• 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: 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.

Back to The Penguin Chronicles Archive

High Five’n the Mermaid

mermaid_43yellowI was standing at the finish line of the RnR Providence Half Marathon this past Sunday, doing my best to congratulate those coming to the line when I looked up, and, about 50 yards from the finish line there was a guy holding an inflatable mermaid over the fence. My curiosity got the best of me and I walked down to see what was going on. It was, simply, a guy with a 3-foot tall inflatable mermaid.

When I asked him what he was doing he said he was just trying to get people to High-Five the Mermaid. That’s all. He didn’t have an agenda or a program or a position. He just wanted people to high-five the mermaid.

I thought I’d seen everything at finish lines. I’ve seen the good – proposals, teary-eyed finger-pointing to heaven, abject joy – and the bad – vomiting, slow, painful walks, and abject dejection – but I’ve never seen anything that put a smile on my face like the idea that as one finishes, one should high-five the mermaid.

There are lots of reasons why people choose to start marathons and half marathons. For some it is a bucket-list item. For others it is a celebration of a new life, or the end of an old one. For still others it is a social event shared with friends. And for a few, it is a solitary experience whose meaning is known only to them.

For many participants, the reason to start is to challenge themselves to achieve a goal, whether that is to complete the distance or to run and walk it in a certain time. From the instant they cross the start line – from the instant any of us cross the start line – we are on the journey from where we were to where we want to be. Success or failure lie hidden in the miles before us.

There are lots of reasons to start, but there’s only one reason to finish. That reason: to bring to completion the events of the day – good, bad, or in between. Whatever the circumstances were that brought us to the start, nothing is settled until we cross the finish line.

I think we need to add a new expression to the running lexicon. I think when someone asks us how we did we should just say “I high-fived the mermaid.” It doesn’t reflect a time. It doesn’t indicate whether you met your goal or missed it. It doesn’t give a clue as to how you feel about the day. It just says you finished.

In the end, that’s all that matters. Training gets you to the start line. Character gets you to the finish. And when it’s all said and done, what could be better than high-five’n the mermaid.

Waddle on, friends.

John

For more wit and wisdom, go to www.johnbingham.com

Worst Parade Ever

925_1 Of all the signs I’ve seen while running marathons and half marathons my favorite has to be “Worst Parade Ever.” That just seems to sum up what it must look like to someone standing on the sidelines watching thousands of people – young, old, tall, short, thin, not-so-thin – running and walking for hours on end. Even if you’re waiting for a friend or love one to pass by it has to be mind-numbing to see so many people pounding the pavement.

One of my favorite signs, which I saw many years ago at the Portland [OR] Marathon was “GO GAMMY GO.” My guess is that the young girl that was holding that sign is probably a runner herself by now. After all, if Gammy can run a marathon then she was almost certainly inspired to do one herself.

Of course, we’ve all heard the never helpful “You’re almost there.” This is especially not helpful at, say, mile 15 of a marathon. And then there’s the almost always incorrect “You’re looking good.” I’m not being critical. I know that people are just trying to be nice.

Once, at about the 6K mark of an 8K along the Chicago lakefront, a passer-by yelled out to me “PICK IT UP.” What they didn’t know, and couldn’t have known was that I WAS picking it up. I had already begun my blistering finishing kick. It’s just that when picking it up means going from a 12 minute pace to an 11:45 pace it may not be all that obvious.

Races look very different when you’re on the course. What may seem to the casual observer as an unhurried jog may be – in fact – a dual to the death. I’ve spent miles with a laser focus on a person in lime-green shorts because I absolutely did not want to look at those shorts anymore. Passing them became the single most important thing in my life.

925_2As a run/walker I’ve often been in a leap-frog battle with someone who insists on “running” the whole way – even if their running is mostly just moving their arms in a running motion while they walk. I’ll pass them when i run. They’ll pass me when I walk. And this can go on for miles until i either move far enough ahead during a run interval that they don’t catch me or THEY move far enough ahead during my walk interval that I don’t catch them.

Either way, I sure that anyone watching us go past would have no idea what was going on. And that’s OK. In the long run – pun intended – what matters most is what’s happening between and among those of us on the course, whether that’s an elaborate winning strategy or simply trying to get past the guy wearing the lobster hat.

Once we cross the start line we are in our own world. What matters most is – for many of us – what matters least. We know that once we cross the finish line we will have to go back to our real responsibilities: as husbands, fathers, employees, students, or one of a hundred other identities that we have. When we cross the finish line we go back to being who we are.

