• 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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The Last Great Run

Cartoon K92 Trombone copyAs a musician, well, a bass trombone player, I never imagined that my career would be over when I was in my early 30’s. But it was. A condition called thoracic outlet syndrome changed everything. I began playing when I was in the 3rd grade and expected to play forever. It didn’t happen that way.

I can’t remember my last performance. I certainly can’t remember my last great performance. I often wonder if I had known then that it was the last time I would play great music with great musicians if I would have experienced it differently. Probably.

When I asked Steve Scott, who has run more sub-4 minute miles [136] than anyone in history, if he remembers HIS last great mile his answer is yes. But, when I asked him if he KNEW it was his last sub 4 mile his answer was no. I’m certain that if Steve had known that his last sub 4 WAS his last sub 4 he would have felt differently crossing the finish line.

And that, my friends, is life in a nutshell. We just don’t know when that last great moment is going to be.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately since my world seems to be filled with eager-beaver 20 and 30 somethings. They are early in their careers, excited by present, and wrought with anticipation about the future. I’m delighted for them. But I also worry. Life doesn’t always go according to plan.

When I started running – as an overweight, smoking, drinking, middle-aged man, I sucked. Not just a little. I sucked a lot. And while it’s true that with patience and training I did get better – I ran faster and farther – I never really got any good at it. I’m fine with that. I think that I probably got as good as I was going to get. That’s all any of us can ask.tired-runner-cartoon

In the process of trying to get better I sometimes forgot to enjoy how good I was, even if my good was not very good in an absolute sense. The first time I ran under 30 minutes for a 5K is was an Olympic Gold Medal performance for me. I was happy for a little while but then starting thinking about how I could break 29 minutes.

It’s a conundrum all of us face; how do we enjoy what we have when we know we want more? I wish I had a great answer.

What I can tell you with absolute certainty is that somewhere out there – or back there – is your last great race. It may be years from now – or years ago – or it may be tomorrow – or have been yesterday. It’s there. It is a fact of life.

With that in mind, when you lace up your shoes today, please take time to be grateful for what you are about to do. Be grateful that on this day you are willing and able to try once more to find the better in yourself, if not the best. Be grateful that yesterday was not that last day you ran and that you’ve got one more chance to enjoy what you love to do.

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

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Unintended Consequences

blog-unintended-consequencesUnintended consequences can be roughly grouped into three types:

* A positive, unexpected benefit

 * A negative, unexpected detriment occurring in addition to the desired effect 

 * A perverse effect contrary to what was originally intended (when a solution makes a problem worse)

It may be hard to believe but getting active – running, walking, bicycling – was filled with unintended consequences for me. And, to be honest, there were positive, negative, and even some perverse effects of starting to live a healthy, active lifestyle.

As I’ve written, for me there wasn’t some blinding epiphany. I didn’t have a heart attack, or some other dramatic medical event that convinced me that I needed to change. I wasn’t miserable or depressed or even marginally unhappy. It’s hard to be unhappy when your happiness lies in the next cigarette or beer or cheese danish.

At 43 years-old, my life, like so many other lives, had been a mix of successes and failures in nearly equal measure. I had had, and lost or left, good jobs and bad jobs, good relationships and bad relationships, and moments of pure joy and abject sorrow. You know, a normal life.

All of this was happening in the context of sitting still. Even at my most active, riding the motorcycles that I loved so dearly, I was still sitting still. I sat still when I worked, I sat still when I played, I even sat still on the garden tractor when I mowed the lawn. You see, activity and movement were not a part of my life and when forced to move, say to shovel snow from the driveway, I did it reluctantly and with great complaining.

Unlike many people I meet, I did NOT start running in order to lose weight. I started running to be able to run. I didn’t know how far I wanted to run, or how fast I wanted to run. I just knew that I wanted to run. Being as overweight as I was my desire did not match up with my ability so I did a lot more walking than running. It didn’t matter. The goal was to be able to run and walking was a way to reach that goal.

oops

I figured out pretty quickly that being over-weight and running weren’t especially compatible. I made the decision to lose weight because I wanted to be a better runner. It’s an important distinction because so many people start running in order to lose weight only to discover that they start gaining weight. This is especially true when new runners start a long distance training program, say for a half or full marathon.

I also didn’t quit smoking when I started to run. It was much later that I concluded that I could improve my 5K time by not smoking as much. I eventually quit smoking all together because it no longer provided the pleasure it once did because it had a negative effect on my running.

The intended consequence was to become a runner. The positive unintended consequence was that I became a thinner, non-smoker who made better choices about what – and more importantly – how much I ate.

The negative unintended consequence was overuse injuries. Plantar Faciitis, IT Band Syndrome, inflamed bursa in my hips to name just a few. I thought to get good at running you had to do lots and lots of running. I read books about elite runners putting in over a hundred miles a week. I didn’t expect to be elite, but I thought I could train like one.

