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  John in the Media  

From The Times-Union, Jacksonville FL
May 21, 2001

Bingham has waddled into running fame

By Mark Woods

It was the day before her first triathlon. Dawn Hagel was nervous. So after work, she headed to 1st Place Sports to meet someone she knew would make her feel better.

The Penguin.

If you haven't read his column in Runner's World, or joined the "Penguin Brigade," or signed up for one of his Penguin Flight Schools, or visited his Web site (WaddleOn.com), or listened to the runners who took turns jogging alongside him Saturday morning in Ponte Vedra Beach, John Bingham might seem like an unlikely role model for runners.

Bingham, 52, isn't fast. He never was. In fact, less than 10 years ago, he was a professor and musician who smoked and had 240 pounds packed onto his 5-foot-8 frame. He, in his own words, "looked like a cube."

He took up running to change that. His first impression was that he felt awkward. Others glided, he waddled. Like a penguin.

That was how he described it in something he wrote in the early 1990s for the Dead Runners Society, an eclectic Internet site. His writing caught the eye of a newspaper reporter, who passed it along to Runner's World editor Amby Burfoot, who hired Bingham in May 1996.

"I would have loved to have been in the meeting when that was announced," Bingham said with a laugh. "I had no credentials as a writer. And I was a terrible runner."

Five years later, he weighs 160 pounds. He still isn't fast. His best marathon time (4 hours, 35 minutes) is double that of a world-class runner. Yet, the man who once did a dissertation on "the innovative uses of the trombone in the music of VinkoGlobokar," has become the Pied Piper of a second running boom -- more runners, slower times.

Imagine golfers adopting someone who has never broken 100 as their guru. Or tennis players making a cult figure out of someone who struggles to keep his backhand in the court.

This is what has happened with The Penguin.

"You watch Carl Lewis run and you don't say, 'I could do that,''' said Chris Twiggs, leader of the group that ran with Bingham on Saturday. ''But you watch John run or read his columns and think, 'Maybe I should get off the couch.'''

His words -- "I am the runner whose stride is the same as his shoe length, and I'm not alone," he wrote in his first column -- have led to a fan club in Italy, screen-savers with his quotes, even a shoe deal with Brooks.

"It has been one of the most humbling experiences of my life," he said.

He quit his job at Middle Tennessee State. His wife quit hers to manage his schedule. He will spend 300 days on the road this year, meeting with runners, signing copies of his first book, The Courage to Start, and offering encouragement to people like Hagel, who until recently never thought of herself as a runner.

The 30-year-old loan officer came to the store carrying a copy of one of his columns to have signed. It was an interesting choice. One about the disappointment of dropping out of the Tucson Marathon at mile 18. A story not of success, but of failure and how it affected him.

"It's my favorite," she told him. "I've probably read this 12 times. And I'll probably read it one more time before the race."

Mark Woods' column usually appears each Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Contact him at [email protected]

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