• 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: The Metamorphosis

im slowI wasn’t always as slow as I am now. I used to be much slower!

I wasn’t always a Penguin. I wasn’t always as slow as I am now. I used to be much slower! It took 40 years to become so overweight and out of shape that running a mile and running a marathon were equally unthinkable.

For most of those 40 years, I looked at runners as if they were some mutant sub-species of the human race. I looked not with awe nor with envy as runners in my neighborhood trudged through rain, heat, cold and wind. I looked at them with suspicion. What motivated them? What was missing in their lives that they had to punish themselves on a regular basis?

And then it happened. It wasn’t the epiphany that some folks describe. It was simply a matter of looking down at a body that was becoming my enemy and deciding that enough was enough.

Those early days and weeks were a time of awakening. I bought a pair of running shoes, tied them on much too tightly and headed for the streets. Remembering the last time I had run, in high school gym class, I bolted down the driveway and into the future. That lasted about twenty steps.

It was at that instant that I realized I had the legs of an old person. Those youthful appendages that had served me well in Little League and at the Prom were now unwilling to run longer than thirty seconds. So I walked.

My guess is that my first humble attempt at running/walking/shuffling/panting lasted not even 600 yards and took nearly 5 minutes. I turned back, convinced that I had covered so much ground I would have a hard time finding my way home – only to discover that I’d barely made it down the block. But I had started.

The next step toward Penguinhood was one of blissful naivete. I was amazed that my body was actually beginning to cooperate. That first “run” turned into a half-mile, a mile, then more. I was shocked at how quickly my body adapted to the new stresses. I was ready, or so I thought, for any challenge. Time to race!

Standing at the start of my first race, a local 5-K, I barely noticed the other runners. Filled with the confidence that only abject ignorance can produce, I wondered how many of them had noticed me and if they were worried about my presence. After all, I knew how slow I had been and how much I had improved.

At the start command, everybody bolted as if they had been blasted from a howitzer. I stood there like I was tied to a tree. Oh, I was running; I was running as hard as I had ever run. It was just that I was running very, very slowly.

I watched in stunned amazement as men and women, young and old, short and tall, ran away from me as though I had some medieval plague. The 70-year old man I had been chatting with before the start dropped me like a bad habit. The woman behind me nearly knocked me over. It was my moment of enlightenment.

I began laughing out loud at them and at myself. Off I ran, shaking my head. By the first mile marker, I was running nearly alone. I had run the fastest mile (a 10:30) of my life, and I could barely see the person ahead of me! But the smile on my face never faded.

I knew then that running was going to be something I did mostly for the joy it brought me. Watching the other runners move away, I realized that I could not undo the physical effects of 40 years of indulgence in a matter of weeks or months. It had taken all my life to get to where I was; it was going to take the rest of my life to get to where I wanted to be.

I went on to finish… and to keep a promise to myself. By finishing that first race, I began undoing four decades of unkept promises and doomed diets and quitting in general. Crossing the finish line, I knew that in my running, and in my life, the difference between success and failure would sometimes come down to a single step.

Waddle on, friends.

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Run simply, or simply run

miraculixI’ve known Thom Gilligan, the driving force behind Marathon Tours and Travel [Marathon Tours] since I first went with him to Antarctica in 2001. Since then, I’ve traveled with him as a part of his staff 6 times. Thom is an old-school, hide-bound, Greater Boston Track Club singlet, nylon shorts runner. There’s no doubt that the drive that has made his company so successful was there – and is still there – in his running.

We were chatting at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon Expo this past weekend when he said that, if you didn’t know better, you would think that running was a very complicated, technically challenging, equipment dependent, injury producing activity. There were aisles of booths selling everything from the latest shoes and apparel to the newest fad, to the injury prevention devices, recovery tools, and bars, liquids, and creams the promised to make you faster, more beautiful, and smarter.

He’s right. If you didn’t know any better you would think that ALL of those things were necessary in order to be a runner. You’d believe that with the right shoes, the right pre-race drink, the right energy replacement fluid, and the right recovery concoction you can be the runner you want to be – or dream of being.

Well, kids, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news. There’s no secret to it. The way to be a better runner – or walker – [or cellist or carpenter or anything else] is to work at being better at it. As one of my education professors explained it in regard to curriculum design, “Children learn what they do, and damn little else.”

I suppose we’d all like to find a short cut to success. After all, when was the last time you dialed the phone number of someone you call often? We live in a world where it’s possible to get things faster, make things better, and live more comfortably with nothing more than the push of a button. Don’t get me wrong. I like this world.

For me, though, one of the real attractions to running was the fact that there were no shortcuts. There were no magic potions. There wasn’t some piece of equipment that I could buy that would suddenly change me from a 12 minute miler to a 6 minute miler.

Runner_-_Cartoon_5For me to accomplish my goals I had to work for them. When I wanted to run a marathon I had to gradually increase my long runs until I was running farther than I ever thought I could. When – for a very short time – I wanted to run faster, I had to go to the track and run intervals and repeats. With time and dedication I was able to run marathons and, for me, run faster.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with all the wonderful products that are out there. I’m a firm believer that if you THINK something works for you, it does. I’ve got my favorite shoes and socks. My favorite workouts and my favorite pieces of equipment. I wouldn’t give them up even if you TOLD me they didn’t help.

But I am saying be honest with yourself. The key – the only key – to whatever your goals are is training.

Waddle on, friends.

John

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The Great Alaskan Running Cruise

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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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

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