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The Man Who Ruined Running

John Bingham, known to his flock as the Penguin, believes a marathon's more fun when you're bringing up the rear. Racing snobs blame his attitude for the decline of distance running in America.



On the lakefront path, just south of Fullerton, one of the most famous distance runners in America is leading a workout. John Bingham isn't hard to keep up with: The 55-year-old Runner's World columnist calls himself the Penguin, and sure enough he moves with the dogged but graceless gait of that flightless bird. His shoulders list, his clenched arms look like flippers, and his feet go pit-pit, pit-pit on the crushed-limestone trail.

Bingham putts along at six miles an hour, and every few minutes he raises his hand to signal the dozen young women jogging behind him. They all slow to a walk.

This isn't just how Bingham trains--it's how he races. He's run 39 marathons, and he's stopped to walk in every one. His best time is four hours and 35 minutes. That's two and a half hours off the world record, but he's not interested in improving it. In fact, Bingham's trying to slow down. The "back-of-the-pack" runners he sees as his people--the man who took up running to lose 100 pounds, the woman raising money for AIDS research, the 65-year-old grandma--are taking longer to finish the race every year, and he wants to lag behind with them.

"It used to be five hours was the back of the pack," Bingham says. "Now it's six hours."

The lakefront is always crowded on Saturday mornings, and Bingham's little band is constantly overtaken by swifter runners, many of them men half his age charging up the path with ground-swallowing strides. Bingham calls them the "nylon shorts guys," and he's not interested in their blood, sweat, and guts approach. That takes all the fun out of running.

"I have a pretty fair idea of what I could do if I put my mind to it," Bingham says. "My guess is that I could run in under four hours. But I don't want to. I have no interest. The price for me to run a subfour marathon would be so high it's not worth it."

Bingham's embrace of the below average has made him a messiah to the staggering masses who will never finish a marathon in four or even five hours. He's written three books--The Courage to Start, No Need for Speed, and Marathoning for Mortals--and he flies all over the country giving clinics and pep talks before big races, often speaking alongside Olympic gold medalist Frank Shorter or four-time Boston Marathon champ Bill Rodgers and sometimes outdrawing them. "I've stood right next to Frank Shorter," he says, "and people will come up to me and go 'Penguin!'"

At San Diego's Rock 'n' Roll Marathon, designed for leisurely runners, with a band at every milepost and free beer at the finish line, the Penguin's expos "are always the busiest," director Tim Murphy says. "He's signing autographs and selling books. Because of people like John, and primarily John, the word's out there that you don't have to be fast to run a marathon."

In any other sport Bingham's success would be unthinkable. Imagine country-club golfers skipping a Tiger Woods swing clinic to take lessons from a 24-handicap duffer or basketball fans blowing off Kobe Bryant to get an autograph from an over-35-league gym rat. Even a decade ago, if Bingham had stood in front of a group of marathoners and told them they'd have more fun if they slowed down, "they would have thrown him off the stage," Carey Pinkowski, executive race director of the Chicago Marathon, says with a laugh.

But marathoning has changed, and Bingham--who's now the "motivational consultant" for the Chicago Marathon--helped change it. When Pinkowski took over the race in 1990, there were 4,000 entrants. Ninety-five percent were men, and they were a lean, hollow-cheeked crew who, almost without exception, were trying to finish in under three hours, the qualifying time for the Boston Marathon. These were the sons of the first running boom, a movement sparked when Frank Shorter won the 1972 Olympic marathon on ABC, "in living color."

In the years after Shorter's victory, jogging swept America. The Complete Book of Running hit the best-seller list, and running-supply stores began popping up in shopping malls. In the early 80s, when I ran cross-country in high school, it meant laboring for a coach who bellowed "Balls out!" whenever we took a hill and toeing a starting line alongside guys with 4 percent body fat and T-shirts that proclaimed "Pain Builds Character." But we only raced five kilometers--just over three miles. I knew only one man who'd done a marathon, a bearded friend of my father's who also skied cross-country and held office in the local Sierra Club. Eventually, he left his wife and moved to Jackson, Wyoming, to be with others of his kind.

That was the popular image of the race until 1994, when Oprah Winfrey ran the Marine Corps Marathon. This was not spindly 24-year-old Frank Shorter gliding over the cobblestones of Munich. This was flabby 40-year-old Oprah, and if she could do it, anyone could. When P. Diddy ran last year's New York Marathon, he declared that his goal was to beat Oprah's time of four hours, 29 minutes. He made it--by 15 minutes.

