• 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 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

 

 

The Long and the Short of it.

The Long And The Short Of It

Although the miles may pass slowly, the logbooks fill up fast. A running life, re-examined.

Published

November 2, 2006

When my twin grandchildren were born, my son and daughter-in-law worried that they would never get past the constant care and feeding of the babies, the lack of sleep, and just the general chaos. I told them that, from my experience as a parent, the days were long but the years were short.

I was reflecting on this when I realized that the end of 2006 marked the end of my 15th year as a runner. Fifteen years! I can remember when I first started running, I would hear people talk about running for 10 or 15 years and think, How is that possible? At that point, I was struggling to run consistently for a week at a time. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could keep it up for a decade and a half.

As it turns out, running is a lot like parenting: The days are long, but the years are short. In my early years as a runner, I could recall in detail nearly every one of my runs. And if I didn’t remember all the specifics, I could always look them up in my logbook where I painstakingly recorded every mile completed.

In the beginning, I could also describe at length my preparation for and participation in every race I attempted. From my first 5-K–the Balloon Race in 1992, where I went out too fast and crashed and burned at the finish–to the Half Ironman triathlon in the spring of 1995 where it was so hot on the run that I started hallucinating, I knew exactly how I had trained, what I ate, drank, and wore on race day, whether or not I got any sleep the night before, and how I had done in the event.

Now, after 15 years, I’d guess I’ve run about 15,000 miles–although don’t hold me to it. And I’ve lost count of the number of races I’ve done. I can’t even remember how many marathons I’ve run, let alone how I trained for each.

To be sure, there have been perfect days and great miles, as well as horrible days and awful miles. There have been times when I couldn’t wait to run and times when I couldn’t believe I had to run (as well as times when I simply refused to run). And there have been runs I wished would never end and runs that seemed they would never end. During the latter, I’d often toy with the idea of collapsing just so that I could get a ride back home.

But even the longest runs end. Even the worst races are over eventually. The days and the miles and the races keep adding up. And before you know it, you are someone you never expected to be. You are a runner.

And as a runner, you keep heading out–again and again and again. Because with your first step you may have become a runner, but it’s with every step you take after that you stay a runner. And if you’re lucky, like I am, one day you’ll wake up and 15 years will have gone by right underneath your feet.

Waddle on, friends.

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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

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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Flashback Friday: Horse With No Name

Leg-0032-Mojave-DesertAfter suffering through one of the coldest and snowiest winters in a long time, I needed to read about something different.

Sometimes going too far is just far enough

Running is a dangerous activity. It’s not that running itself is so dangerous, but being a runner allows you to consider doing things that an ordinary person wouldn’t even think of doing. At least this is how I’m explaining my latest foray into the abyss of my own ignorance. I suppose it was mostly a matter of being naive, but looking back it just seems plain stupid. I’ve always had a passion for the high desert. There’s no explanation for this passion, it just is. Maybe it’s the starkness of terrain or the seeming lifelessness of the landscape that draws me. Maybe it’s knowing that the mystery of the desert is that nearly all of it’s secrets are actually right there in front of you if you know where to look. Whatever it is, on this day I decided to venture alone onto the path of discovery.

The site was the Canyon Trail in the Chihuahuan Desert, a part of the the Bosque del Apache in south-central New Mexico. The brochure promised that this trail would be a window to the natural world and an opportunity for replenishment. It was the replenishment that I needed most. My running, while going well, had gotten lost in the chaos of schedules and airports and long days of traveling. I was in the first week of a 20 week cross-country tour. I needed the replenishment, and I needed it badly.

The trail began by winding through a dry river bed toward the mouth of Solitude Canyon. I stared at the trail and marveled that there were no tracks. No one had traveled this trail anytime lately. No one, no thing. Or so I told myself. I looked up to try to catch a glimpse of a red-tailed hawk or golden eagle, but saw only sky. I searched the canyon for signs of raven or great horned owl nests, but saw only sandstone. And soon it occurred to me. I was alone. Alone, it seems, except for the brown bats, fringed myotis and Mexican free-tailed bats that are common to the area. BATS?!

Following the trail, and the brochure, a ran my hand over the ledges, holes and crevices that shelter lizards, rattlesnakes, and pack rats. Lizards, rattlesnakes, and pack rats. Bad enough, but nothing compared to the possibility of encountering a western diamondback snake which also inhabits the area. The stupidity of a city kid alone in the desert was sinking in. I knew where I was. I knew where I wanted to go. I had NO idea what I was doing.

I tried to remember every scene of every Western movie I had ever seen. I tried to find comfort knowing that I was carrying a Swiss Army knife, which would have been fine if I had wanted to file my nails or uncork a bottle of wine, but it was hard to imagine defending myself with a plastic toothpick! The truth was, I was scared. I was out of my element, out of my comfort zone, out of my world. I could have turned back. I could have given in to the fear of whatever the desert had in store for me. I could have conceded that I had no business wandering around with nothing more than small backpack and a bottle of water. I could turned back. But I didn’t. And that’s what makes running so dangerous. For most of my adult life I was afraid of everything, and everyone.

I was afraid of getting too close to people, too far from what I knew. I worked hard to control the elements of my life and was frightened when the unanticipated occurred. Until I ran. As I runner I learned that control is an illusion. As a runner I learned that the fear outside of me was always overshadowed by the fear inside of me.

As a runner I learned that the unknown, whether that be distance or effort, or course, was to be embraced, not avoided. As I runner I learned to trust my body, my instinct, my self. As a runner, I confronted the canyon, and my fear. Hours later when I returned to my car I was relieved – to be sure – and replenished. In the loneliness of the desert with no one there to turn to, with no one there to credit or blame, with no one there to share the experience, I relearned one of running’s most important lessons. I learned again for the first time that running, for me, is less about motion, and more about movement. I learned again that my feet are the greatest teachers I have ever had.

Waddle on, friends. new_alaskalogo

Join me on my next BIG adventure.

The Great Alaskan Running Cruise

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.

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