Meet The Penguin

He's the man behind our Stories from the Slower Lane - John Bingham, aka The Penguin!


Posted: 10 March 2003

This particular runner doesn’t know the Penguin. A struggling back-of-the-packer, he’s puffing through a 5K on aching legs, and doesn’t recognise the trademark waddle of the man ahead of him. That man is John Bingham, the man they call the Penguin. And Bingham, the father confessor and clown prince of the second running boom, is practically walking.

Which really annoys that struggling runner. He has a stress fracture in one foot and arthritis in the other, and he’s still running. Well, sort of. He’s limping. He’s straining. He’s growling and sweating and suffering while Bingham is cruising.

The Penguin eases alongside. The race is so short there isn’t time to engage the other runner. No time to either toss a one-liner (“This course is too pretty to rush through”), or offer a dose of Penguin philosophy: that running is a gift to savour, not a cross to bear; that there can be as much honour and excellence in running slowly – even very slowly – as in running fast.

So Bingham just engages him with his inimitable warm and slightly goofy Penguin grin (it’s as distinctive as his stride, equal parts what-me-worry and wise professor). The struggling runner loosens up, and returns the smile. He and Bingham instinctively recognise the worthy opponent in each other. The stoic and the Epicurean, the aristocrat and the democrat, the warrior and the celebrant. For a few strides they move together, then the other runner eases ahead.

“Agony and redemption, that was running philosopher George Sheehan’s beat,” the 53-year-old Bingham reflects, waddling past the two-mile mark. “I say when you’re hurting, slow down.”

After a moment’s thought, Bingham continues. “I get a lot of criticism from the so-called purists. But the Penguin’s never said that it’s wrong to run fast – just that trying to run fast is wrong for him. And for a lot of other people, too.”

Referring to oneself in the third person (as top athletes often do) can grate like a fingernail on a blackboard. But with Bingham, it has a certain disarming charm. There is little difference between his public persona and the private man, which is a major source of his appeal.

The Penguin has travelled the same hard road as his fans, struggling with bad habits and suspect genes, running countless grey miles for every one that shines. When he passes a plate-glass window, he doesn’t see the svelte runner of his Walter Mitty-esque dreams. He sees a chunky, middle-aged man. Through running, in other words, Bingham meets himself.

He accepts himself, laughs at himself and puts himself out there in ‘The Penguin Chronicles’, his avidly-read monthly column in RUNNER’S WORLD. Bingham has also written two books (his latest – No Need For Speed: A Beginner’s Guide To The Joy Of Running – will be published in the UK later this year), stars on his own website and is the featured speaker at race seminars, expos and pre-race dinners around the world. He’s having fun. “This is the only job I’ve ever had where they pay me because I’m bad at it.” But at the same time he’s a tough-minded, pragmatic professional who realises this is the experience of a lifetime.

“There is a slight lag between who I really am – a man in his 50s who’s been running for 10 years – and the Penguin in the columns,” he says. “That person is 10 years younger and has just started running. Race by race, he’s still trying to figure out what the sport’s about, and how he fits in. Or doesn’t fit in.”

In the third mile of the 5K, Bingham runs along a wetland marsh, to the muffled beat of shoes drumming the pavement. He walks up hills and through water stations. It is not easy to run slowly with style, but the Penguin pulls it off. His lack of speed defines him. He’s hitting his own true rhythm.

Seeing Bingham approach the finish, the race announcer’s voice grows charged. “Ladies and gentlemen, here comes the Penguin!” Bingham doffs his cap as he waddles across the line in 45 minutes. The followers release a lusty cheer, a bigger cheer than the one that greeted the overall winner, who came in nearly 30 minutes earlier. A few yards away, the suffering runner watches Bingham’s reception with amazement. Now he knows the Penguin.

That afternoon, Bill Herman, a local runner and a member of the Penguin’s international network of friends and fans (with his fans, the terms are nearly synonymous), introduces Bingham at a post-race seminar.

“Whenever I read the Penguin column, it feels as if he’s talking directly to me,” Herman says. “When I get my RUNNER’S WORLD, I always turn to his page first. What makes him special is that he understands he’s not special. He never forgets that he’s just another runner at the back of the pack.”

Accepting the mike from Herman, Bingham feigns insult. “I’ll have you know I’ve run 30 marathons, and my PB is 2:31:20,” he deadpans. After an expertly timed pause, he adds: “Then, in the second half, I slowed down.”