"Oprah Winfrey," Bingham declares, "is the most significant runner of the 20th century."

"That's debatable," says Amby Burfoot, executive editor of Runner's World and winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon. "But I can tell you that Oprah Winfrey was our best-selling cover of all time."

The second running boom bears Oprah's stamp. Last year 44 percent of the 40,000 people who ran, jogged, or walked the Chicago Marathon were women--many of whom are more interested in self-improvement, weight control, or building friendships than they are in competition. But today the Pied Piper of these runners isn't Oprah. It's the Penguin.

In the mid-60s there was a cross-country team at East Leyden High School in Franklin Park, but John Bingham didn't know it existed. His teenage passion was the trombone, and his mother discouraged him from playing sports. She was afraid he'd crack his lip.

"My life revolved around music," Bingham says. "I wasn't antiathletic, but in those days it seemed like you had to decide fairly early on which direction you wanted to go."

Bingham majored in music performance at Millikin University in Decatur, then avoided a trip to Vietnam by winning a spot in the army band. After his discharge in 1976 he stayed in Washington, D.C., making a living backing Liberace, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Sonny & Cher, and other touring acts. But years of pressing a seven-pound trombone against his collarbone caused nerve damage that ended his performing career. In 1979 Bingham began teaching, first at George Washington University, then at the University of Illinois, then at Oberlin, where he became associate dean of the conservatory. He drank and smoked and in his spare time rode motorcycles--he owned nine in those days. By age 43 he weighed 240 pounds.

Then a fellow teacher, "a drinking and smoking buddy," was diagnosed with diabetes. Bingham visited his friend in the hospital, where he listened as a doctor ordered her to eat less and start exercising.

"In a moment of weakness," he writes in No Need for Speed, "I told her that if she would do it, I would, too."

Bingham bought a used ten-speed for $75, rode it until he could finish a 100-kilometer tour, then purchased a pair of running shoes. His first run, an all-out sprint down the driveway, lasted 30 seconds. His first race was almost as ignominious. A friend who had run more than 70 marathons invited him to compete in a duathlon. Bingham was up to three miles a day and had quit smoking; he figured he was in shape. When the runners were called to the starting line, he took a place in the front row. His friend suggested the back row might be a better spot. So Bingham went to the back--and stayed there, finishing dead last. For his next race he trained harder, and burst off the line like a shot. He ran his first mile in ten minutes, the fastest of his life--but slower than everyone else except his wife at the time, Karen, whom he'd enlisted as a racing partner.

"I was last, I was slow, and it was funny," he would later write in The Courage to Start. "It was as close to a flash of enlightenment as I have ever had. . . . I realized that if I was going to stay in the sport of running, I was going to have to find a reason other than winning."

He couldn't run fast. He would have to convince the world that slow was just as good.

The Penguin was born on a trip to Wisconsin. Bingham was visiting his old drinking buddy, who'd taken a job there. As he ran through downtown Appleton, Bingham caught sight of himself in a furniture store window and realized he was waddling.

"It wasn't turtley," he says. "There was an effort about it"--a hectic flailing to outrun the body God had given him.

He started using the nickname with the Dead Runners Society, an online message board where athletes trade racing tales. Bingham called his posts "The Penguin Chronicles." A poster who'd written for Runner's World thought they were amusing and sent a batch to her editor. It was 1995, and Amby Burfoot was feeling the stirrings of the second running boom. He asked Bingham for eight columns.

"We needed his voice in the magazine," Burfoot says. "Running was changing and runners were changing, and his was a voice that was not being heard. There was a whole new breed of runners coming into the sport, largely women and slower runners than in the 70s. I think it was partly the result of good economic times giving people more leisure, and also there was an obesity boom, and that gave people more recognition of the importance of fitness."

As a columnist, Bingham succeeded the late Dr. George Sheehan, a onetime 4:17 miler who extolled the virtues of willpower, asceticism, and pain. In Bingham's first piece he declared, in an appeal perfectly pitched to the baby boomers who would make up much of his following, "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. And I am not alone." The article was illustrated with a cartoon penguin with a race number and ended with the tagline "Waddle on, friends."

Slow runners started coming out of the closet. Bingham got letters. He got e-mails. "The thought of running had always intimidated me," one man wrote. "I saw runners as superhuman athletes who had become masters of their bodies, and I was scared to enter that arena and run among the lions." A young woman told him that "looking back, I now realize that I did not have to fear that others would laugh at me for being slow or fat or white or brunette or whatever else I worried about before or during runs or races."

