Penguin Biography

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The Chicago Tribune~~Sunday, July 23, 2000



By Margaret Sheridan
Special to the Chicago Tribune

John Bingham landed in Chicago recently, ran a race, then took off for flight schools in Canada and Oregon. His schools have nothing to do with airplanes. They are running camps for "adult-onset athletes," where slow takes precedence over fast and runners in midlife learn to savor the journey.

A good time to this 51-year-old musician and music-professor-turned-inspirational-speaker means hanging with the back of the pack at races.

"If I'm having a real good time, I just go slower," says the Chicago native and founder of The Penguin Brigade, his virtual running group. Bingham was in Chicago recently to run a 20-kilometer race for the American Lung Association. He started with 20 Penguins, maintained a comfortable 11-minute-mile pace and was joined, on and off, by hundreds of "penguins"-or back-of-the-packers. His baseball cap and Team Penguin singlet make him hard to miss.

His audience of adult-onset athletes numbers in the hundreds of thousands, he estimates. They are people who are discovering, or rediscovering, the exhilaration of movement. "They have the courage to start," he says.

His courage arrived at age 43. Running was a last resort to get his life and 240 pounds under control. When his 40-inch waistline measured the same as his outseam and he "looked like a cube," he found courage. The girth was testament to a life of minimal movement and maximum excess. An injury in 1982 that ended his professional career as a trombonist gave more reasons to find solace in food, drink and smoking.

In "Courage to Start" (Fireside Book/Simon & Schuster, $11), he writes of "a round little man with a heavy heart but hopeful spirit. I didn't run or jog. I waddled like a penguin."

It took months, no, years, to evolve into the 160-pound runner he is today. His journey started by combining walking with running. Improvement meant "running farther than the driveway."

He set goals, like one-quarter mile, then a half-mile. When he achieved 30 minutes of continuous motion, somehow, his body adapted.

Race numbers eventually cluttered the refrigerator door, running shoes multiplied like rabbits, and the weight started to drop. He decided to share his success on the Internet. That one e-mail grew into The Penguin Chronicles. Dozens of people with similar stories

or those looking for support, responded. He adopted the penguin image because it conveyed the awkward but tenacious steps taken by those like him.

"Being a penguin isn't so much a matter of who you are, but how you approach the idea of running or walking or just being active," says the veteran of 19 marathons and hundreds of shorter races.

Married and father of a son, Bingham commutes 65 days a year between home in Nashville and an apartment in downtown Chicago. The rest of the 300 days he's conducting workshops and running schools (called flight schools), running races or showing up as cheerleader, speaking to groups or e-mailing members.

The virtual running club established through, his Web site, connects thousands. So does his monthly column in Runner's World magazine. Both are venues to share stories of middle age angst, midlife crisis, epiphanies and self-discovery.

The virtual running group gives people such as Larry James a connection to others who are rediscovering the person inside. Communicating through e-mail is non-threatening and a convenient way to share running stories and feelings about life, "something the workplace doesn't offer," says the 36-year-old engineer from Fox River Grove.

Life got in the way of the former high school athlete. Military duty, college, work and demands of business travel derailed fitness. Linking to other runners provides enough support and motivation. James returned to running in March 1999. E-mail connects him to other Penguins who meet at local races.

"Running helps me get control. It's me who does it, no one else," says James. "I can go slow or fast. It brings me back to the physical person I used to enjoy. It's like finding my old self."

Bingham's role as inspirational speaker, writer and Penguin cheerleader earns him the nickname, "The Pied Piper of the second running boom."

Liz Cardenas credits him with supplying the motivation to change her life.

The 42-year-old executive assistant from Elgin bought Bingham's book nearly a year ago. She liked its skinny size. She was ready to drop the 30 pounds she had accumulated during some life trials.

"After raising two children and going through a divorce, running was a way to take time for myself," she says.

"I'm not the usual Penguin. I can't run a marathon and I haven't built up to more than 4 miles. My first run, two blocks in the neighborhood, nearly killed me. But I never gave up."

Running opened doors. She made friends on-line through message boards. She connected to races and started e-mailing Bingham. He became a running coach and friend. Last year, they finally met at a 5K race in Rockford. They even crossed the finish line together, "me, smiling from ear to ear."

Cardenas has no time to sit in front of the television or spend hours exchanging e-mails with Penguins.

"Running enables me to do other things such as kayaking and racquetball. Being active at 42 has given me more fun than I had at 20."

Cardenas is typical of many Penguins, says Bingham. The majority are women in their 40s, married with kids. They're ready for more balance in their lives. Many are new to the idea of being active.

Bingham's latest career could not have happened 10 or 15 years ago. Runners were too macho, too speed-oriented. Today, people seek more balance in their lives. That's why there are more opportunities for anyone to become more physically active.

"There's so much support available to learn about running and walking. There are more races of shorter distances, and events with team-in-training groups," he adds.

When Bruce Kochman discovered Penguins, he was already a member of a local running club near Richton. He found by surfing the Net, his hobby.

The 46-year-old electronics buyer describes himself as "horizontally enhanced" at 230 pounds on a 6-foot-1-inch frame. He took up running in 1995 to lose weight, yet running never gets in the way of beer. The veteran of three marathons and dozens of smaller races says the 11-minute-mile pace suits him well. Running is a way to have fun.

"Like John, I reinvented myself, career-wise, and wanted to lose weight." It became a social outlet. His wife and two children got involved. She, a non-runner, enjoys volunteering at races. His 12-year-old daughter recently joined him as a running partner. The 3-mile training runs and 5K races provide "dad-daughter" time.

"I always thought when I had my midlife crisis, I'd buy a Corvette. Instead, I took up running."
Bingham's next Penguin Flight School in Chicago will be held Aug. 25-27, 2000. For more information, call 615-849-8497.


Penguin Wisdom
It took me three years to feel the runner's high. Then, one day in the middle of a completely unexceptional run, it hit me. I was running! I could feel my body running! The feeling was a high like none I'd ever known.





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Last Updated: April 9, 2000 23:11