Before his talk, he prowls the audience with a cordless mike, warming up the crowd with one-liners.

“Are you running the marathon tomorrow?” he asks a young woman. “Did they tell you how long that was?”

In his glasses, black shirt and jeans, Bingham looks simultaneously frumpy and trendy. He is fit and trim, but not dauntingly so; vestiges of the former 17-stone couch potato remain. Bingham projects the aura of a non-threatening class clown, an entertaining Everyman. The kind of person you offer to buy a coffee or a beer. Sitting next to the Penguin on a long flight, you’d probably tell him your life story.

Bingham suggests that there’s too much to do in a marathon to hurry through it. Pack a camera, he advises. Back where he runs, he says, he hears a lot of great stories.

Like the one about the miserable, overweight woman who finally summoned the courage to chuck her drunken slob of a husband out of the house. Desperate, the woman starts to run. Then, a year later, she’s 30lbs lighter and steaming through her first marathon, tears of joy coursing down her face.

“Meanwhile,” Bingham says, after another artful pause, “the guy she threw out has quit drinking. He’s 20 feet away, running his first marathon, too.”

Some bikers on Harleys roar past the outdoor seminar, and Bingham improvises. Motorcycles are his first love, and he recounts the cross-America motorcycle trip he took to San Diego with his son to run in the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon together.

“So on our last night on the road, we’re sitting around the campfire,” Bingham recalls. “My son turns to me and says, “Oh yeah, Dad, something I’ve been meaning to tell you. I forgot to train.”

He goes stiff as a board, imitating pre-race insomnia. He jokes about the brain-lock in the latter stages of a marathon. As he talks, he drains performance anxiety from his audience.

After the talk, Julia Kim – another Penguin devotee – says: “I used to think I couldn’t call myself a runner unless I ran a three-hour marathon. But John validates that I am all right as a runner, just the way I am.”

Bingham moves to a booth at the nearby expo to sign books and chat with his fans. There’s a craggy-faced doctor who tells Bingham that the marathon tomorrow will be his first. What he likes best about running, says the doctor, is the solitude, which seems a long way from Penguin territory. Yet the doctor eagerly buys a book and shakes Bingham’s hand.

Even further from the traditional Penguin fan base is the final runner in line – a junior cross-country runner. “I always read the Penguin just before a race,” Matt Gilliss says. “It relaxes me. It reminds me that no matter how big the event, I should always run for the fun of it.”

In the late afternoon, Bingham unwinds with a spin down the coast on a huge Suzuki motorcycle, then settles into a café with a tall mug of coffee. He has been known to stop midway through a marathon for a shot of espresso, and often has bacon and eggs for breakfast the morning of a marathon.

“People sense that I enjoy the same things they do,” Bingham says. “I know what it means to be tempted by a cheeseburger. It took me a year to quit smoking, even after I started running. I finished a triathlon once, and the first thing I did was light up a cigarette.”

Ten years ago, Bingham had a dream job as associate dean at Oberlin College Conservatory Of Music in Ohio, USA. But he was miserable. “I was fat,” he remembers, producing a picture of his former hefty self. “I was smoking and drinking too much. Despite my material success, I was not a happy camper.”

One day, Bingham noticed the lean, strong man who tuned pianos on campus. The humble craftsman glowed, while the high-level administrator privately suffered. Bingham learned that the piano tuner was an avid cyclist. His glow came from fitness, from his hours on the road.

It was then that Bingham decided to begin exercising. First he tried cycling, then switched to running, which he found more convenient and enjoyable. The pleasure boiled into passion when he started to race.

“Running forced me to be honest with myself,” recalls Bingham, who left teaching for good in 1999. “Out on the road, and especially in a race, I had to face that I really was this fat, out-of-shape man – this waddling penguin – and not the greyhound I imagined myself in my dreams.”

He relished competing in road races, even though he could never hope to win, at least not in the traditional sense. But, in other aspects of his life, Bingham was already a winner. As a professional trombonist, he had played in the US Army band and in symphony orchestras. He had backed Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.

However, Bingham also understood the steep costs of performing at such levels. Once, early in his music career, Bingham was determined to practise his trombone during his son’s birthday party, and resented that the noise from the party was disturbing him.

“I wasn’t about to repeat that obsession with my running,” Bingham says. “And even if I had, there would be no possible benefit, because I was so slow. But I still loved to run. I’d be serious, give myself completely to it, but still be true to who I was. I would celebrate running slowly.”