"A lot of it was kind of gut-wrenching," Bingham says. "'I used to be in shape. I put on 50 or 60 pounds. Do you think there's any way I can become a runner?' And I would write back and give advice to them. They needed permission, because so many of them all their lives had been told they're not athletic, they can't do this, they can't do that. I'd see them at races. I'd be there at the finish line to give 'em a big hug. There's a lot of emotion in this. It's impossible to describe what it feels like to see somebody come across the finish line who . . . never believed they could do that, when something I said or wrote gave them permission to take a shot at it."

A year after the column debuted, Bingham, by then chair of the music department at Middle Tennessee State University, spent the summer motorcycling around the country visiting his fellow penguins. "When I would stop to run," he says, "they were all like, 'I'm going to be the slowest one out there.' Of course, if I was there they were never the slowest."

By the time Bingham published his first book, The Courage to Start, in 1999, he was lecturing all over the country and establishing Penguin Brigades, cells of novice runners devoted to his philosophy. By 2000 he'd quit his teaching job to be the Penguin full-time.

Doreen Michelini, a local corporate vice president, attended a weekend-long "Penguin Flight School" at the Hampton Inn in Schaumburg in the fall of 2001. "We had PhDs, cardiology surgeons, a U. of C. professor," she says. "For two days, all of us were thrown together. We instantly bonded." After the session ended, Michelini started an e-mail list for her group. At first the messages were mostly about running, but then the members began sharing stories of job troubles, family problems, illnesses. When Michelini was diagnosed with cancer, Bingham was the third person she told. Then she e-mailed the rest of her Penguin Brigade.

"This group helped me get through it," says Michelini, who's now in remission. "For the past two years we have relied on each other not just for running, but for living life. John Bingham is not just about running. John Bingham is about living life."

There are runners, mostly veterans of the sport, who believe that the second running boom's egalitarian attitude toward the marathon is not only cheapening the event but also contributing to a decline among America's top runners. After the 2001 Chicago Marathon, Tribune sportswriter Philip Hersh published a commentary decrying the "touchy-feely approach toward marathon participation, which reduces the emphasis on running in favor of just covering the distance."

"At the risk of offending many," Hersh wrote, "especially those who have used the marathon as a self-help exercise, I will categorically state that . . . covering 26.2 miles in more than five hours does not constitute running a marathon."

Hersh was flamed as an elitist on some running message boards, but he stands by his words. In 1978 he trained 60 miles a week to run the Milwaukee Marathon in three hours and 33 minutes. That would be an exceptional time for most marathoners today, but back then Hersh trailed much of the field.

It isn't just the average American marathoner who's gotten slower in the last 25 years: the best American marathoners are slower too. Between 1972 and 1982 three Americans--Shorter, Rodgers, and Alberto Salazar--dominated the event. In 1983, the last year an American won the Boston Marathon, 267 American men ran a marathon in under two hours and 20 minutes. In 1996 just 40 did it. Of the 20 fastest marathons by American men, only four have been run since 1989. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is speeding up. Joan Benoit Samuelson won the first women's Olympic marathon in 1984. No American woman has medaled since. Last year Kenya's Paul Tergat lowered the world record to two hours, four minutes, and 55 seconds, while England's Paula Radcliffe set a new women's mark of two hours, 17 minutes, and 18 seconds. This is the paradox of the second running boom. Far more Americans are running marathons--more than 450,000 in 2002 versus 25,000 in 1976. But far fewer are running them well.

One can see the difference between first- and second-wave runners even at small local races. Most events divide participants up into five-year age groups and award medals to the top three finishers in each. At the Jim Gibbons 5K and the Soldier Field 10-Miler, both held in Grant Park earlier this year, the time required to win a medal in the 40-44 age group was faster than the time in the 20-24 age group. Some of this may be due to soccer's wooing away high school endurance athletes. And because the sport is now dominated by African runners, American high schoolers no longer have role models like Shorter or Rodgers. But Hersh thinks the decline can also be blamed on the ethos that says finishing the race is all that counts.

"When the attitude simply becomes to finish, that attitude becomes pervasive," he says. "The marathon was once this incredible challenge, to finish it and to finish as fast as you can. I just think there's a mind-set out there about the marathon, and it's a different mind-set from 25 years ago."

Robert Johnson, cofounder of the competitive running Web site, has fingered Bingham as one of the culprits who are "dumbing down the sport. . . . Somewhere between the first and second running boom, respect and admiration for the competitive and elite athletes died," Johnson wrote. "Instead of Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers as the ultimate role models, we now have John 'The Penguin' Bingham and Oprah Winfrey." Johnson went on: "People like John 'The Penguin' Bingham can serve as the inspiration to get off the couch and start running, but the sport's very best athletes should still serve as the ultimate role models. We may not be able to run as fast as they do, but we should be inspired to try."

