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  John in the Media  

The New York Times
November 1, 1999

NYC Marathon; The Fast Growth of a Very Slow Movement

John Bingham, hero of the plodding runners, is coming to the Triangle to give us all a lesson in perseverance


The universal symbol of running has always been the winged foot, an embodiment of the pursuit of speed.

But that emblem has begun to give way to a new symbol -- the penguin -- that reflects a growing movement of extremely slow runners who are changing the character of American road racing.

Embracing a kind of slow chic, this new breed of runners emphasizes fun over achievement, rejecting the traditional asceticism of road racing for a more relaxed, noncompetitive ethos. They have cheerfully adopted the penguin for its girth and its waddling gait, and they amble their way through marathons, stopping not only for a drink but to dance or cheer or simply take in the flowers. Many members of this new wave in running will be on display Sunday during the 30th New York City Marathon.

John Bingham, a 50-year-old musician from Tennessee who started the movement that is now called the penguin brigade, was an obese smoker when he starting running in 1992. Even after seven years of running, Bingham is not svelte. He is 5 feet 8 inches tall, weighs 170 pounds and is proud of it -- and that's precisely the point. He relentlessly promotes an acceptance of one's limits with the mantra: "The miracle isn't that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start."

The novices whom Bingham encourages -- the majority of them women -- are a powerful force demanding equal treatment with the fleet of foot, and they are swelling marathon fields. The Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, which was held last week, closed its entries at 18,000 on March 1, keeping many longtime runners from participating.

And because many of these newcomers walk part or even all of a marathon's 26 miles and 385 yards and are unfamiliar with race protocol, they often get in the way of faster, more serious runners.

"I've been impeded by new runners who stop cold in front of me to tie their shoes," said Freddi Carlip of Lewisburg, Pa., a marathoner who is a vice president of the Road Runners Clubs of America. "These newcomers don't have a clue how to race."

Many in the penguin brigade do not particularly worry about stepping aside. As one running T-shirt asserts: "I'm slow. I know. Get over it."

Some marathons have already adapted to the new breed. Split times every mile were once enough to motivate runners.

But at the Portland Marathon in Oregon early last month, there was entertainment at every mile -- 61 bands playing rock, jazz, reggae and Dixieland -- to help propel the field .

"People are not looking for performance, but for a life experience," said the race director, Les Smith.

The marathon's organizers opened a separate division for those who planned to walk the course, and more than 2,000 of the 7,700 people in the race did just that.

The newcomers are responsible for a dramatic slowdown in marathon median times nationwide. According to Allan Steinfeld, the race director of the New York City Marathon, the median time for all of New York's 31,539 finishers last year was 4:19:49, an increase of more than 12 minutes over the median time 10 years ago. Last year, 22 percent of the New York field -- far more than ever before -- finished in a time slower than five hours, a crawling pace.

New York has also experienced a marked increase in entry requests, which come mainly from the slow afoot, Steinfeld said. Entry requests increased to 69,000 this year, from 57,000 last year. Sunday's field will be limited to just over 30,000.

To accommodate slow runners, the course will be open until 6:30 p.m. -- almost eight hours after the race begins. There will also be extra water along the route for slower participants, who can get a bottle instead of just a cupful in the latter part of the course.

Before the penguin brigade and other slow-runner groups gained visibility and a political voice in running, race directors barely tolerated the slowest entrants. Many races closed their finish chutes while slow participants were still out on the course. At some races, water and other refreshments were gone by the time slower runners reached refreshment stations.

Bingham, who has completed 11 marathons in the five-to-six-hour range, is passing up New York to save himself for the Columbus Marathon in Ohio next week and the Florence Marathon in Italy two weeks after that. In 1996, noting the growing population of slow, timid and imperfectly shaped runners like himself, Bingham launched the penguin movement through an Internet site and with his monthly column, "The Penguin Chronicles," in Runner's World magazine.

Bingham said he knew "from my first steps that running would work for me."

"But I was slow and imagined myself as a short, fat man with little bitty legs -- a penguin," he said. "Runners tell me all the time: 'I never realized I was a penguin. Thank you for giving me an identity."'

Amby Burfoot, the editor of Runner's World and winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon, said that Bingham basically created a new way of thinking about marathons, one that made them accessible to a vast new population of runners.

"Nobody had ever described what it was like to be a triumphant but slow runner," Burfoot said. "John found a magical way of reaching new runners who strive for the marathon on their own, noncompetitive terms."

Bingham, who travels the country spreading the gospel, is nurturing many penguins planning to run the New York City Marathon. They will be wearing identifiable pink hats with a penguin logo. "We're not looked down upon as before," said Kecia Lecausi, a slow runner from St. Louis who recites penguin slogans before marathons as though they were prayers.

During the Chicago Marathon last year, Lecausi stopped running to dance with a male runner as they passed a band en route. "I didn't care about my time," she said.

Deborah Sullivan, 37, of Manhattan, is running her first marathon on Sunday, hoping to finish in a time of about five hours. Sullivan, 5 feet 2 inches tall and 140 pounds, said the fast-and-thin running elite intimidated her before she met Bingham and his legions. If not for the penguins' support, she said, she never would have dreamed of entering a marathon. Sullivan has been training five miles every morning at 6 in Central Park.

"People are amazed when I tell them how far I run," she said.

Bingham, who says he gave 60 talks to 25,000 runners in 33 states last summer on his 1999 Penguin Tour, has built a following comparable to what the late George Sheehan enjoyed in the 1980's. But Bingham's message is quite the opposite of the one expounded by Sheehan, who glorified racing to the limit for personal bests and who, even in his sixties, would speak bare chested to reveal his youthful body.

Millions of baby boomers started running in the 1970's after Frank Shorter won the 1972 Olympic marathon with a graceful stride and 2 percent body fat. Enthusiasm was further propelled in 1978 when the lithe Norwegian Grete Waitz won the first of her nine New York titles in world-record time. Those emulating the champions trained 10 to 20 miles a day and ran the marathon in under three hours, forming an elite society who disdained those who could not keep up.

Like a backlash against the fashion industry for its obsession with youth and thinness, people who could never win a marathon trophy or wear a Size 6 have latched onto the egalitarian running movement. "We will not accept the arbitrary standards of others," said Bingham, whose book, "The Courage to Start," was published this year by Simon & Schuster.

Over the last decade, the number of marathoners nationwide increased by nearly 70 percent, to 419,000 in 1998 from 250,000 in 1989, according to the USA Track & Field Road Running Information Center in Santa Barbara, Calif. In 1980, 10 percent of marathoners were women; by 1998, that number had grown to 34 percent.

The field in the New York City Marathon reflects that pattern, increasing from 15 percent women in 1980 to 30 percent this year. About 40 percent of the field on Sunday will be first-time marathoners.

More participants than ever are expected to walk all or part of the five-borough course from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to Central Park. Walking in a marathon was once considered a sign of defeat. "Whatever you do, don't walk," was the standard advice. Coaches would even teach marathoners how to keep running while sipping drinks.

But a few years ago, Jeff Galloway, a coach and Olympic teammate of Shorter, began advising runners to take purposeful walking breaks during marathons.

"I tell new runners to run two minutes and walk two minutes for the entire 26 miles," Galloway said. "I'm taking couch potatoes to an elite accomplishment in life. The whole concept has changed."

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