• 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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Come Together

You might be surprised what Nietzsche and your running buddies have in common.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche really got a bad rap. Either that or he needed a better publicist. There was that whole “God is dead” business that upset so many people and then there’s the “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” quote that’s attributed to him. I actually read one of my favorite Nietzsche quotes in an Outward Bound handbook. In writing about mountain climbing, our boy Friedrich says, “Exhaustion is the shortest way to equality…” I’ve never climbed a mountain so I can’t attest to his accuracy there, but I can tell you it’s true for runners.

Effort and exhaustion will bring you to your most common human qualities more quickly than anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s difficult to explain to my nonrunning friends (yes, I have a few, but not many) that I have run for years with some people and still haven’t the faintest idea where they live, or what their education or economic situation is. I don’t know because to be honest, I just don’t care.

I don’t care if they’re twice as smart or make twice as much money as me, or live in a house five times the size of my apartment. What they do has nothing to do with who they are to me. I am, they are, and we are together running buddies. We see each other at our best and at our worst. We can be honest and open, because we know that our buddies have, or will, feel exactly what we’re feeling. It’s just a matter of time.

I’ve run with  training programs all over the world and have seen mend and women, young and old,  form the kind of friendships it seems only runners can have. It’s the kind of friendship that permits six of you walking into a nice restaurant on Sunday morning after a sweaty, long run to look with smug satisfaction at other diners who are simply trying to eat their breakfast in peace.

It’s the kind of friendship that allows you to go past age, gender, ethnicity, social status, and all of the initial criteria we normally use to judge people, and accept runners as the foul-smelling, loud-talking people that we are.

I’ve even had this bonding experience while running on a treadmill. The gym I train in has individual television screens at the front of each treadmill, and it’s not uncommon to see six or eight people all watching the same show together. We probably wouldn’t sit with one another and watch television anywhere else, but somehow the act of running gives us permission to share the moment.

In a world that’s quickly becoming so fast-paced that multitasking is a way of life, runners have managed to find a way to do something that’s good for our heads, bodies, and spirits, and that provides wonderful social interaction.

It may even be why today’s runners run more slowly. We may simply want to go slow enough so we can talk to each other. For us, pounding out eight miles while gasping for breath doesn’t make sense. It would deprive us of one of the most important reasons we run: the ability to connect with another person.

By the way, Nietzsche and that “God is dead” controversy is more complicated than it seems on the surface. It really had more to do with the power of the human spirit than some theological death sentence. Come out for a run with me sometime, we’ll talk all about it.

Waddle on, friends.

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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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Frost on the Pumpkin

101028pumpkinfrostThis morning, like most mornings when I’m home, I made my way downstairs to get a cup of coffee. I know that the computer was a great invention, and there have probably been other significant inventions in my lifetime, but for my money the BEST invention is the automatic coffee maker. Waking up to the smell of coffee already brewed is magical. But I digress.

As I looked out onto the deck there was frost on the railing. Real frost. Honest to goodness frost. FROST. When you live in Chicago, or any location that has four actual seasons, that first sign of frost can only mean one thing. Winter is packing its bags and preparing to come for a visit.

For me that means that soon I’ll have to spend a day prepping the motorcycles for the winter. I’ll have to decide which of the bikes will go to “winter camp” to be stored and which ones I’ll keep in the garage for that one day when the weather is beautiful and it’s warm enough to ride. It means moving the bicycles to the basement to make room for the shifting of “stuff” to make room for a second car. It means putting just enough gas in the snowblower to make sure it starts and then hoping I’ll never need it again.

There are lots of great things that happen once winter finally settles in. I love the snow. I love to walk in it, snow shoe in it, and just be out in it. It’s just that this morning I wasn’t ready for it. The leaves are still very green around us and the trees are still full. But I know, as of this morning, that’s all going to change soon.

winter-woods-110661299720364QHn

It means that I’ll head inside for much of my running and walking. I’ll dust off the treadmill, check the batteries in the TV remote control, strap a watch to the hand grips and get ready to do most of my workouts in the safety, security, and warmth of “Coach Jenny’s” gym. That’s not all bad. I’m not quite ready yet.

In part it’s because once the winter fully sets in I know I’ll have to reflect back on the year that I had planned. I’ll have to look back at the goals and ambitions that I set out LAST winter. I’ll have to look at the successes and failures of this year and see if, on balance, it was the year i wanted. Did I run as much as I intended? Did I discover new things about myself as an athlete, as a husband, father, grandfather, man, and human being? Is my soul in better shape now?

I’m not ready to answer those questions yet. So, I’m going to sit inside by the fire and hope that there’s going to be another warm spell. Later, a little later, I’ll get around to figuring out whether or not this was a year to remember or a year to forget.

Waddle on, friends.

John

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

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: 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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A Grandfather’s Wisdom

stock-vector-cartoon-grandfather-with-cane-vector-illustration-with-simple-gradients-57321424I grew up in a home shared by my parents and my grandparents. We didn’t know it was an extended family. It was just the way it was. My grandparents were in their 50’s when I was born and, growing up, I thought that they were very, VERY old. And they were.

My grandfather shared his wisdom in short, pithy, statements of fact. His three favorites, and these three covered nearly every imaginable situation were; “things happen”, “people are funny”, and “what’s done is done.”