But out on the course we are who we want to be. We are heroes. and champions, and warriors. We are strong. We are prepared. We are ready to battle the course, the day, the runners around us, and ourselves.

They may be the worst parades ever, but there’s no place in the world I’d rather be.

Waddle on, friends.

John

Special Report: Why JBR never hired elite runners

CDCSTARTIn 2002, with nothing more than audacity and hope, David Babner and I created John Bingham Racing [JBR] and purchased the Chicago Distance Classic. We went on to create the Capital City Half Marathon [Columbus, Ohio] and the Arizona Distance Classic in Oro Valley, Arizona – just outside of Tucson. We also had a few smaller races in Columbus.

We had only one corporate philosophy: treat everyone’s accomplishment as meaningful to them. Not to US, not to OTHERS, but to THEM. And being a back-of-the-packer who has finished last – or nearly last – in races I vowed that no one in the pack would be humiliated. To that end, we had volunteers – the “Balloon Cuties” – who walked behind the final finisher. It was impossible to finish last in a JBR event.

I’m a Chicago kid. The race was a Chicago running tradition. It’s the oldest continuously held race in the city limits. What I wanted, what WE wanted, was an event that celebrated the Chicago running community. We wanted a race that honored the achievement of Chicago’s best runners, provided a vehicle for local charities to raise money, and helped the entire Chicago community at large celebrate an active lifestyle.

The best runners in any community know each other. In many cases they’ve been racing against each other since high school or before. We wanted the BEST runners in OUR community to race against each other. We did NOT want OUR best runners to finish 11th because we hired 10 elites to finish in front of them.

How can it possibly be motivating to think that the BEST you can hope to do is finish 11th? We wanted OUR runners to win and build their confidence and running resume’s. We wanted the man or woman who came in 3rd one year to know that they could come back and take a shot at winning the next year. It was OUR race. OUR running community.

cutiesWe handed out free entries to the running specialty stores because we knew that many of their employees wanted to compete. We gave free entries to private running coaches to encourage them to bring out the best in their stables. We didn’t PAY anyone to race, but, we went out of our way to make sure that anyone who wanted to race at the front could toe the line.

Who made that possible? Not just JBR. It was made possible by the thousands of runners and walkers who paid their entry fee.

What we tried to do, and what I think we successfully did, was provide an opportunity for everyone to take the risk of finding out what their best was on race day. For some it was finishing in a little over an hour. For others it was finishing in a little over 4 hours.

I’m proud of what we accomplished with the Chicago Distance Classic. We went from 2,400 registrants to over 10.000 in the years we produced the race. When Competitor Group bought the race and changed the name to “Rock ‘n’ Roll Chicago” I was happy for the running community. A small group of part-time employees can only do so much. What CGI did very well was take a good local race and make it a destination event.

There was nothing sinister about our decision not to hire elites. It wasn’t about money. It wasn’t about not supporting elite runners. The decision was TO support the running community to which we all belonged.

John

Race Relations

Biwott_StanleyFV-Philly13-280x421Defending champion Stanley Biwott of Kenya owned the streets of Philadelphia once again on Sunday morning, winning the Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon for the second-straight year in 59 minutes and 36 seconds. The 27-year-old Kenyan ran the fastest half-marathon time on a record-eligible course in the U.S. this year. I didn’t get to see him finish because it took 45 minutes to get the other 22,000 participants across the start line. By the time I walked to the finish line, it was over.

And that’s kinda the point. It’s hard to make a connection with the winner of a race if you’re barely at mile 1 when they break the tape.

In a recent blog [Dumbing Down] Toni Reavis, a well-respected member of the running community, quoted long time sports agent Brendan Reilly, and another well-respected member of the running community, as saying:

“I think we’ve had too many years of the John Bingham (Waddle On, Penguins) philosophy.  John is a nice guy, a very entertaining and eloquent speaker, but there seems to be little in the sport these days to carry the runners that John has gotten off the couch to the next level of aiming to run faster and treat our events like RACES. And without that mentality, it is no wonder so few participants really care of even understand that somebody just ran 4:45 or 5:20 pace to win their race.

It’s true that I couldn’t run a 4:45 pace even if I was dropped from a plane. It just isn’t in me. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that Stanley Biwott couldn’t play bass trombone with the National Symphony in a performance of the Berlioz Requiem as I did. It just isn’t him. I don’t think that means he doesn’t care or understand the talent and dedication required in my profession any more than I don’t care or understand the talent and dedication required in his. It’s just different.

