• 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 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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Flashback Friday: Reason to Run

CartoonMaleRunner1Forget stress. One of the best things about running is that it’s absolutely unnecessary.

I don’t have to run. Very few of us do, really. It’s not like we’re chasing down our food. We don’t have to escape from predators. Heck, most of us don’t have to run to catch a bus. But we run. The question then becomes why?

My own survey of thousands of runners has convinced me that the number one reason most people start to run is to lose weight. When the diameter of your waist is more than one-and-a-half times the length of your inseam – as mine was – running to lose weight seems like a pretty good plan.

We start running because our butts or our bellies are bigger than we want. We start because we’re getting married or going to a high school reunion and we want to look better than we think we do now. We start because we need to lower our cholesterol or blood pressure. I know. At one time or another, I’ve started running for all of those reasons.

For all the good or bad reasons we come up with for starting to run, most of us can come up with many more reasons for stopping. We don’t have the time or the energy. We don’t feel motivated or inspired. And so many of us continue to cycle through our lives running only until we decide to stop. The day that I woke up and went for a run because I didn’t have to was my first step to becoming a runner. Every day I run now is a day that I don’t have to run.

There are very few things in my life that I have to do that I truly like to do. I don’t mind brushing and flossing my teeth. But it isn’t as if I look forward to it. I don’t mind being careful about food choices and trying to make better decisions about what I put into my body, but I don’t really like it.

Even when I’m running I smile because I know that I don’t have to. I could stop. I don’t have to go so far or so fast. I don’t have to meet some imaginary goal of pace or distance. That’s not to say I don’t set goals. I do. I spend endless hours playing with training schedules. I spend days, weeks, and months preparing for a specific event. I work myself into a frenzy about the shoes I’m going to wear, what the weather might be, and whether or not I should try to sneak in another hard workout. I write dates on my shoes and numbers on my socks so I’ll know exactly which combination works best. I have a pair of running underwear with the word “London” written on the label with a permanent marker because that is the marathon pair.

Why do I go to all this trouble? Why, especially given my penchant for playing around on race day? Why bother if I know that at any given moment I’d be willing to give it all up to engage in an interesting conversation? Because I don’t have to run.

I’m afraid the reason so many new runners quit is because they never get past the point of feeling like they have to run. I can’t remember ever meeting a new runner who said they were going to start running just to add another level of stress to their lives. I’ve never met a runner who’s finished a race and said “Wow… I’m so glad I created so much drama about this by having such wildly unrealistic expectations that I sabotaged my running.”

And yet I see it all the time. It makes me sad because I know as long as you think you have to run, you won’t run for very long. Once you get beyond your own expectations, or your brother-in-law’s well-intentioned advice, you’ve got a chance to become a runner. When you finally let go of all the things you should be able to do – how fast you should be, how many miles you should put in – you’ll be a runner. For life.

Waddle on, friends.

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Planning to Fail

failing-to-plan-is-planning-to-failThis is the old saying. Failing to plan is planning to fail. Well, the author of that quote didn’t know much about people like me. I did plan. And I did plan to fail.

Whether it was a fitness program, or weight loss, or quitting smoking, I had to fail. No matter how much planning or hoping or dreaming went on in advance, the end was always the same: failure.

If I had succeeded, at any point, my life would have changed. I would have changed. The “ME” that I had spent years cultivating would be a different me. The me I knew was a smoker. The me I knew was an over-eater.  The me I knew never kept is promises to himself, or anyone else. I had to fail to stay ME.

If you’re already struggling with your decision – or hope or dream – to make positive changes in your life, through being more active, or making better choices about food, or being a bit more responsible with what you put in your body, don’t worry. It’s normal to struggle. It’s perfectly normal to have a battle raging inside of you. The YOU that you are and the YOU that you want to be are in conflict.

How could it be any other way?

But you do have a choice. You do. You are who you are in large part because that’s who you’ve been. And, it’s worked. You’ve gotten alongfailing-to-plan2 in your life just fine – or at least I did – being who I’d always been. I wasn’t miserable. I wasn’t feeling as though I was a failure. I was, as far as I could tell, just fine the way I was. Why would I change?

So, for me to be who I was and had always been I had to fail. I had to fail to become something other than what I already was EVEN if that wasn’t who I wanted to be.

It isn’t easy to change your life. It isn’t easy to lose weight, or get more active, or quit smoking. Don’t be fooled by the messages that you get from the very industry that needs you to fail in order for them to survive. It’s hard. It’s very, VERY hard. And that’s why it’s worth it.