In 1996, Bingham travelled to Florida to compete in a duathlon. The race was so exhilarating that he wrote a stream-of- consciousness entry about it in his journal. Later, on a whim, he e-mailed it to the Dead Runners Society, an online running group. The Dead Runners loved Bingham’s story, and urged him to post more. Which is exactly what he did.

The Penguin had hatched.

Years later, his basic method of working remains unchanged: go for a run, then, in a single burst, write about what it meant.

The morning after the 5K, Bingham runs the first 10 miles of the marathon as a training run. His travel schedule is so constant that his races often serve as training and vice versa. Moving at the Penguin’s pace, the line between training and racing, running and walking often blurs.

Bingham often searches for a new word to define his deliberate style – a way of running that also serves as a means of communication, a vehicle for self-discovery and the path to enjoyment. So far, ‘waddling’ is the best he’s come up with.

His run follows the coastline before ending up at the café he visited the previous afternoon. He tells his friends to expect him at 9:30am, two hours into the marathon. Bang on 9:30, the Penguin waddles in grinning and full of beans, despite the hectic pace of the last few days.

Despite the Everyman image, Bingham is driven to push this aspect of his career. He travels for more than 200 days a year, hosting seminars and clinics at clubs and shops throughout the USA and Europe. His summer schedule is already filled with Penguin Flight Schools and stops on his fifth US tour of races and pasta-dinner speeches.

“I’m still amazed how far this has taken me,” he says, looking out over the wave of marathoners streaming past the coffee shop in the morning sun. “If this had happened to me in my 30s, I would have thought it was because of my own talent or something silly like that. But for this to happen in my 50s…” He smiles and shakes his head.

“There’s a whole lot more I want to do,” he says. “This year, I want to run every distance from the 5K to the marathon, and see if I can set a PB in each of them. I want to do another adventure race, maybe even an ultramarathon. I’ve always loved the longer distances, because all you really need is persistence.”

Just then one of the back-of-the-packers, passing the café, recognises Bingham. “Hey! There’s the Penguin. Yo, Penguin!”

Bingham looks up and waves, but whoever called out has melted into the crowd. There are still hundreds more running towards him. The Penguin turns to meet his public.


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Discuss this article

OK, I've done three paced runs now with the RW 'Get You Round' pacers. So far I haven't finished with them once.

On Sunday at Sutton Park I was again a bit concerned at the pace, which was fine for most people, but was just a bit too fast for me to keep up for the distance

Can't make this Sunday as I have other commitments, so that's it for this year until FLM day itself.

Despite assurances that I'll be fine for London, I'd like some information about the pace that the Get You Round squad will be run/walking. The last thing I want to do is start at a 10 minute mile pace, then spend the last 10 miles in agony trying to walk on legs that say no...

Any advice or comments folks?
Posted: 10/03/2003 at 21:08

HW, I'd like to get info on this group too, at Silverstone the slow group (that I dropped behind!) were going at 11:30/mile pace (ish). Not sure if this will be the "Get you round" group at FLM.

And aren't the last 10 miles supposed to be agony anyway? lol
Posted: 10/03/2003 at 21:18

Thanks Adrian! I'll bring the glucose tablets :-)
Posted: 10/03/2003 at 21:25

Do they have a 'hobble home' group?
Posted: 10/03/2003 at 21:28

(I knew there was something else I was supposed to get at the supermarket today! lol)
Posted: 10/03/2003 at 21:28

Come on RW and John Bingham - 'fess up, is there space for us plodders at the back or will you waddle on without us?
Posted: 10/03/2003 at 21:29

Boing
Posted: 11/03/2003 at 07:40

HW, check out...

http://www.runnersworld.co.uk/news/article.asp?sp=&v=1&uan=793

...if you haven't already.
Posted: 11/03/2003 at 09:02

12 minute miles, finishing in 5:30 - yippee! I can manage 11:30 long distance, 1:00 for about 8-10 miles and less than that for shorter. H jumps for joy :-)
Posted: 11/03/2003 at 09:21

Personally I'm going to ignore the pace groups. At Silverstone the sub 2hr lot flew off much too fast for me and they started way behind me. If I'd trie to keep up with them in those first couple of miles I'm sure I would have suffered later. As it happens I overtook them at 6 miles and finished in 1:49. I'd be very wary of a pace groups for FLM especially if you are like me and have fast an slow periods that seem to be random.
Posted: 11/03/2003 at 09:53

Fast and slow? I personally only have slow and slower! lol
Posted: 11/03/2003 at 09:58

HI HW .