I would also argue that some, if not most, of the folks that have gotten off the couch have, indeed, tried to go to the next level of aiming to run faster. I can’t remember a conversation at any of the clinics or seminars that I’ve given or moderated in which people asked how they could run more slowly than they were. No one asked what to do to finish a marathon in over 5 hours if their marathon best was 4 hours. It’s in our nature, as runners, to want the best of ourselves. It’s just that the BEST is not going to be THE best.

FinishArea-Philly13-631x421So what do we do? What do we do as individuals? What do we do as a community? What do we do as an industry? Here’s what I think. We have to take a page from the NASCAR handbook. We have to find a way to make the BEST in our sport also the most approachable and popular in our sport. It can be done.

When elite runners like Josh Cox or Deena Kastor or Kara Goucher appear at the race expos they pack the house. Why? Because they connect directly with the REST of the participants. The hundreds of people who stand in line to get autographs and have their photo take with these elites runners DO care and understand what it takes. They also care and understand that Josh and Deena and Kara are more than just elite runners. They are spouses and parents and have interesting lives, that they’re willing to share, when they are NOT racing.

I was there to shake the hand of the final finisher on Sunday. Stanley was not. I get emails and Facebook messages thanking me for being there. Stanley does not. But he could.

My advice to ALL the elites out there [and ALL of their managers]. The next time you win a race, bring a change of clothes. Get cleaned up after the awards ceremony and join me at the finish line. I think you will see that these people CAN care and WILL care if you share your success with them and allow THEM to share their success with YOU.

Waddle on, friends.

John

Afternoon Delight

wakingI am NOT a morning person. And by that I don’t mean that I just don’t enjoy getting up early. I mean I am NOT a morning person at all. The perfect schedule for my natural body clock was the years that I was freelancing as a musician. First thing in the morning was 10am – ish. A little toast and coffee, lunch around 4 or so, go to work at 7pm, dinner around 11, listen to a little music or watch late night television [there were no DVR’s in those days] and get to bed by about 2am. It was perfect.

Of course, I wasn’t a runner back then. But, I did practice every day and often practiced in the early afternoon. I don’t know if it’s just a lingering habit or my circadian rhythm but that’s exactly when I like to run – or walk – or bike. Early afternoon. That’s MY time.

Please don’t email me and tell me how beautiful and peaceful it is in the morning.  Or how it get’s your day started right. I get it. I get that SOME people like it. I don’t.  And, by the way, it’s VERY peaceful at 2 in the morning too. Not if you’re getting up at 2, but if you’re going to bed at 2.

Let me explain why running in the afternoon is better than running in the morning. First off, in the morning you’re never sure what to wear. Will you be cold at the start? Will you be too warm later on. When you run in the afternoon you already know what the temperature is and what it’s going to be. You don’t need to try to figure out what to wear.

Then there’s the whole “what should I eat before I run” conundrum. Do I eat nothing? Do I eat a little? Do I drink coffee? Do I AVOID coffee? Good grief. When you run in the afternoon you don’t have to think about any of that. You’ve been up for hours. You have, at the very least, had breakfast. So, you’re ready to go.

And speaking of being ready to go, the whole being “ready to go” morning concerns are gone by the afternoon. Should I go? Do I have to go? What if I get out there and THEN I have to go. You have to plan your routes around gas stations or public restrooms. It’s a nightmare. When you run in the afternoon you have ALL morning to take care of whatever business you need to take care of. You’ll be much more relaxed.

And speaking of business, one of two things are true if you run in the morning; 1) you check your email and Facebook and Twitter and all your other social media accounts before you snailturtlerun and THINK about what you have to do when you get back from your run, or, 2) you DON’T check your email and social media accounts and WONDER the whole time your running what your Facebook friends are doing that morning or what clever Tweet you might be missing or whether you got an email saying that someone in Nigeria needs to send you $3,000,000 dollars if you’ll only send them your banking information.

When you run in the afternoon you already know what your Facebook friends are doing. [Fluffy got a new cat box, Little Bobby learned to pee standing up, and some high school friend that you didn’t like 40 years ago somehow thinks that you’ve forgotten how lame they were back then and want to reconnect] So, you realize that there’s nothing to think about and especially nothing to worry about. You can just run.

There are other reasons; it’s light out, other people aren’t out walking their dogs, or rushing to work; you get the point. It’s just better. I know that not everyone can run in the afternoon, but, someday when you CAN, give it a shot. I think you’ll find it’s a lot more satisfying than you thought.

Waddle on, friends.