And that led to the perverse unintended consequence which was, indeed, contrary to what was originally intended. By running too much I eventually couldn’t run at all.

Becoming an adult-onset athlete is tricky business. At first the movement, any movement, feels awkward and unnatural. It doesn’t feel good but we convince ourselves it’s doing some good. The aches and pains and injuries, we tell ourselves, are the admission price to living as an athlete. It’s only later that we learn that they’re not.

The danger is that in doing what we want to do we will find ourselves not being able to do it.

Waddle on, friends.

Read more at: JohnBingham.com

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Old Dog, New Tricks

books headphoneI’ve never thought of myself as an old-school runner. I’m certainly not as hide-bound as the nylon shorts guys who either run bare chested or wear their washed out club singlet. I haven’t always embraced the newest technology. I didn’t like knowing how far I’d run, or how fast [or slow] so wearing a GPS took some convincing. I never wanted to know my heart-rate because I didn’t have any idea what the numbers meant. And, since listening to my heart for signs of trouble was a full-time task I wasn’t keen to listening to music while I ran.

All of that has changed. Now, twenty years into my running life I find that the act of running – and now walking a fair amount – has become such a natural part of who I am that I’m willing to relax and enjoy the experience in new ways.

I like wearing a GPS watch. The nice folks are Garmin were kind enough to give me an XT310. It’s got a big enough screen for me to see and enough bells and whistles to keep me informed and entertained. It’s also been great for running in strange cities. The ability to find my way back to the hotel has saved me more than once.

Like so many people, my iPhone has become a constant companion. It’s been a little like my first microwave. I didn’t think I’d use it until I started to use it. Now, on my phone, I have access to email and social media and music and a flashlight and alarm clock. If you’ve got one, you know what I mean.

I am a voracious reader. Unfortunately I’ve never figured out a way to read while running. Until now. Last week I was introduced the Audible.com. And I’m hooked.

treadmillWith my travel schedule – and living in Chicago – it’s not unusual for me to be doing half of my weekly workouts on a treadmill. You can only watch so many reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show” or listen to your favorite Paul Simon songs before you’re ready for something else. That something else, for me, has been listening to books on Audible.com

Without sounding too 60’s transcendental, there has been an interesting mind/body connection while listening to books. I’m engaged mindfully by listening and engaged physically by walking or running. It’s not that the two are completely separate, but I do find that as I get more deeply involved in the book I am less focused – in a positive way – to the time I’m exercising.

So, I guess it is possible to teach an old dog new tricks. Who knew??

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

The Perfect Run

JohnTriathlonYes folks, that’s me. Check the date. May 21, 1995. Nearly exactly 18 years ago today. The race was the Memphis in May Triathlon, and I was “getting it done”. I was also, just for the record, nearly dead last.

I wasn’t much of a swimmer. The swim course was a giant triangle marked by buoys. The buoys were connected by rope. I was such a lousy swimmer that I was actually faster by pulling myself along on the rope than trying to swim. This did not prevent me from being swatted and kicked and nearly drowned by other competitors.

I was a pretty fair bicyclist. That is to say I didn’t suck as badly on the bike as I did on the swim. Once I was on the bike I was able to have fun. I didn’t have a very fancy bike, but I could ride with, and sometime pass, other competitors. To be fair, I wasn’t passing anyone in my age or gender category. No. Most of them were much older.

Then there was the run. Being nearly last at the beginning of the run did not bode well for my finishing position. Despite the look of effort, the flash frozen form, and the very cool sunglasses, in the photo I am probably running flat out at about a 10:30 pace.

Given all that, you’d think that I would have been discouraged. As always, most everyone else had gone home by the time I finished. As always, there was a very small group of friends waiting for me at the finish line. And they were only there because I had the keys to the van.

And, like always, I was as happy as I could be. I had done it. I had finished an Olympic distance triathlon all by myself and was still upright and didn’t need medical attention. No gold medal could have made me feel better.

When people approach me now – I am older, heavier, slower – they incorrectly assume that I have no memories to look back on. I do. I have many. Memphis is May is only one. I have memories of great days, of pure effort, of good planning and execution, and unadulterated satisfaction. I have it all.

The difference for me is that all of those moments, all of those moments are solely and uniquely mine. I didn’t have to share them with anyone else because, in truth, a middle-aged man finishing nearly last in a triathlon isn’t very interesting. Unless, of course, you’re that midde-aged man.

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

The Chicken and the Pig

bacon and eggsMy old buddy Coach Roy Benson had a simple way of explaining the difference between involvement and commitment. He would say that when you think of a breakfast of bacon and eggs, the chicken is involved, the pig is committed. With apologies to my Vegan friends, it certainly sums it up.

I hear lots of talk about how today’s runners aren’t as committed to the sport as were the runners in the 70’s or 80’s. Today’s runners are criticized for not being willing to put in the time and miles.