Examples: Plane crash? Things happen. Man wants to marry his dog? People are funny. I didn’t study for my history test and failed? What’s done is done. He was not a man who wasted time on contemplation and reflection.

Being a grandfather myself I wonder what messages I’m sending to MY grandchildren. I wonder what they will remember when they think about the time we’ve spent together. I wonder what they will learn from me.

What I hope they learn is that life needs to be lived, not feared. When I stood at the starting line of my first race it wasn’t the distance that frightened me. As I’ve written, the miracle wouldn’t be that I finished, the miracle was that I had the courage to start. The fear was that I would be called out as an imposter, as a non-athletic interloper in a field of runners. It wasn’t a fear of failing. It was a fear of being found out.

What I hope they learn is that if you wait for the right moment to do anything you will never do anything. When I stood in a cold lake at the start of my first triathlon I had gone to the pool exactly twice before the race. The funny part  is that even with years of training I never got that much better at swimming than I was then. If I had waited until I got “good enough” I would never have gotten good enough.A_Colorful_Cartoon_Grandpa_Running_a_Race_Royalty_Free_Clipart_Picture_100708-172101-630053

What I hope they learn is that the real joy is NOT in achieving a goal but it setting goals and trying to achieve them. When I decided to run my first marathon I spent months preparing. Every day of anticipation was a good day, whether I was training or not. I had set a goal and with every step I was getting closer to achieving it. The last 26.2 miles were just that; the last 26.2 miles. And when I crossed that first marathon finish line my joy came not from that success but in believing that there were other goals that I could set and achieve.

My most vivid memory of my grandfather is him sitting at a small table in the basement kitchen area eating an Italian sausage and peppers sandwich on my grandmother’s homemade bread. I hope the most vivid memory my grandchildren have of me is not of me sitting still.

What I hope they learn is that the best life is an active life. Being active, whatever that means, is the key to discovering a world beyond ourselves. Whether we walk, run, pedal, or paddle, we can discover all by ourselves what’s just over the horizon.

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: I laughed, I cried, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I could identify with so many of John’s experiences. While some may view slower runners like myself with disdain, John made me proud to be out there. I run for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and I have seen John speak at many of their events. He is a very entertaining speaker as well as writer. John is an inspiration to many people who never thought they could ever step up to a starting line let alone cross a finish line. Lynn Nelson on Amazon.com

The Last Brain to Clarksville

left-brain-right-brainI’ve tried. I have REALLY tried. I studied the shoe reviews. I bought all the latest gizmos. I’ve read all the diet and sport nutrition books. I’ve read all about how I can get faster, how I can run farther, how I can get more efficient, stronger, more flexible, with less injuries. To be honest, especially in the early days, I thought that all the experts were right and I was wrong. I thought that if I was a better runner – whatever that means – I would be a happier runner. I wasn’t.

I wasn’t that much better and I certainly wasn’t that much happier.

Almost from the very beginning I was having fun. FUN. I didn’t have the faintest idea what i was doing, I didn’t have anything like a plan or a schedule or a program. I was just having fun. I’d put on my running shoes, walk out the door and have fun.

What too often happens is that we start doing something – running, walking, cycling, playing the cello – because we think it will be fun only to find out that unless we get good at it we aren’t having fun. When I started playing tennis I thought it would be fun. Tennis looks like fun. It isn’t fun when you or your partner spend 90% of the time chasing after the balls or – worse yet – yelling at people walking past the court and asking them to throw the ball back to you. Tennis is fun if you’re good enough.

My first fitness activity was bicycling. Biking is FUN. Then i started walking and running. Walking and running are fun. If you take away all of your expectations about what you could be doing and concentrate only on what you are doing it’s fun. I’m not talking about the “glass half full” mindset. My glass wasn’t even 10% full. I’m talking about having fun when you are truly no good.

I don’t know for sure if it’s the whole right brain/left brain business. It just seems like the entire running industry is populated by people who are number-crunching, pace-calculating, mileage-recording, “failing to plan is planning to fail” types. I’m not.

I haven’t kept a running log in probably 10 years. Blasphemy, I know. After all, how I will I know what I’ve done and what I need to do ifrunners I don’t keep track. And these days it isn’t enough to simply right it down in a logbook. I would need to chart it and post it and tell my friends and send them the GPS coordinates. Aaarrrggghhh.

What I want from my running or walking or cycling – or any other activity – is the sense of well-being that comes from doing it. ANDand this is an important AND – I want it to be fun. When I’m finished with the activity I want to feel better than I did when I started. I want to be glad I did it. I do NOT want to feel like there was something more I could have done or that I failed in some small or large way.

If you haven’t done it recently, try just going for a run. Leave all the training toys at home. And don’t go on some course where you know the distance. Turn left where you normally turn right. Get it your car and go someplace you’ve never been. Run or walk as much as you want to, then stop. Be done when you’ve done all you want to do not all you’re supposed to do.

You may find, as I have, that the joy is in the doing not in the planning or recording. What makes running fun is the running. It’s just that simple.

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: I laughed, I cried, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I could identify with so many of John’s experiences. While some may view slower runners like myself with disdain, John made me proud to be out there. I run for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and I have seen John speak at many of their events. He is a very entertaining speaker as well as writer. John is an inspiration to many people who never thought they could ever step up to a starting line let alone cross a finish line. Lynn Nelson on Amazon.com

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