• 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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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

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

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.

Back to The Penguin Chronicles Archive

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

new_alaskalogoJoin Coach Jenny and I next summer for the adventure of a lifetime.

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.

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

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