I hear that they’re only involved in the events and the travel and the social aspects, that they just want to have fun, to enjoy a healthy active lifestyle without paying their dues. Really?

I have exercised in some fashion for over 20 years. I’ve been a runner, a walker, a duathlete, a triathlete, an adventure racer, kayaker, swimmer, and cyclist. And I haven’t been very good at any of them. And – I’ve enjoyed every minute of every day that I’ve been active. To say that I’m not committed, that I’m just involved, is pure poppycock.

Now, it’s true that there were years in my life where I was able to be more committed to competing. Especially in the early years when every race distance and every race experience was new I spent more time planning, training, and racing. I’d spend hours creating elaborate training schedules based on what I viewed as the best of what was available, and I’d commit to getting in the training no matter what.

That “no matter what” often included an ache or a pain or an injury. I was committed. I couldn’t miss a workout or my whole training strategy would fall apart. Or so I thought. In my commitment I was stressed out and often disappointed that I wasn’t improving more quickly.

At some point I began to worry less about my level of commitment and more about my level of joy. It occurred to me that I wouldn’t keep doing the things that I enjoyed if I took all the joy out of the activities.

My commitment never changed. What changed was how I expressed that commitment. What also changed was that I remembered what I got started with all this in the first place; to have fun.

Waddle on, friends.

You can follow me on Twitter: @jjbingham

and on Facebook: @john thepenguin bingham

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

The Well Lubricated Runner

duct tapeYears ago I worked with a crusty, old [like maybe 40!] Scottish motorcycle mechanic named Stewart. His brogue and the fact that he had lost one leg below the knee in a motorcycle accident made him seem more like a pirate than a master mechanic.

He used to fill the junior mechanics, me among them, with his hard-earned words of wisdom. The one that remains with me all these years later was: “If it CAN be lubricated it NEEDS to be lubricated and if it CAN be adjusted it NEEDS to be adjusted.”

He had one other simple explanation for the mysteries of the mechanical world. “If it moves and shouldn’t, use duct tape [DUCT, not duck]. If it doesn’t move and it should, use WD-40.” You’d be amazed at how often that’s all you need to know.

In some ways life as a runner – or walker or cyclist or any of 100’s of other activities – is almost that simple. If it hurts you’re doing too much. If it doesn’t hurt, you’re not doing enough. If you think about it, it’s pretty much all you need to know about training. Too much, something hurts. Too little, it doesn’t feel like you’re doing anything at all.wd40

Unlike the mechanic’s dilemma, the athlete’s dilemma is much more nuanced. If a little training feels good then most of us believe that more training will feel even better. If we start seeing progress in our training by doing speed work one day a week then we’re sure we’ll progress twice as fast if we do two sessions a week.

On the other hand, if we’re feeling achy and sore and know we need to take time off we’re never sure exactly how much rest is enough and how much is too much. And nothing that we experienced previously can help us decide. As George Sheehan wrote, “We are all an experiment of one.”

The best we can do is use the time-honored method of trial and error. We’ll get it right sometimes. We’ll get it wrong sometimes. All that matters is that we keep trying to figure it out.

Even Stewart couldn’t argue with that.

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

For the Love of Running

legends1I suppose a little context for this photo would help. On the left, as you look at the photo, is Frank Shorter. In the center is Steve Scott and on the right – waving his hands – is Rod Dixon. They are all legends in their own right if for no other reason than that they are Olympians. But they are so much more than that. And what they’ve been able to accomplish as athletes is no less astonishing now than it was when they were at the peak of their careers.

Rod, the flying Kiwi, a New Zealander, has been called by some the most complete and versatile runner of all time. He had world records, or competed at the world-class level, at every distance from 800 meters to winning the 1983 New York City Marathon. Steve Scott has run more sub-4 minute miles [136] than anyone in history has – or will. And Frank Shorter is known mostly for his 1972 Gold Medal victory in the Olympic Marathon and bringing long-distance running into the mainstream.

For each of them what they would consider their glory years are far behind. That’s not to take anything away from their great careers and accomplishments, only to suggest that for them – for me – and for most of us it isn’t just about the glory. It’s about the activity. It’s about running and walking. The joy is in the movement, in the finding out, in the surprises that are always lurking in the shadows.

Frank Shorter summed it up. He contends that there is an activity that suits each of us. It could be running, walking, swimming, biking, or any of a hundred other activities. Our challenge is to find that activity that feels best, the one that makes our bodies and our souls feel connected, the one that frees our minds from the constraints of mental aspects of the activity and frees us to simply move.

Even though I started moving later in life, I discovered almost immediately that I liked walking, and running, and cycling.  When I was participating in triathlons I tried to like swimming but it never worked. I understand why people like it. I just don’t.

I feel very lucky to have discovered an activity that I can do for the rest of my life. Frank and Rod won’t win any more Olympic medals. Steve will never run another sub-4 minute mile. For them, for me, for you – I hope  – it doesn’t matter. We can move.

Waddle on, friends.

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

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