• 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 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

 

 

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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Life is short. Vacation actively. MORE INFO

Flashback Friday: I am not a Jogger

I may waddle when I run, but I’m running all the same.

free-vector-jogging-boy-clip-art_109244_Jogging_Boy_clip_art_hightThe late Dr. George Sheehan, beloved “Runner’s World” columnist and arguably the first running boom’s premier philosopher, once wrote that the difference between a runner and a jogger was a signature on a race application. (For the youngsters out there, there was a time before online registration when you actually filled out a paper application, signed it, attached a check, and mailed it in. Quaint, I know.)

As succinct as Dr. Sheehan’s definition was, it made the point. If you were motivated enough to train for and participate in an organized running event, then you were a runner. Anyone willing to risk public failure in order to be a part of the running community – no matter what his or her pace per mile might be – was a runner. Period. Kind of hard for anyone to argue with that logic.

But a few months ago, an ad ran in this magazine that drew a very hard line between runners and joggers. I immediately heard from tons of readers who were upset by the distinction. To me, however, such definitions are meaningless, since those of us who call ourselves runners already know why we call ourselves runners. Your reasons may be different from mine, but here’s why I know I am a runner:

I am a runner because my runs have names. I do tempo runs and threshold runs and fartlek runs. I do long, slow runs and track workouts. My runs are defined, even if my abs are not.

I am a runner because my shoes are training equipment, not a fashion statement. The best shoe for me is the one that makes me a better runner. I choose the shoe that goes with my running mechanics, not my running outfit.

I am a runner because I don’t have running outfits. I have technical shirts and shorts and socks. I have apparel that enhances the experience of running by allowing me to run comfortably. I can say “Coolmax” and “Gore-Tex” in the same sentence and know which does what.

I am a runner because I know what effort feels like, and I embrace it. I know when I’m pushing the limits of my comfort and why I’m doing it. I know that heavy breathing and an accelerated heart rate – things I once avoided – are necessary if I want to be a better runner.

I am a runner because I value and respect my body. It will whisper to me when I’ve done too much. And if I choose to listen to that whisper, my body won’t have to scream in pain later on.

I am a runner because I am willing to lay it all on the line. I know that every finish line has the potential to lift my spirits to new highs or devastate me, yet I line up anyway.

I am a runner because I know that despite my best efforts, I will always want more from myself. I will always want to know my limits so that I can exceed them.

I am a runner because I run. Not because I run fast. Not because I run far.

I am a runner because I say I am. And no one can tell me I’m not.

Waddle on, friends.

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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

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