I followed John Bingham and the Get you Round last year and I know you'll be OK.

John Bingham clocked time last year was around 5hrs 36mins. That is an average pace of about 12mins 49 secs/mile.

But Runners World have several people helping on the pace ion the Get you Round group on the day, not just John Bingham and ano. You will find they work as a team on this rounding you all up and nursing you all along. One of the first tasks they'll do is to combine the group together from the Red and Blue starts. They are fun to be with and without doubt being able to run with them and and many others of you that haven't done it before is extremely supportive. I've said before in these forums that the support and backup on the FLM isn't just very proffesional but I belive it to be very PERSONAL. Without doubt the help and assistance provided by FLM's own staff , Police, St John"s Ambulance, TNT with the bags!, helpers on the waterstops.....I just can't name them all, .Well I can't put it to words,and the crowds as well willing you on is just unbelievable. I remember standing at Cutty Sark in 2000 and a wheelchair competitor came round in front of the Cutty Sark where the ramp is and struggled a little, rolled back tried again, rolled back and then tried again, now I swear on his third try he was 'levitated' by the sheer will of the crowd.

When you've done it you'll know hat I mean!!!!!!!!

Best Wishes to all. Roger.........
Posted: 11/03/2003 at 09:59

I tried to keep up with the run/walk group at Silverstone - they were doing about a 11.30 - 12.00 minute mile. I kept up with them for about 30 minutes, then lagged behind. I really suffered in the last few miles because of it too. I've resigned myself to not even keeping up with them - I'm just going to plod at the back by myself. May be next year....
Posted: 11/03/2003 at 10:34

Hmm, I thought the Siverstone run/walk group was a bit quicker than that Charlotte. They finished in a chip time of 1:24:ish which is 11 min miling, and that's why I could only keep up for the first 8 miles.

Thanks for your encouragement Roger, especially as you know I puffed in after most other folks on Sunday! Did your son run?

Adrian, I liked your message - where has it gone???
Posted: 11/03/2003 at 19:10

On the sponsorship you mean? For some reason the credit card got refused. It's now gone through (and been authorised!) so I can only imagine it's because I did several transactions from the one website in a short space of time. Barclays must have woken up and thought hey, what's the bloke doing, donating to charity three times in one day? lol
Posted: 12/03/2003 at 11:35

Well, thanks again :-)
Posted: 12/03/2003 at 17:26

Helen, Sorry I did not wait to see you at the end on Sunday, I wanted to see if I had it in me to do a little more, but the end I only managed to get to the next hill and chickened out. So on Wednesday I took a day's hol and shuffled my way round 20 all on my own. It took me 3.40 but I got there. I think at the London it will probably be better for me to shuffle along very slowly and try to keep going rather than do the run/walk schedule. Certainly won't be any quicker, but my legs seem to prefer it. I would have liked to be with the group for the companionship, so may yet hang around the tail end of the group. Perhaps see you there !
Posted: 14/03/2003 at 08:14

Well done Cath, that sounds like a good way to cope with your own constraints. We may end up passing and repassing each other again :-)
Posted: 15/03/2003 at 10:31

KK - agree about the crowd and support generally. You bought it all flooding back there!

Is there a Get-you-round group from the blue and the red starts? I've only ever started from 'red' before....
Posted: 16/03/2003 at 08:35

Is any other 1st timer doing the Worthing 20 like me? - My last long run before the big day.
I've been at Silverstone and Sutton Park with the Runner's World pacers (the run / walk group.
Has been very helpful - did 15 today - but it's much harder on your own - even in the sunshine!

Posted: 16/03/2003 at 19:15

Frank N

Agree. I did Silverstone and Reading and today decided to go it alone. 17 miler.

Very hard - mentally more than physical even though my legs are sore now as we speak.

When is Worthing? I was thinking of doing MK 16 miler next week but think more than 17 miles would be more beneficial.

