John in the Media

The News & Observer (Raleigh NC)
March 17, 1997

Flight of the Penguin

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


MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — This story begins at the end, where John Bingham has spent every minute of his running life.

It is in the ghost-town wake of a hundred road races, where the only spectators left are blood relatives, and where there is no water station, only crushed paper cups ... that is where Bingham became The Penguin.

There are penguins everywhere, along every road, on every track, in every race. They plod along, oblivious of time or distance, just proud to be out there, putting one foot in front of the other.

It doesn't matter if they are the last to finish a race, or if they can't keep up with the pack.

"We're out there," Bingham says, "to find out what we're made of."

Bingham, 48, a music professor at Middle Tennessee State University, first put that "back of the pack" experience to words last year in the May issue of Runner's World magazine:

"John Lennon may have been The Walrus, but I am The Penguin. I am the runner you've seen whose legs look as if they are tied together at the knees. I am the runner whose stride is the same as his shoe length. And I am not alone."

In the 10 months since, readers have confirmed that last line thousands of times, and in many different ways.

Running is experiencing a second boom. Shoe sales are up (Nike's running shoe sales were up more than 60 percent in 1996). Race entries are swelling. Runner's World circulation is at an all-time high.

And Bingham is on the crest of stardom as the affable, self-deprecating everyman runner, the spokesman for the slowpokes in a sport long dominated by what he calls "skinny-fasts."

"They're the ones who, when it's 20 degrees, come out in a singlet and shorts," he says. "If it's any colder, maybe they'll add gloves. Maybe."

These days, Bingham is preparing for his upcoming "Penguin Tour," which will take him all over the country this spring and summer.

The tour starts Saturday in Raleigh, where he will hold a "Train for the Cure" running clinic from 2 to 4 p.m. at the YWCA's Oberlin Road location. The clinic will prepare runners to complete the Triangle's first Race for the Cure 5K, to be held June 7 at Meredith College. The race will benefit the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.

(Bingham will return for the race to lead a "Penguin Brigade" made up of those who participate in this week's clinic.)

Love and letting go

It is a Saturday morning in Murfreesboro, Tenn., a suburb of Nashville, where Bingham lives with his wife, Karen, four cats, a trombone, 21 "active" pairs of running shoes and several inactive stinkers. ("I ran Boston in these! How can I get rid of them?")

They have just finished a three-mile run through the MTSUcampus, the last few steps fueled by Bingham's chant of "Pancakes, pancakes, pancakes." Twenty minutes later, they are set before him, big as hubcaps, with two eggs, biscuits and lots of coffee. No Power Bars for this guy.

And there's the rub. For some in the running world, Power Bars and PRs are all that count. The touchy-feely, soul-searching expressed in Bingham's columns has gotten mixed reviews, even among the Runner's World staff—and he knows it.

"I've got to prove to the running community that we are serious, that we are just like them, except for our times," Bingham says. "We go at it with the same enthusiasm, the same energy, we cover the same distance, we pay the same entry fees."

But they do it, perhaps, with a little more humanity.

Bingham's role model is not Jim Fixx or Michael Johnson, but a colleague named Lee Alsbrook—a man who, while running the New York City Marathon, stopped for a sandwich.

"Lee taught me that you don't have to be out there killing yourself," Bingham says.

At 5-foot-9, 160 pounds, Bingham does not at all resemble a flightless, web-footed creature.

But he is funny, like a penguin is funny. He's friendly. He doesn't fool himself into thinking he's a gazelle, or a "skinny fast."

He has weekly doses of Maui Brownie Madness frozen yogurt, guzzles coffee, and sneaks an occasional cigarette, "to remind me of where I came from. I'm just glad I'm not that person anymore."

That person was a free-lance trombone player and a college administrator who smoked, drank and weighed 260 pounds.

In January 1991, he started biking, then switched to running when he couldn't take his bike on a long business trip. He now runs daily. Running, he says, changed his life.

"I spent the first half of my career as a hired gun," he says. "I fired a guy on his 60th birthday. I'm not that person anymore."

His first column was written in a van on the way back from the Gulf Coast Half-Iron Triathlon.

"I was so far back behind the runners, it was funny," Bingham recalled. "People were literally passing me in their cars on the way home. And I got to thinking about my version of being in this sport."

The Penguin version of running is about will, not form. It is about racing, not against other runners, but against fears and insecurities.

"In many ways we are not running to anything," Bingham wrote, "but away from everything."