Bingham is aware of his critics ("I google myself all the time to see what they're saying," he says). He says his detractors fail to make a distinction between the sport of running and the activity of running, which offers rewards that can't be measured in hours and minutes. The second doesn't endanger the first, he insists: "How is it possible for the Franklin Park Municipal Band to hurt the performance standards of the Chicago Symphony? It's just a spurious argument that the more people you have in an activity diminishes it." He adds, "There's a narrow band that has a problem with what I do. It's the sub-elite guys, guys who run a marathon in 2:50 and can't break through to 2:30 or 2:40. They're not having fun, so they don't want anybody else to have fun. The elite guys think it's great."

For elites more runners means bigger purses, bigger appearance fees, and more demand for the running shoes, shorts, and singlets elite runners endorse. Moroccan-born Khalid Khannouchi has won the Chicago Marathon four times. In 1997, the year of his first victory here, he beat 10,000 runners and won $50,000. Five years later, in winning the race a fourth time, he beat 40,000 runners and got $125,000. Khannouchi, who was in town recently to sign a contract for the next four Chicago Marathons, doesn't let the people behind him hurt his competitiveness: in 1999 he set a world record on the course.

"Running is our profession, and that is why we are running fast, but for someone who has a job, five hours is fine," Khannouchi says. "No one can say they are hurting the sport. I prefer to run with 50,000 or 60,000 people."

Another champion in Bingham's camp is Frank Shorter. Shorter wrote the foreword to Marathoning for Mortals, and both men were celebrity lecturers on an Alaskan running cruise this summer. (The ship docked once a day to let everyone off for a scenic jog.) Shorter is in his mid-50s, and though he's still as lean as he was in Munich, he takes it easier than he did in his heyday. In June he flew into Chicago to appear at the Jim Gibbons 5K, a fund-raiser for the Leukemia Research Foundation named after the Channel Seven newsman who died of the disease. He spent three hours before the race posing for pictures and chatting with runners.

"I think a lot of the second wave is a lot more of the baby boomers," Shorter said. In the 90s "people began to realize two things: one . . . orthopedic preservation is really something you need to consider after about five years of running, so it makes much more sense to go easily and have an easy attitude towards it. The other thing is, the science has come around to show that, in essence, going at 70 percent of your maximum effort's the most efficient way to be fit, and so you can train too hard."

And then Frank Shorter, who used to run his 5Ks in 13 and a half minutes, went out and jogged around the course in 22.

One elite athlete who vehemently disagrees with Bingham's approach is Craig Virgin, the University of Illinois track star who won the world cross-country championship in 1980 and '81. Virgin is a critic of groups like Team in Training, which promises to turn loafers into marathoners in five months. "They're just getting people fit enough to do the Bataan Death March," he says.

Virgin ran four marathons. His best time, two hours and ten minutes, was good for second place at Boston in '81. But he believes the distance is "overrated" and thinks most fitness runners should race 5Ks and 10Ks instead of putting themselves through grueling marathon training.

"If you want to slog through a marathon to say you did it once, fine," he says. "But there are two forms of satisfaction in running. Number one is going a distance you've never gone before. The next logical goal should be 'How much faster can I get?'. . . Just running the distance, hammering your legs four or five or six hours--if that's your first marathon, that's OK, but if it's your third or fourth that's just stupid."

Even Ma Penguin is down with this. Roselyn Bingham was a high school sprinter in her youth. At age 65, after her son got her exercising again, she became a competitive racewalker, and she's now a veteran of three Senior Olympics.

"I have that killer instinct," says Roselyn, who still lives in River Grove and sometimes volunteers at her son's races. "He instilled that in me without even knowing it, and then he turned into the Penguin. I don't understand not giving it your best and not dropping at the line. But he's too happy at what he's doing to take that away."

I've always believed the purpose of running a race is to get from the start to the finish as fast as possible too. But to test my attitude about the second running boom, I signed up for the Penguin's half marathon class, which met twice a week at Fleet Feet in Piper's Alley. We were training for the August 1 Chicago Distance Classic. It's the oldest road race in town (Shorter won it in 1977), and it's now owned by John Bingham Racing.

