• 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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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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Sticks and Stones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waddle on, friends.

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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: City of Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waddle on, friends.

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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.

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Flashback Friday: Prized Possessions

Note the date. November of 2000. I talk about having run 20 marathons. I’ve run 45 now and I still feel the same way.

November 2000

Prized Possessions

marathon-medalsThe monuments to my childhood were all over my parent’s house: a plaster cast of my hand, the Valentine’s card I made. My home is filled with similar monuments to my son’s childhood: a wreath made of rotini pasta that hangs on the door every Christmas, the rock on which felt feet, head, and tail are glued in a shape that looks–if you have imagination–very much like a turtle. They are prized possessions.

My home is also filled with monuments of my return to childhood, to a time of play and joy: finisher’s medals and photos, race t-shirts, a second place trophy from a duathlon where only two males competed in the 45-49 age group. These too are prized possessions.

I’m always interested in what other runners do with their medals. Some display them ceremoniously in glass-covered cases with their race number, shirt and photo. I don’t know how these people do it! How do they find the time?

My medals are looped over the bedroom doorknob. Why? Because that’s where I put them as I unpack after a race weekend. I come home, empty the suitcase, and hang the medal on the doorknob. Unceremonious? Maybe. But as the number has increased, the medals have become sort of like a wind chime. Most of the time I don’t notice them, but when I move the door, their clanging together reminds me of how much I have accomplished.

After completing over twenty marathons, the ribbons are so thick that it’s impossible to turn the doorknob. I’ve had to start hanging the medals on both sides of the knob. Their weight makes me worry about the strength of the door hinges. The last thing I want is the door crashing to the ground in the middle of the night!

Recently I was asked if, after so many marathons, it gets any easier to run one. It may for some, but not for me. Sure, I understand the distance better, I know not to blast off in the early miles, I recognize the brain fade in the middle miles, and I’m not surprised by the fatigue in the later miles. But, like cats, no two marathons are ever exactly the same. And the lessons learned in one may be of no use whatever in the next.

My medals remind me of the humility required to run marathons. My first was in 1993 in Columbus, Ohio. That day was nearly perfect. With only a 15 mile training run, I started the race with a protective naiveté that I’ve never had since. I didn’t know that I wasn’t prepared, I didn’t know what to expect, and I had no particular plan. It is still my fourth fastest marathon.

I see the medals from Chicago and Marine Corps in 1997, the “year of the double,” when I ran the two races on consecutive weekends. The idealach-half-medal of running two marathons in two weeks ranks very high on the list of “stupid Penguin tricks.”  What’s most interesting, in retrospect, is that I ran the fastest 10K of the two races at the end of the second marathon. By then I was tired of running and just wanted it to be over.

Then there are the medals from London for 1998, 1999, and 2000. It’s the only race I’ve completed three times, the one that has the most emotional connections for me. I’ve always run London with a combination of joy and sorrow. The medals from the half marathon in Florence, Italy, are hanging there too.  Firenze is where I learned how good a banana and hot tea can taste during a race, and just how lost you can get when you lose sight of the runners in front of you and can’t speak the language.

That doorknob holds memories of the good and the bad days, of people who brought great inspiration into my life and then faded away. There are memories of cities and streets and steps taken toward a finish line that never really seems to be the end.

Sometimes I think my medals deserve a place of greater distinction. I think I should display them where others can see them. Then I remember why I wanted those medals in the first place. I wanted them not to show to anyone else, but as reminders of my own journey as a runner and as a person.

Like my son’s rotini wreath, I will prize them not for what they are, but for what they mean to me.

Waddle on, friends.

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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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Flashback Friday: Happy Trails

With all the emphasis on off-road running and racing, I thought it would be fun to revisit my discovery of trail running.

Venturing off-road leads to simple yet profound discoveries.

I’ve never been much of a trail runner. Okay, I’ve never been much of a road runner either, but that’s not the point. As one whose feet never get more than an inch off the ground, I worry about bumps in the sidewalk. So it’s hard to imagine encountering branches, roots and rocks.

But I finally gave alaskatrail1in. With all the hoopla about the pleasures of trail running, I thought I should at least see what the fuss was about. And to my surprise, I discovered a fun, new running environment.

It didn’t hurt that the first trails I tried were in Eugene, Oregon, where the paths have names like “Amazon” and “Pre.” It wasn’t hard to figure out what people liked about running on them. These bark-covered, well-kept, well-marked routes were ideal for my first tentative off-road ventures.

It also didn’t hurt that the next trails I tried were around Lake Tahoe, California, where physical efforts are rewarded with spectacular panoramas. This terrain wasn’t nearly as predictable, however. Sometimes it seemed I was dodging as much of the trail as I was using. Nevertheless, the joys of off-road running were beginning to take hold.

Somewhere out on these paths, I felt a change taking place. I found that my flat-footed, stubby-legged stride, which looks so awkward on the street, actually worked to my advantage on the trail. My low-to-the-ground build also made me more stable. On this rugged ground, where even the fast move slowly, I was able to keep up.

Then there was the inescapable romance of running through the woods.

Without knowing it, I was becoming just one more animal in the forest. As I ran, I wasn’t always sure what I was seeing or hearing, but I felt more connected to the squirrels and birds and whatever else was hiding in the brush.

There was a certain giddiness to the experience. The irregularity of the terrain masked the irregularities of my running. And walking the steep uphill sections was not merely accepted but advised. The more I ran, the better I felt. And the better I felt, the more I understood.

Life is simpler on the trails. Running here can bring you closer to what running was meant to be. Running doesn’t need to be only about going alaskatrail2farther and faster. It can be about feeling free and unfettered. Running can be about opening yourself up to people, and it can be about opening yourself up to your surroundings.

It’s not that we can’t benefit from running on the pavement or on the track. We can learn a lot from logging dozens of miles or hammering through repeats. But these lessons are learned as much with our will and fortitude as they are with our legs and lungs.

On the trails, however, away from the more obvious measures of skill and the tangible signs of what we’ve gained or lost, we can learn with our eyes, ears and hearts. And some discoveries can be rather humbling. In this rugged environment, we may find that, as part of the animal world, even the finest of us aren’t very well suited to deal with nature. Despite all of our human sophistication and intellect, even a half-witted chipmunk can outsmart us in the wilderness.

Trail running has added another dimension to my experience as a runner. While I’m not prepared to give up the comfort of water fountains, mile markers and smooth roads every day, I now believe that for me to be complete as a runner, I need to spend more time finding the forest through the trees.

Waddle on, friends.

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