The Sacramento Bee,
May 23, 2001
Even a 'penguin' can enjoy running
By Doug Thurston
Special to The Bee
(Published May 23, 2001)
Running is enjoying its second boom, and some of the credit for the increased
popularity must go to "The Penguin."
Many marathons are filling to capacity months before the race. Shoes are
selling well, and new training groups are sprouting like summer weeds. But
unlike the first running boom in the late 1970s and early 1980s, participation
-- not performance -- is fueling today's growth.
Champion marathoners Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter were the inspiration for
runners 25 years ago. Many of today's new runners admire John Bingham, aka
Since his column, "The Penguin Chronicles," debuted in Runner's
World magazine in 1996, Bingham has become one of the running community's most
popular and recognized personalities.
He is bringing his "flight school" running workshop to the
Sacramento area June 9-11. The workshop is designed for the adult
"onset" athlete who has made the decision to pursue a more active
lifestyle but doesn't know where to begin.
"The second running boom is marked by a different spirit," Bingham
said. "Many runners now are not willing to compare themselves to everyone
else. They are doing their very best, even though they are not running
June 2: YMCA World's Largest Run,
5K, 7 a.m., Discovery Park, Sacramento, (916) 737-3181, www.ymca.net
June 2: Tri For Fun Sprint Series
Triathlon No. 1, 1K swim, 20K bike, 5K run, 8 a.m., Rancho Seco Park, (916)
June 8: Friday Night 5K Series, 7
p.m., Miller Park, Sacramento, (916) 492-8966, [email protected]
June 17: Isleton Crawdad Festival
Classic 5-Miler, 8 a.m., Isleton, (916) 776-1627.
June 23: Shriners 8K Run, Raley
Field to Shriners Hospital, Sacramento, 8 a.m., (916) 929-4786, www.rungoldmedal.com
When Bingham started running nine years ago, he didn't look like a runner.
He was a 240-pound music history professor at Middle Tennessee State who smoked
and drank too much. He looked like, in his words, a penguin.
"I got to the point where I knew I couldn't go on looking and feeling
like that," Bingham said. "Running worked for me. I wasn't good at
it, but I enjoyed it. I got caught up in the spirit of getting active."
In 1995, Bingham frequently shared his running experiences on an Internet
chat group. His postings were forwarded to the editors of Runner's World. The
magazine was attracted to Bingham's folksy writing style and felt its readers
could relate to his struggles to be faster. Soon, the "Penguin
Chronicles" was a monthly column in the magazine, which has a circulation
of more than 500,000.
The magazine created a cute penguin character that is seen each month in a
variety of situations. The image appealed to runners who, like a penguin, may
not seem to have an ideal shape for the activity but who don't seem to care.
The penguin has become a happy and enthusiastic mascot for many new runners.
Within two years, Bingham left his teaching position to write and tour the
country, speaking at races and conducting his flight schools for fellow
penguins. His marathon time on a good day is near five hours, and he frequently
leads "pacing groups" for runners aiming for that time.
"Through running, I create myself as I have always wanted to be,"
Bingham has written. "Nothing in my experience was as powerful as crossing
the finish line of my first race. With that single step, I overcame a lifetime
of unkept promises to myself."
His Web site, www.waddleon.com, includes tips and advice for
new runners, a virtual training group and an active chat room for the Penguin
Brigade. Team Penguin running clubs have sprung up around the country.
His 1999 book, "The Courage to Start: A Guide to Running for Your
Life" is one of the sport's best sellers. He also has published "The
Penguin Brigade Training Log," complete with a family photo album and
motivational guide for beginning and longtime runners.
"The Penguin could not have existed 10 years ago," Bingham said.
"Now a five-hour marathon finish is in the middle of the pack at some
races. The growth in marathons is not at the three-hour pace. The swelling is
going on at the back of the pack. These are still serious committed athletes
who are simply slow."
Bingham is down to 160 pounds now, which surprises many who meet him. They
expect someone who is still more round then svelte and perhaps looks more like
actor Danny DeVito.
"I'm an example of someone who stayed at running long enough that it
made a difference in my life," Bingham said. "I had to overcome my
ego to continue to do something I wasn't good at. I view penguin runners like I
view many golfers who have a lot of fun, even though their scores are
His workshop next month is at the Lake Natoma Inn in Folsom with the scenic
Lake Natoma/American River path at the back door. Topics include diet and
nutrition, using a heart-rate monitor and setting up a training program. The
emphasis is on running for fun and personal improvement and satisfaction,
rather than for running for competitive reasons.
"The workshops are designed for new as well as experienced runners who
have plateaued in their training. People who start running as adults don't know
how to get better," Bingham said. "Improving as an adult takes more
planning and information, not just more work."
Mary Northup of Davis fits that mold. The 44-year-old computer programmer
has been running for 10 years. She is attending the workshop in search of
information and motivation to take her running to another level.
"I am one of those runners for whom 'The Penguin Chronicles' resonated
immediately," Northup said. "Running is not an easy thing for me. I
have run as far as eight miles. I would like to run a 10-mile race in September
and maybe train for a marathon."
Northup said that at her pace of 10-minute miles, she feels like she is too
slow to join a running club. She does all of her training alone, although she
enjoys running in the larger area races.
"I'm a bit nervous about attending the camp," Northup said.
"But I want to connect with other runners, and I'm hoping it will help
push me a little bit."
For more information on Bingham or the flight school, visit www.waddleon.com or call (615) 849-8497.
Doug Thurston is a Sacramento runner and race director. He can be reached at
(916) 929-4786 or [email protected].