• 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. 

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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

 

 

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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