John

An Accidental Athlete is available in print and ebooks versions now. BUY THE BOOK

Review An Accidental Athlete on Amazon or Barnes and Noble

What others are saying: Looking for some motivation to start running and improve your fitness? You’re sure to find some inspiration from John Bingham’s new memoir, “An Accidental Athlete.” As an overweight, uninspired pack-and-a-half-a-day smoker, Bingham realized that he had to make some changes in his life and began running at the age of 43. With wit and humor, Bingham recounts his journey from couch potato to self-proclaimed “adult on-set athlete.”ESPN Gear Guide

Stuck on a Desert Island

islandNormally, at the Rock ‘n’ Roll expos, I do the interviewing. I’ve chatted with many of the greatest runners of all time, from World Record holders, to Olympians, to past, present, and future super stars of our industry. This weekend in at the RnR Seattle Expo, my good friend and colleague Ian Brooks turned the tables on me and I was the one in the hot seat, being interviewed.

Ian Brooks is one of the most experienced and accomplished “voices” in the running industry. More than me, he’s had the chance to question athletes at every point of their careers from budding young high school phenoms to fading icons. Being on stage with him is not to be taken lightly.

After the usual give-and-take, “why do they call you the Penguin?” [I saw a reflection of myself in a store front window and I looked like a penguin, not a gazelle] “what motivated you to change your life at 43 years-old” [there’s no great answer other than that I was successful and miserable] and “how have you managed to come up with new column ideas for 18 years” [nearly every day I encounter someone or something that inspires or interests me and I just try to pass it on] he hit me with the BIG one.  He asked me what music, piece of literature, and person would I want with me on a deserted island.

The music was very easy. I would take a recording of the nine Beethoven Symphonies. If I had a choice, I’d take the Leonard Bernstein recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, but almost any recording would do. The transformation of Beethoven from Classical composer to Romantic giant can be easily traced through the symphonies. I’ve taken walks of 3 to 4 hours and listened to as many of the symphonies as I can.

duck_island_6227The piece of literature would be the Bible. It’s not for religious reasons that I make that choice. I’m not advocating any particular belief system. The Bible, in one form or another, has survived as literature for thousands of years. I think I could spend a long time trying to understand the nuances of the lessons contained in the Bible.

And the person? Steve Jobs. And the first question I’d ask him is what he had planned for the next 20 years or so. When I travel with my iPhone and iPad and MacBook Air I think about how much Steve Jobs changed the world. Or, my world at least. I would like to be able to talk about his dream of a world that we now won’t ever see.

Ian said he was surprised by the answers. I’m not sure why. Maybe he thought I’d come up with a Neil Diamond collection, a Steven King novel, and some historical beauty. Those things might be interesting for a short time, but, what I’ve learned is that for something, or someone, to be interesting for a lifetime they have to a a depth that can never be fully explored.

Which, as it turns out, is why I lace up my running shoes every day. I’m no closer to the answer of the mystery of why it feels so good to move my body with my own two feet than I was the first day I ran.

Waddle on, friends.

John

audible_logo._v372080617_

UPDATE: I’ve moved through the historical and on to the more entertaining book. Funny thing, I find myself wanting to download more informational – or dare I say – educational books. Good stuff. For more information on Audible Click Here

Come Sail Away

blog_ketchRunners and walkers want to experience the world with their your own two feet.

Jenny and I have listened to what you want and have created vacations that allow you to get away from it all with a group of friends who understand who you are. Whether you are young or old, a new walker or a life-long runner you will find yourself at home, comfortable, and welcomed.

In Alaska you’ll see the Last Frontier up close. No riding in tour buses and looking out the windows. You will be right there seeing and feeling the REAL Alaska.

The Great Alaskan Marathon Cruise is a once in a lifetime opportunity to share the unique beauty of Alaska. For more detail, check out Will and Sunny’s blog. For more information, or to book the trip: The Alaskan Vacation.

fb_caibgroupLooking for some sunshine, crystal clear water, and white sand beaches in the middle of winter? Want to experience it all with like-minded, active people. We’ve got the trip for you.

An all new itinerary for 2014 will take us to Haiti, Jamaica, Grand Cayman, and Cozumel. You’ll explore the Caribbean, you’ll run or walk in some of the most enchanting places on earth, and you’ll do it friends.

For more information, or to book the trip: The Caribbean Vacation

The best part of both of these vacations is that the Ships serve as hotel, restaurant, and transportatiojohncaribn. You unpack ONE time and spend the rest of the week enjoying all that the journey has to offer.