No way can I run a long one on my own again. I was close to drowning myself in the nearby river because it was so mentally torturing!! :)

Posted: 16/03/2003 at 19:23

Worthing is next Sunday.
Posted: 16/03/2003 at 19:28

I also ran with the pacers at Richmond Park and Silverstone and ended up running after them, not with them! I waddled around an 18 mile route on my own yesterday at my own pace and didn't stop once. I did it in 3hrs 33mins which I thought wasn't to bad for a fat, ugly slob like me! I don't like the pacing groups as they do seem to shoot off quick. As for the run/walk group I have found that if I waddle and keep waddling I am OK, but if I stop or walk then I have had it. So its off on my ownsome at FLM bringing up the rear but what the heck my friend and I will raise around £2000 for PHAB and I will get a medal plus lots of TLC from my wife afterwards!!
Posted: 17/03/2003 at 20:33

Beast that's fantastic. Y'see you CAN do it! It's great to see someone succeeding when I know how they've worked for it. Say hello when you go past me at FLM, I'm the short wide old plodder from Richmond Park who was also left behind by the pacers...
Posted: 17/03/2003 at 21:07

I have a place for Worthing, and then bottled out when I was injured and entered the MK16 instead, now have numbers for both and not sure what to do for the best. Feeling better now, and would like to do one 20 miler before London...

Like RRR I must have company, can't seem to motivate myself to maintain that level of effort without some people around me.
Posted: 17/03/2003 at 21:09

Good luck to you all who have entered FLM, and especially Angela Hargett my running buddy and fellow Corsham Running Club member. Please talk her round she is used to it.
Posted: 20/03/2003 at 22:43

Helen

You'll have read my note before this one. Well, I was so hacked off with the bad run last weekend that I forced myself out on Wednesday to do the 20 miler as I knew I needed to do this mentally (moreso) before start of tapering. I did it and felt / continue to feel really pleased with myself. It was still hard but the buzz I got after finishing ams sure can't be repeated until the finish at the FLM (I hope!!)


Posted: 21/03/2003 at 06:39

Hi, If the GYR group averages at 12 minute miles then given that some of it is walked say at 3.5ish miles and hour the the run bits are say 11min 50secs miles for a 5hr 30min clocktime.

hope that helps. I'll see you there (I'll be just behind the GYR group too).

And well done RRR on your 20 miler thats absolutely brilliant.
Posted: 21/03/2003 at 10:56

HelenWheels,

If you haven't already seen it, take a look at the "20 miles round Rutland" thread. I have decided to go and plod along (or behind as the case may be) a friendly sounding group. Trying to go that distance alone is so very hard. Why not join in? If it is not too far for you.
Posted: 21/03/2003 at 13:03

My ambition is to cross the line, having had a great day with you all. I am very lucky that 2 of my mates come out with me on my long runs at the week-end - they ride their bikes alongside me (very slowly!!).
Posted: 21/03/2003 at 13:11

Doing my first marathon on Sunday and getting nervous. Done the training - well most of it! (can now run 18 miles in 3.15) but not experienced a 'proper' road race. - I read that it's foolhardy to tackle FLP as first ever road race - I must be bonkers but I'm doing it anyway. Hope to plod round at back of field but will look out for the GYR group - I'll try anything that helps!
Posted: 08/04/2003 at 11:28

AnnieD. I would have thought that if you did 18 miles in 3.15 you will be too fast for GYR. Why don't you try sub 5??? That's what I plan to do and I am a little slower than you.

Good Luck

Posted: 08/04/2003 at 11:32

RRR
Thanks for the advice. Will go for it.

Posted: 08/04/2003 at 12:39

AnnieD - go for the sub 5hr, think you would find it better. This is what I am hoping to do too.
Posted: 09/04/2003 at 08:09

Cathy,

I can't run anywhere near you. You will have me in stitches all the way around. I have read a number of your msgs....

:))))
Posted: 09/04/2003 at 08:39

Is anyone planning to try running 1 mile and walking 1 minute? I find the GYR walk breaks a bit too frequent for me and prefer to walk for 60secs when I take on water and jelly babies(each mile after 3 mile mark).
Posted: 09/04/2003 at 09:03

I hope to go with the sub 5hr, PB for half mara is 2.19 so nearly recommended 2.15.

Wearing flo pink vest, along with other girlies from my club!!
Posted: 09/04/2003 at 09:09

I am planning on the 1 minute per mile walking break, I tried on some long runs and it seems to work (looking at around 5 hours on the days).
Posted: 09/04/2003 at 09:12

I really meant day - honest !
Posted: 09/04/2003 at 09:14


MJW
DavidD - depends on how fast you are running each mile ? but it does sound sensible, especially walking for your food breaks.
I am just hoping to still be running at 20 miles so bit of a plodder; I'll be at the back with a note from Matron and rather dodgy pink hair, vest and fingernails...
Posted: 09/04/2003 at 09:16

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