the speakers made me more than a little emotional. It is, after all, New York. Gotham City. The Big Apple. It’s the site of some of America’s greatest moments. It has been the gateway for generations of immigrants and the welcome mat that is set out for the rest of the world. It’s also the city that brought us all together in its grief and taught us all a lesson in heroics. It is what it is. It is New York.

Unlike many of my marathons (this was number 37), I ended up running this one on my own. I started with a couple of friends, but by mile six it was clear that in order for me to soak up and savor all that the event had to offer, I’d have to go it alone – which is a relative term when you’re in the throngs of racers and more than two million spectators. I told my friends to meet me at our designated after-race spot. By running without them, I wouldn’t diminish my own experience by trying to see it through someone else’s eyes.

Maybe it sounds simplistic, but the New York City Marathon could only occur in New York. There are other great big-city marathons – Chicago (my hometown) and London come to mind. But as great as they are, they aren’t equal to New York. It isn’t just the course. It isn’t even just the city. New Yorkers themselves make this event what it is.

It’s the old woman in a beat-up coat in Brooklyn handing out aspirin and seltzer water; the woman in Queens with a coffee urn filled with espresso; the woman in Manhattan passing out bananas; and the young man in Harlem offering us his Halloween candy. The joy, the encouragement, and the pride may have presented themselves differently in each neighborhood, but the excitement was the same. Cheering for us, an international mass of humanity running within feet of their homes, brought out the very best in everyone.

On that day, we seemed to achieve what generations of politicians and philosophers have failed to do. With nothing more than our NYCM2running shoes, we accomplished what all the wars and weapons have failed to do. We were, for a few hours anyway, a community of people whose sameness was more important than our differences.

I’m not saying running could solve all of the world’s problems, but I think it would be a good start. On that day in New York, people of different religions, colors, and ethnic backgrounds supported and encouraged one another. For at least one day, the most important race was the human race. At least that was my experience.

Could that happen anywhere other than New York? Maybe, but I don’t think so. It is, after all, New York. It is where everyone – from a very fast woman from Kenya to a very slow man from Chicago – are given the keys to the city. And on marathon day in that city of cities, all that matters is that we are runners.

Waddle on, friends.

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