These are truly special trips. If you’ve been on one, you know. If you haven’t, you owe it to yourself to see why these have become some of the most popular active vacations in the world.

For more information, contact Mila at The Cruise Authority or me, John “the Penguin” Bingham

I’ll see you on the Lido Deck…

A Champion: By Definition

rnr team startThe Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon and Half Marathon in San Diego is the original, and in many ways is still the signature event of the RnR Series. I’ve been there every year it’s been held so my history and the event’s history run in parallel.

Since it’s in San Diego the stars of the running community tend to come out. This weekend I was on stage with Jim Ryun, Rod Dixon, Steve Scott, Meb Keflezighi, Josh Cox, and Deena Kastor. Talk about an all-star line up.

The Sub-4 Seminar with Jim Ryun, first high-schooler to run a sub-4 marathon and STILL the only high school junior to ever run under 4 minutes, Steve Scott, who has run more sub-4 minute miles [136] than anyone in history, and Rod Dixon, who has run 53 sub-4 minute miles and – oh by the way – later won the New York City Marathon was fascinating.

I asked the each to describe how they would have raced – and beaten – the others if they could have raced at the height of their careers. It turns out that Dixon was a strength runner and would have pushed the pace early to gain an advantage, Ryun had an amazing 400 meter kick and felt that if he was close he could go by on the last lap, and Scott was just really, REALLY good at racing the mile.

Meb is moving back to San Diego, from Mammoth, to be closer to family and to co-own running specialty stores in the city. He also didn’t competely dismiss the idea of another shot at an Olympic team.

Josh is – well – Josh. He is one of the brightest, most affable athletes I have even known. He gives great information in a way that easily understood by the average athlete. It’s always fun to sit on stage with him.

deena_kastor_london

But it was Deena that left me with a thought that will haunt and inspire me for some time. She told the story of  her coach telling her before a big race to simply “define yourself.” Define yourself. What a formidable task, for a runner and for an individual.

How do we define ourselves in small and large ways every day? Are we impatient with people? Are we impatient with ourselves. Are we forgiving? Do we ask more of ourselves than is necessary. Do we care, love, cherish the people who care for, love, and cherish us.

I know that the original context for Deena was that particular race. In talking to her, though, it became obvious that she has reflected on the question on her life as a woman, a wife, a mother, and an athlete.

Too often, I think, we tend to see great athletes like Deena as being only that; an athlete. What I learned from Deena is that whether we are at a starting line, deep into a difficult race, or standing in line at the grocery store, we have the opportunity all day, every day, to define ourselves.

And that knowledge, more than talent and dedication and speed, is what makes Deena Kastor a champion.

Waddle on, friends.

John

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UPDATE: I should have known. As I said, it’s like the first microwave. Now that I have books to listen to, guess what? I listen to them every chance I get. I listened on the plane flying to San Diego – and back. I listen while I was relaxing after the race. I even listened while I was falling asleep – which – is VERY cool to have someone read you a bedtime story when you’re 64 years old.

You can get more information at:  Audible.com

Sweet Caroline

cmm2Sometimes the best that can happen is exactly what happens. At this past weekend’s Country Music Marathon and Half Marathon what should have been an annoyance turned into a spontaneous expression of hope and joy.

As the running community finds its way to healing and recovery from the events of the 2013 Boston Marathon, there will be grand gestures and small remembrances. In Nashville we had some of both.

There were runners who had been in Boston but weren’t able to finish who came to bring closure to their experience. Or, at least something that passes for closure in the dark shadows of such an awful memory. There were hundreds of quiet reflections on the what and whys of Boston. And through all the conversations one thread kept emerging. We were not NOT going to run.

Frank Shorter talked about the 1972 Olympic games in Munich and hearing the gunshots and then, 40 years later, hearing the explosions. He talked about the shock and guilt and anger. And he talked about how, eventually, you just learn to move on.

Just moments before the race was to start, we asked the participants to honor the spirit of Boston with a minute of silence. And, we asked them all to raise their hand and make the “Peace” sign. They did. 20,000 plus runners and wcmm3alkers in dead silence. Yep. I cried.

But then, the race start was delayed. We got the word to play some music. All of a sudden Neil Diamond’s voice was coming loud and clear over the speakers singing Sweet Caroline and a celebration of life, of running, of community, and of hope over terror broke out. We sang. We laughed. We cried.

And in the end we all agreed with Neil Diamond. Good times never seemed so good… so good… so good… so good.

Waddle on, friends.

John

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