You’re worth it.

Waddle on, friends.

John

Read more from “the Penguin”  at Competitor.com

Let the Games Begin

BLOG2014This is it. Day one. The first day of the rest of your life. Today is your first chance to succeed. And your first chance to fail. This is the first day when you can make the choice to be who you’ve always been or who you’ve always wanted to be.

I can’t tell you how many January 1st have come and gone with resolutions that were doomed. I vowed to quit smoking at least 10 times. I was going to start a diet, lose weight, start exercising, learn to speak Spanish, meditate every day, become a better person and on and on. Every January 1st was the first day that I confirmed for myself that I couldn’t keep my promises, even to myself.

No more. It’s not that I’m not going to make commitments. I’d still like to learn to speak Spanish and find a way to do something like meditating every day. I’d like to live a more mindful life, and I’m going to try. What I’m not going to do is kick myself in the butt if I don’t succeed. I know that on December 31, 2014 I’m not going to be everything I want to be. I know that I won’t be writing a Spanish language blog. I know that I won’t be “All Zen All the Time.” I’m going to lose my temper at drivers who do stupid things. I know that I will do stupid and hurtful things myself. On December 31, 2014 I’m still going to be me. I’d just like to be a little bit better me than I am today.

100dayslogo In the language of 12-step programs, I am going to focus on progress, not perfection. Or, as others put it, I’m not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I can be better. I can’t be perfect. The 100 Days Challenge [here's the Facebook page] is a way to make small change in how you organize your life. It’s simple. It’s clear. It’s possible.

All you need to do is be active, intentionally, for 30 minutes every day for 100 days. Don’t think you can find 30 minutes? Do 15 minutes twice. Can’t find 15 minutes? Do 10 minutes 3 times. What counts as activity? Anything counts. As long as it’s intentional. These days I like to walk. So, I’m going to walk a lot. You can run, or cycle, or swim. You can do Wii games with your children. You can do Zoomba [whatever that is]. It doesn’t matter.

Keep in mind that you’re not trying to get better at anything, although you may get better. You’re not trying to do anything except move, intentionally, for 30 minutes. That’s IT. Don’t over complicate it. Don’t worry about it.

As Larry the Cable Guy says… just “Get ‘r’ Done”. Make THIS the year…. John

The Recess Bell

Photo of Children Running and PlayingBefore I had written my first word for Runner’s World magazine the only other writing I had done was my dissertation “The Innovative Uses of the Trombone in Selected Compositions of Vinko Globokar.” If the title sounds pedantic, trust me, the text is even worse. If you are a chronic insomniac, get in touch with me. I’ll send you a copy. You’ll start reading and sleep like a baby.

I had been, however, writing a column for a year or so called “The Recess Bell” with a colleague for a monthly “give away” tabloid in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. My co-writer, Lee Allsbrook, was a professor of physical education at Middle Tennessee State University. He had also run 70 plus marathons and completed 4 Ironman triathlons.

We shared an enthusiasm for activity. His was life-long and both personal and professional. When he wasn’t teaching university students he would often work with local elementary school physical education teachers. And he had for years. We couldn’t go to a restaurant in town without someone recognizing him.

As the title suggests, we wrote about recess. Not recess for children, but, recess for adults. We wrote about the joy of play, the need for play, and – in fact – the absolute necessity of play. We knew it as children. We forgot it as adults.

It occurs to me that some of you may not even know what a Recess Bell is. Well, it’s a bell – an actual giant bell – that rang at the beginning of, and at the end of, recess in schools in the 50’s. When the bell rang we ran out of the classrooms. When it rang again, we lined up to go back inside. We had morning recess, time at lunch, and afternoon recess. In between recesses we had class.recess-bell

We didn’t have kids with ADD, or ADHD. We would chase each other around at recess with such intensity that we looked forward to sitting still and recovering in class. Plus, a game – or a fight – that started in morning recess would be finished in the afternoon. So, when we were in class, we rested and paid attention.

Looking back, I think recess also gave the teachers a break. Some would be recess monitors, but that rotated. The others would hide in the teacher’s lounge and many of them – in those days – had a cigarette. The net result was that ALL of us, teachers and students, came back from recess with better attitudes.

I don’t know what happened. Maybe it was Sputnik [Google it] or the moon race but at some point the people who know best decided that recess was a waste of time. They were wrong then. They’re wrong now.

Academic studies are important. But, most of the important life lessons I learned I learned at recess. I learned to get along with people I didn’t like if that meant I could play with them. I learned to share. I learned that hitting someone could hurt me more than him or her hitting me. And I learned how to say, “I’m sorry.”

