• 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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Friday Favorite: Stacking the Deck

lyubov-orlovaStacking the Deck

Imagine a marathon in shorts and a singlet in the shadow of a 10,000 year old glacier.

The 2001 Antarctic Marathon, or The Last Marathon as it is called, was exactly that way. I know. I was there. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When Thom Gilligan, of Marathon Tours, called to ask if I wanted to run with a bunch of penguins, I said “Sure!”. When he explained that the penguins were in Antarctica and that the only way to get to the race site was by flying to the tip of South America and then taking a 2 day boat ride through the roughest seas on the planet and that running the race meant spending 11 days on a ship my stomach sank. But, I was committed.

Let me admit right off the bat that my idea of roughing it is not having 24 hour room service. Let me further admit that my nautical experience has consisted mostly of trying not to drown while being dragged around head first behind a ski boat. And, finally, I must have been absent the one day we spent talking about Antarctica in my high school geography class, because I knew nothing except that the South Pole was there.

But, ever eager to take on new challenges, I set out to prepare for the adventure. I sought out cold and snowy conditions in which to train. I experimented with clothes and gear and shoes. I even found myself  shopping in “outfitter” stores for windblocker fleece and waterproof gloves. And to complete the look, I stopped shaving two months before the trip began. I wanted to have the rugged look that all the Polar explorers seemed to have.

When the departure date finally arrived, I was ready. I was prepared for anything the Antarctic could throw at me. Or so I thought.  I was ready to take on the cold, the wind, and the course. But, as I was soon to find out, when it comes to Antarctica, there is no being ready. This is a continent that is wilder and more unpredictable than any other place on earth.

My first lesson in the vagaries of Antarctica came on the first full day aboard the ship. We sailed through the dreaded Drake Passage, the point of convergence of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as if it were a quiet lake. It was like the continent was tempting us to continue, luring us deeper into it’s grasp. With our spirits high we sailed towards King George Island, the site of the marathon itself. And it was there that we learned that the Antarctic is a beast that no one can tame.

On our first evening off the coast of King George Island we watched the waves break over the bow. We were barely moving forward and yet the waves came crashing across the deck. The fog was so thick that we could not see 1/4 mile to the Uruguayan research base that would have been the starting line. The seas were so rough that we couldn’t get the advance team off the ship to mark the course.

The next morning the conditions were worse. We zigged and zagged helplessly up and down the Bransfield Straight waiting for any kind of break in the weather. Finally, late in the evening of the second day, the winds calmed down enough to get the advance team to the island.

We returned to King George Island late the following day to bring the advance team back on board, but it wasn’t to be. The winds were gale force by then. Undaunted, we gathered for the prerace pasta dinner in the hopes of running a marathon the following morning.

Race day dawned with more wind and waves. The advance team was stranded on shore. We couldn’t get to them, and they couldn’t get to us. The marathon was canceled for that day, and we sailed away in search of calmer water and clearer skies. That night, we returned to King George, ate another prerace pasta dinner, and waited for the dawn.

The weather on the second race day morning was the worst we had encountered. In addition to the wind and the waves, we now had horizontal snow which caused white out conditions on what would have been the first three miles of the course. Somehow, the advance team was rescued from the island and returned to the ship. But the race was now clearly in jeopardy. We had exhausted the time we had to wait. It was now or never.

At noon on the second race day, the announcement came which we had all feared. The race, the marathon, the chance to run on Antarctica, was canceled. We sat in stunned silence as we tried to absorb the reality of what was happening. After nearly six days aboard the ship, after traveling thousands of miles, after training for months, the marathon was not going to happen.

That might be the end of the story, if this had been a group of normal people. But, these were runners. We had all faced adversity in one form or another before. We had all learned to adjust our definitions of success. We had all stared defeat squarely in the eye and refused to give in. We were NOT going to concede to the frozen continent. We would run our marathon one way or another.

And so it was that at 3:10 PM on February 6, 2001, a group of runners began circling the sixth deck of the Byula Orlova as we steamed towards Neko Harbor. With each lap we were treated to giant floating icebergs, or whales spouting in the distance, or seals sticking their heads up to see what we were doing, and penguins playing beside the ship. We ran 400 times around the deck as the ship rolled and the waves crashed. We ran through the snow and wind. We ran because to not have run would have meant admitting defeat.

At 3:30 PM another group started running on the fifth deck. At 11:50 PM two runners ran in the light of the midnight sun. The next morning at 5:30 and 10 am [after a third pasta dinner] the rest of the field gathered to compete. Later that evening a woman ran a 1/2 marathon while her husband counted laps. And finally, after midnight of the second day, a young man named Zack ran his solitary marathon in the middle of the night.

What does it all mean? I’m not sure. I know that I have never felt more a part of something. I have never felt more connected to a group of people whose spirits could not be vanquished. I have never believed more deeply in the power of the will of a bunch of people who would not let their dream die. And I have never been more proud to be a part of the running community.

As the commercial says: Runners… yeah… we’re different.

