Meet The Penguin

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.