If you’re an adult, stop working out and start playing. If you have children, or grandchildren, or nieces and nephews, insist that they have time to play every day. Not organized, uniformed, coached, teams. PLAY. Disorganized, loud, dirty, play.

I promise you that if you play, and they play, all of your lives will be more pleasant.

Waddle on, friends.

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Come Together

You might be surprised what Nietzsche and your running buddies have in common.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche really got a bad rap. Either that or he needed a better publicist. There was that whole “God is dead” business that upset so many people and then there’s the “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” quote that’s attributed to him. I actually read one of my favorite Nietzsche quotes in an Outward Bound handbook. In writing about mountain climbing, our boy Friedrich says, “Exhaustion is the shortest way to equality…” I’ve never climbed a mountain so I can’t attest to his accuracy there, but I can tell you it’s true for runners.

Effort and exhaustion will bring you to your most common human qualities more quickly than anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s difficult to explain to my nonrunning friends (yes, I have a few, but not many) that I have run for years with some people and still haven’t the faintest idea where they live, or what their education or economic situation is. I don’t know because to be honest, I just don’t care.

I don’t care if they’re twice as smart or make twice as much money as me, or live in a house five times the size of my apartment. What they do has nothing to do with who they are to me. I am, they are, and we are together running buddies. We see each other at our best and at our worst. We can be honest and open, because we know that our buddies have, or will, feel exactly what we’re feeling. It’s just a matter of time.

I’ve run with  training programs all over the world and have seen mend and women, young and old,  form the kind of friendships it seems only runners can have. It’s the kind of friendship that permits six of you walking into a nice restaurant on Sunday morning after a sweaty, long run to look with smug satisfaction at other diners who are simply trying to eat their breakfast in peace.

It’s the kind of friendship that allows you to go past age, gender, ethnicity, social status, and all of the initial criteria we normally use to judge people, and accept runners as the foul-smelling, loud-talking people that we are.

I’ve even had this bonding experience while running on a treadmill. The gym I train in has individual television screens at the front of each treadmill, and it’s not uncommon to see six or eight people all watching the same show together. We probably wouldn’t sit with one another and watch television anywhere else, but somehow the act of running gives us permission to share the moment.

In a world that’s quickly becoming so fast-paced that multitasking is a way of life, runners have managed to find a way to do something that’s good for our heads, bodies, and spirits, and that provides wonderful social interaction.

It may even be why today’s runners run more slowly. We may simply want to go slow enough so we can talk to each other. For us, pounding out eight miles while gasping for breath doesn’t make sense. It would deprive us of one of the most important reasons we run: the ability to connect with another person.

By the way, Nietzsche and that “God is dead” controversy is more complicated than it seems on the surface. It really had more to do with the power of the human spirit than some theological death sentence. Come out for a run with me sometime, we’ll talk all about it.

Waddle on, friends.

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Flashback Friday: Doing Your Best

THE PENGUIN CHRONICLES :: JUNE 1995 :: DOING YOUR BEST

bestDoing one’s best–sounds like an easy enough concept. “Just do your best, that will be fine,” we are told by teachers and parents. But we quickly discover that doing one’s personal best is not enough. If you were like me, you found out at an early age that simply doing YOUR best wasn’t fine.

At least it wasn’t fine if there was someone else who’s best was better than yours. If someone else could say their alphabet or color inside the lines or sing a melody or hit a ball better, then suddenly it became a matter of your being able to do not YOUR best, but THEIR best. For many of us, an activity that had been great fun up until then–singing, playing ball, reading–suddenly became an opportunity for us to be “not as good as”.

Unless, of course, you were the one who’s best set the standard. If you were the one who could do more, throw farther, or run faster, it was different. If you were the one upon whom puberty descended first and changed your body from a boy’s to a man’s or a girl’s to a woman’s while the rest of us suffered the indignity of being stuck in a child’s body, you may not understand.

But many of us learned as children that OUR best was not good enough. We learned that there was always some goal just beyond our reach, that someone else had accomplished already, which we could reach if we REALLY did our best. And when our best fell short, as it most often did, we were consoled by the cruelest of comments. “Well, at least you tried.” We were Penguins even then.

Most of us have grown up now. Well, we have at least gotten older. Many of us have gone on to be successful in our best2careers, in our families, and in our lives. But when it comes to physical activity–say running, for example–the memories of our best not being good enough still haunt us.