Penguins imagine themselves strong and elegant; they run with grace, courage and pride. And they run from their failures as children, as parents, as friends and lovers.

"Through running," Bingham wrote, "I create myself as I have always wanted to be."

He posted that first column on the "Dead Runners Society" Web page, where members read it and asked for more of the same.

In that sense, his Runner's World column is really "letters to my friends," Bingham says, "Sometimes rambling, sometimes convoluted. But they are what I'm feeling."

His favorite—and perhaps his most poignant—column is called "Letting Go," and chronicled how a marathon changed the dynamic of his marriage forever.

It was in Wisconsin, where Bingham's wife, Karen, was trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon. They ran together until mile 12, when Bingham's left knee snapped.

Right then and there, Karen had to decide whether to chase her dream or stay with her husband.

She kept running. She let go. And so did he. He gave up being strong, she gave up being caring. She would accomplish something he would not.

"We were letting go of the illusion of equality,"he wrote, "and grasping for the first time the truth of being separate and alone—but still in love."

Catching on, if not up

The story of how The Penguin Chronicles came to Runner's World is one the magazine is not entirely proud of, since Bingham's columns were initially rejected "by an editor who is still here but who shall remain nameless," said Amby Burfoot, executive editor at Runner's World.

At the time, Bingham was dismissed with, "We get a lot of this stuff"—a clear indication that the magazine didn't see that there were a lot of new, non-elite runners discovering the sport and the magazine.

So Bingham continued to post his column on the Dead Runner's Society page, where they were spotted by Los Angeles Times writer Marlene Cimmons.

Cimmons started forwarding Bingham's columns to Burfoot, an old friend, with notes attached: "This is what's missing!"

"John will say that I discovered him," Cimmons said. "But I didn't discover John. John discovered himself. And that's what makes what he does so eloquent and powerful."

At the same time, Burfoot was trying to expand the magazine's focus to middle and back-of-the-pack runners.

And there was John Bingham.

"He was perfect," Burfoot said. "And the fact that he is slower than the mid-pack was even better."

And so, in May 1996, The Penguin Chronicles began, with the now-familiar tag-line: "Waddle on, friends."

"They can so identify with John and his struggles, his attempt to be faster than he is and the realities of not being up front," Burfoot said. "People eat up the advice stuff [by other columnists], but they really respond to the emotional stuff.

"John shows them that it's OK for runners to admit their inadequacies," he said.

Bingham arrived at Runner's World with his own Web page and about 2,000 fans known as the Penguin Brigade.

The Penguin Brigade list server on the World Wide Web is a strong indication of Bingham's popularity. All day, people write of running, not so much in miles, as in spirit.

But these runners are also organized, alerting each other of upcoming races and urging race directors to let Penguins start an hour early.

"These people have just come out of assertiveness training," Bingham laughs.

The new runners, he says, are people who are tired of joining health-clubs—the expense, the motivation it took to get there. They can no longer get excited about spending 30 minutes on a treadmill that doesn't go anywhere.

So they run. Slowly, clumsily, self-consciously. And they need a role model like Bingham to keep at it, no matter what.

Runner's World editors got to see that first-hand at the Dallas White Rock Marathon in December. At the clinics held before the race, each editor stood, said what he did at the magazine, gave his qualifications and offered runners some pre-race advice.

Bingham stood and told the crowd he didn't have any qualifications. All he knows is that running a four-hour marathon means he will miss breakfast and lunch.

"I'm old and I'm slow," he shrugs. "Who cares about my perspective on Power Bars?"

Said Burfoot: "John was by far the funniest of us. And the next day at the marathon, there was a huge, enthusiastic throng of people behind him."

The Penguins had paced themselves to finish the marathon in 4:30. But at about mile 18, Bingham turned and gave the group two options: Push and finish on time; or savor the moment of completing a marathon, and finish five minutes later.

A few pushed on, but most stayed with Bingham, aware that running is not just beating the clock, but achieving something within themselves.

Ambling through the streets, the group greeted the crowds, thanked volunteers and walked across the finish line in 4:35.

"We made a decision to savor the moment," Bingham said. Why not drink it up? So that's exactly what we did. And it cost us five minutes. Five minutes."

He shrugs, then smiles at the memory.

"Running a marathon is our only chance in our entire lives to be a hero for ourselves, and most of us need that."

The same euphoria can come from a 5K, a 10K, or even completing a mile without stopping, he says.

"I know what it took to get here,"he says. "And it's nothing that anyone can take away."

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