I'm not the typical penguin. Ninety percent of Bingham's runners are women, and a lot of the women in our group were 28 years old. My gym-class outfit of cotton T-shirt and calf-length socks didn't fit in either. Everyone else was wearing sweat-resistant polyester. Only the Penguin looked frumpier than I did, in baggy knee-length shorts, flower-print socks, and a baseball cap with his nickname stitched on the back.

Bingham teaches the class with his fiancee, Jenny Hadfield, a 37-year-old former corporate fitness instructor who cowrote his Marathoning for Mortals. They met in 1999 at a running camp in North Carolina. Bingham was a coach, Hadfield a student, but she was soon critiquing his methods. She told Bingham he ran too much for a man his age and got him to cut back to three or four days a week.

For our first workout we did laps around a half-mile path north of the Benjamin Franklin statue in Lincoln Park. Every few minutes, when Bingham and his coaches blew their whistles, all the walkers started running and all the runners launched into sprints until a second whistle blew. Bingham didn't yell at any sandbaggers, but afterward he lectured like a brush-cut coach.

"I saw some of you running in groups," he barked. "You can't do that. You've got to find that place for you every time. It has to be different, because you're all different people."

In other words, not everyone is a penguin, and not everyone should run like one.

One of the women in the group who wasn't 28 was Carolyn Pomykala. She's five feet tall and used to weigh 265 pounds. Pomykala had never run a step until she went to Penguin Flight School in 2002, which gave her the confidence to climb the 95 flights of stairs in the Hustle Up the Hancock and finish a triathlon. Before that, she says, "I thought all runners were very thin and had loping strides. I never imagined myself running for any reason other than someone was chasing me." The last year her husband of 25 years died, and she decided it was "a time that I can reinvent myself. I can do something new with this body." Now she weighs 183. Her goal was to run the half marathon without stopping.

Another member of the class, Dorie Schwertz, turned 55 this year, and thought she might be able to win the 55-59 age group in the Chicago Area Runners Association circuit, a 19-race series that stretches from March to November. The Chicago Distance Classic is one of the circuit races. Schwertz's goal was to place in the top three in her age group there.

One Saturday morning the Penguin led a group of us on a four miler during which we ran for three minutes, then walked for two.

"Look at this," Bingham crowed, as he led his pack up Wells. "There are guys hungover this morning from looking in the bars for women. They should be here. They could meet all kinds of healthy, attractive young women."

The run set off from the Ben Franklin statue. We were moving two abreast, and I found myself alongside Melissa Kolom, who joined this group after a friend gave her The Courage to Start. "It convinced me that you don't have to be a 'runner' to run," she said. "Not a superfast marathoner. I'll tell you, though, I imagined John to be a lot different. I thought he'd be fatter."

We covered the four miles in 51 minutes--faster than anyone who was still in bed.

"Wasn't that fun?" Bingham shouted as we walked back to Fleet Feet. "No one's out here trying to kill themselves. No one's getting so exhausted that they get frustrated and quit."

"It was fun," I said with a shrug. "But it didn't make me any faster."

At 7 AM on race day, 4,000 of us crammed into a starting pen at Harrison and Halsted, on the UIC campus. Helpful pace markers--"8:00 Mile," "9:00 Mile," "Penguin Pace"--told us where to line up. The sun hadn't cleared the skyline, but we could already feel the heat.

I ran at a brisk pace until the six-mile mark, on the lakefront path near 31st Street. Then the heat took the mickey out of my legs, and on the shadeless stretch headed north toward McCormick Place, hundreds of panting runners passed me. When a juggler went by, I knew things were dire, so I resorted to a penguin tactic: every time I stopped for a drink at one of the water tables, I walked. It worked. After ten miles, my legs were fresh enough to carry me straight through to the finish. I got there in an hour and 52 minutes, putting me in 1,135th place. Dorie Schwertz finished in two hours flat, good enough to beat all the 28-year-olds--and good enough for third in her age group. (A Kenyan, Joseah Kipronoh Matui, won the race in one hour, four minutes, and 15 seconds.)

Bingham was at the finish line, patting runners on the back and shouting "Way to go!" Everyone was given a medal for finishing. But Carolyn Pomykala didn't get one. She didn't run at all. Back in May, she got too ambitious, ran four miles, and tore a calf muscle. The brace came off just a week before the race. Still, Pomykala said, she wasn't disappointed in her training with the Penguin--he taught her plenty.

"We of the back of the pack, who will never have our names in the newspaper, we can be happy and fulfilled," she said. "I think I live life fuller now. I'm not so worried about all the butts in front of me."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth, AP Photo-John Hayes, Diane Bondareff.

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