• 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: 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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