EPILOG: February 28, 2014

The wonderful Lyubov Orlova’s fate has not been good since we were on her. Read the latest: Orlova becomes Ghost Ship

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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

Flashback Friday: Running With Friends

cartoonrunnerstopThe “Penguin Chronicles” actually began in 1995 as a series of e-mails to a group called The Dead Runners Society. At that time the Internet was much smaller than it is now and most of the users were either academics or government workers. Marlene Cimons, a member of the DRS, sent several of the e-mail columns to the editors of “Runner’s World” and the rest is history. This column was one of the original e-mails, written in September 1995.

Over the years, I’ve seen some really fast runners. I’ve actually known some pretty fast runners. And, I guess I’d say that I’ve been acquainted with some kinda fast runners. But I’ve never been a friend with any really fast, or pretty fast or even kinda fast runners. All my friends are Penguins.

I’m not altogether sure why that is. It may be that at the beginning of races, the really fast runners talk to no one, the pretty fast runners try to talk to the really fast runners and the kinda fast runners talk to themselves. Me… I talk to the people around me. I talk to the group of runners who find themselves being pushed backwards as the field of really fast, pretty fast and kinda fast runners line up ahead of us.

I talk to Charles. Now Charles, on a good day, is a 60-minute 10K runner. Charles is the guy in lime-green spandex shorts. Charles is the guy who thinks that if he pulls his lime-green spandex shorts up high enough they will hide his sagging abdominals. They don’t. They do, however, reveal more about Charles than I wanted to know.

I talk to Will. I don’t know Will very well, but I think he must live alone. Will likes to talk. No, Will loves to talk. Mostly about Will. I’ve seen Will run a half-marathon in padded biking shorts because that’s all he had with him. That’s the way it is with Will. Don’t ask him how he’s doing, unless you have the time to hear the answer.

I talk to Lee a lot. Lee is a friend. Lee has run 70 some-odd marathons. Well, OK, Lee has been in 70-some-odd marathons. Lee ran my first marathon with me. We talked a lot that day; it took us 5 hours. Lee likes to finish before they close the course. And usually he does. But not always. But that’s the way Lee wants it. The only time I’ve ever seen Lee run fast was when I told him that Will wanted to talk to him!

I talk to people whose names I don’t know, but who I see all the time. For them, I make up a name, like “the Leprechaun Man.” The Leprechaun Man is about 70, I think, and about five feet tall. In the winter he runs in a green wool sweater with a pointy green hat. He looks like a leprechaun. He’s a downhill runner. On hilly courses he passes me on every downhill and squeals “I’m a downhill runner!!”

I talk to the panty-hose lady. I’m sure she has a real name, but the panty-hose lady works just as well. She wears panty-hose under her running shorts. She wears them when it’s 20 degrees and when it’s 80 degrees. Sometimes they are sheer to the waist, other times they change colors about the middle of her thighs. I’ve always wanted to ask her how she decides which kind to wear.

Sometimes, though, if I go to a race I’ve never done before, I don’t see any of my old friends, so I’ve developed a system to help me make new friends. This system has been thoroughly tested at running events around the country. I pass it on to you for your use.

  • Never try to talk to someone who isn’t wearing socks. I don’t know why, for sure, but people who don’t wear socks also don’t talk.cartoonrunnercut
  • Don’t try to talk to anyone with a tattoo on his or her ankle.
  • If the temperature is below freezing, don’t talk to anyone who is wearing only running shorts and cotton gloves.
  • Don’t talk to anyone who is wearing a shirt from an impressive event. They want to tell you about it.
  • Find someone who is standing alone near the back. They haven’t done many races and will welcome the company.
  • Look for people near the back wearing new shoes.
  • Look for someone wearing a shirt from some other sport, like a professional bass fishing tournament. They’ve got stories to tell.
  • For races over 5K, get into a sprinters crouch. If the person next to you looks over and does the same thing, they know less about running than you do – and you’ve found a partner for that race.

I make new friends at almost every race using this system. I met a woman from Pittsburgh who trained for a marathon as a declaration of independence from her husband and children. I met a stroke victim who could only really run with one leg while he dragged the other. I met another man whose arthritis had twisted his back so severely that he almost ran like a crab. I have laughed myself silly. I have cried my eyes out.

It doesn’t matter what the location or distance, these interesting folks are there. They are among the most interesting people I have ever met. Their stories are as fascinating as they are. Because it takes us so much longer to run the races, we have the time to tell each other our stories. I’ve told mine many times and never had one person say that they couldn’t talk because it might cost them a PR for that course!!!

And maybe, in the final analysis, that’s why all my friends are Penguins. Maybe for us, the running is just a means to an end. Maybe we’re slow because our stories are long and need time to be told. Maybe we know that we can’t hear others, or ourselves, when the blood is pounding in our ears.

Waddle on, friends.

Back to The Penguin Chronicles Archive

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.

Read more Classic Chronicles

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.

For more Penguin wit and wisdom go to: The Penguin Chronicles Archive

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.

Back to The Penguin Chronicles Archive

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.

Back to The Penguin Chronicles Archive

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