What has changed, or what can change, is that we can now say to ourselves that our best IS good enough. Our best. OUR BEST, not the world’s best, or the group’s best, or the family’s best, but OUR best is good enough.

I can remember vividly the joy of finishing a 10K in under an hour for the first time. It was, on that day, absolutely my best. I needed to make no apologies, no comparisons. I crossed the finish line secure in the knowledge that I had done MY best. I remember seeing the clock at the Columbus Marathon. 4:57:58!! I had done it. I had run, waddled, stumbled, shuffled, and walked a marathon in under 5 hours. That moment will be MY moment forever. MY best.

Coca Cola wanted to “teach the world to sing.” I would like to teach the world to run. But I want to teach them to run for the right reasons. I want them to know that there can still be a place in our lives every day where we can know that we’ve done our best. I want them to know the joy that comes from being absolutely sure that you have done your best. Mostly, I want them to understand that the best part is that no one can take that feeling away from you.

The miracle of running, from a Penguin’s point of view, is that the lessons we learn about ourselves can carry over into our real life. Just as I have come to understand the running eagles and sparrows, I have come to see eagles and sparrows in other parts of my life. I’ve seen the ones for whom life seems easy. I’ve seen the ones who want so much from themselves that they are chronically emotionally overtrained.

Then, I have come to see and understand the Penguins and myself. I understand that I have no more to offer than my best. It will be better than some, not as good as others. I’ve come to stop comparing my ability to run, to think, to love, with the people around me. And I’ve come to understand that my life, like my marathon, is for me to get through anyway that I can.

Waddle on, friends.

More Classic Chronicles: Click Here

Frost on the Pumpkin

101028pumpkinfrostThis morning, like most mornings when I’m home, I made my way downstairs to get a cup of coffee. I know that the computer was a great invention, and there have probably been other significant inventions in my lifetime, but for my money the BEST invention is the automatic coffee maker. Waking up to the smell of coffee already brewed is magical. But I digress.

As I looked out onto the deck there was frost on the railing. Real frost. Honest to goodness frost. FROST. When you live in Chicago, or any location that has four actual seasons, that first sign of frost can only mean one thing. Winter is packing its bags and preparing to come for a visit.

For me that means that soon I’ll have to spend a day prepping the motorcycles for the winter. I’ll have to decide which of the bikes will go to “winter camp” to be stored and which ones I’ll keep in the garage for that one day when the weather is beautiful and it’s warm enough to ride. It means moving the bicycles to the basement to make room for the shifting of “stuff” to make room for a second car. It means putting just enough gas in the snowblower to make sure it starts and then hoping I’ll never need it again.

There are lots of great things that happen once winter finally settles in. I love the snow. I love to walk in it, snow shoe in it, and just be out in it. It’s just that this morning I wasn’t ready for it. The leaves are still very green around us and the trees are still full. But I know, as of this morning, that’s all going to change soon.

winter-woods-110661299720364QHn

It means that I’ll head inside for much of my running and walking. I’ll dust off the treadmill, check the batteries in the TV remote control, strap a watch to the hand grips and get ready to do most of my workouts in the safety, security, and warmth of “Coach Jenny’s” gym. That’s not all bad. I’m not quite ready yet.

In part it’s because once the winter fully sets in I know I’ll have to reflect back on the year that I had planned. I’ll have to look back at the goals and ambitions that I set out LAST winter. I’ll have to look at the successes and failures of this year and see if, on balance, it was the year i wanted. Did I run as much as I intended? Did I discover new things about myself as an athlete, as a husband, father, grandfather, man, and human being? Is my soul in better shape now?

I’m not ready to answer those questions yet. So, I’m going to sit inside by the fire and hope that there’s going to be another warm spell. Later, a little later, I’ll get around to figuring out whether or not this was a year to remember or a year to forget.

Waddle on, friends.

John

For more wit and wisdom, go to www.johnbingham.com

Run simply, or simply run

miraculixI’ve known Thom Gilligan, the driving force behind Marathon Tours and Travel [Marathon Tours] since I first went with him to Antarctica in 2001. Since then, I’ve traveled with him as a part of his staff 6 times. Thom is an old-school, hide-bound, Greater Boston Track Club singlet, nylon shorts runner. There’s no doubt that the drive that has made his company so successful was there – and is still there – in his running.

We were chatting at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon Expo this past weekend when he said that, if you didn’t know better, you would think that running was a very complicated, technically challenging, equipment dependent, injury producing activity. There were aisles of booths selling everything from the latest shoes and apparel to the newest fad, to the injury prevention devices, recovery tools, and bars, liquids, and creams the promised to make you faster, more beautiful, and smarter.

He’s right. If you didn’t know any better you would think that ALL of those things were necessary in order to be a runner. You’d believe that with the right shoes, the right pre-race drink, the right energy replacement fluid, and the right recovery concoction you can be the runner you want to be – or dream of being.

Well, kids, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news. There’s no secret to it. The way to be a better runner – or walker – [or cellist or carpenter or anything else] is to work at being better at it. As one of my education professors explained it in regard to curriculum design, “Children learn what they do, and damn little else.”

I suppose we’d all like to find a short cut to success. After all, when was the last time you dialed the phone number of someone you call often? We live in a world where it’s possible to get things faster, make things better, and live more comfortably with nothing more than the push of a button. Don’t get me wrong. I like this world.

For me, though, one of the real attractions to running was the fact that there were no shortcuts. There were no magic potions. There wasn’t some piece of equipment that I could buy that would suddenly change me from a 12 minute miler to a 6 minute miler.

Runner_-_Cartoon_5For me to accomplish my goals I had to work for them. When I wanted to run a marathon I had to gradually increase my long runs until I was running farther than I ever thought I could. When – for a very short time – I wanted to run faster, I had to go to the track and run intervals and repeats. With time and dedication I was able to run marathons and, for me, run faster.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with all the wonderful products that are out there. I’m a firm believer that if you THINK something works for you, it does. I’ve got my favorite shoes and socks. My favorite workouts and my favorite pieces of equipment. I wouldn’t give them up even if you TOLD me they didn’t help.

But I am saying be honest with yourself. The key – the only key – to whatever your goals are is training.

Waddle on, friends.

John

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Flashback Friday: Survival of the Slowest

Survival of the slowest

john_125x125We. The few, the proud, the plodding.

Steven Pinker, in “The Language Instinct“, suggests that if language didn’t exist, people would be so driven to communicate that they would create a language. So strong is our instinct toward communication that there are almost no recorded instances of groups of people who have not developed a means of talking to one another.

Surely our ancestors had a running instinct as well. It’s hard to imagine a community of humans that would not have included runners. Some, though, then as now, were just a little slower than others.

The evidence of this instinct can be seen in children. Children seem content to simply run. Often they aren’t running to or from anything. They just run. For children, the act of running brings such pleasure that they don’t, or won’t, stop.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a reason why some adults have lost the joy in their instinctive running, look no further than childhood. How many times are children told not to run? In how many paces are they not allowed to run?

Worse yet, for some children running becomes a form of punishment, as it did for me. In my high school, when you misbehaved in gym class, you were sentenced to run laps. Is it any wonder that my running instinct was buried?

When I am asked now why I started running after 40 years of sedentary confinement, I answer that running is in my genes. Somewhere in my genetic makeup is the DNA residue of great hunters and bold warriors and fleet messengers. When I dig deep enough into my soul, I am connected directly to those who ran for their lives.

I’m sure that great runners throughout history were revered for their skill and speed. I’m not convinced, though, that all of my running ancestors were gifted. I’m sure there were Penguins even then!

Had I been alive in prehistoric times, I suspect that the members of my tribe would not have selected me to chase down dinner. Given my ability to run, it’s far more likely that I would have ended up as some other animal’s dinner.

But my limited talent doesn’t mean I can’t, or shouldn’t, run. More importantly, it doesn’t mean that I’m not a runner. My terminal velocity relative to that of others of my age and gender is the result of the decisions I have made over the course of my life.

What is often misunderstood about those of us struggling to reach the front of the back of the pack is that we really are trying. We really are, at whatever our pace, doing the best we can. Some runners, and even well-meaning non-runners, interpret our position in the pack as a measure of our effort. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We – the few, the proud, the plodding – very often train as much as, or more than, faster runners. At a blistering 12-minute pace, a 20-mile week represents a major time commitment. I do speed work and tempo runs. I do long, slow runs. I just do them very slowly.

It’s not a matter of trying. It’s not a matter of motivation. It’s just a matter of speed. A fast runner friend of mine put it succinctly when I asked him what he thought was the limiting factor in my running future. His answer was as insightful as it was concise: “Maybe you’re just slow!”

And slow I may be. But I am the best athlete I know how to be. I am the best runner I know how to be. Every day is an opportunity to improve. Every time I run, I try to be better. I have given in to my running instinct. I have given in to this passion to uncover the primal joy in running. And I hope you will, too.

Waddle on, friends.

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