Friday, July 9, 2010

RunnerDude Chats with John Bingham

Recently I had the honor of interviewing John Bingham. He's often referred to as the "Pied Piper of the second running boom." More than likely you may know him simply as "The Penguin." For 14 years, John's column—"The Penguin Chronicles"—was featured in Runner's World magazine. Since the column's debut, John "The Penguin" Bingham has become one of the running community's most popular and recognized personalities. In addition to his column, John travels nearly 300 days a year spreading the running word by speaking to runners of all levels, leading marathon pace groups, and guiding his huge number of fans. He's become an advocate for the thousands of second running boomers and he feels it's vitally important to travel, meet, and keep in touch with the hearts and 'soles' of these runners.

Read on to learn more about one of RunnerDude's favorite running personalities.

RD: Where are you from originally? Where’s home now?
John: I was born, and grew up just outside of Chicago. After years of living other places, I moved back to the Chicago area 10 years ago. My wife and I now live just southwest of the city.
RD: I’ve read your Runner’s World column since the beginning, as well as your books (i.e., The Courage to Start, No Need for Speed, Marathoning for Mortals, Running for Mortals). And I look forward to reading your new column in Competitor Magazine. I’ve always felt like we were brothers from another mother. Like you, running has always been more about self-discovery than race stats. Running has shown me that I can do most anything if I have the will, desire, and dedication.
You once said, "It was being a runner that mattered, not how fast or how far I could run. The joy was in the act of running and in the journey, not in the destination." That really hit home with me. "The joy was in the act of running." That’s so well said. Bart Yasso said something similar to me in a recent interview when he said that even though he’s run over a 1000 races and his time isn’t nearly what it used to be, he still gets the same thrill when he crosses the finish line. It’s the journey that’s the reward.
I know that like many, you once lead a sedentary life, was overweight, and smoked, among other bad habits. What turned it around for you?
John: I wish there was a better answer than the truth. I was 43 years-old, had a great job, nice house, 9 motorcycles and was overweight, drinking too much, smoking too much and miserable. I really didn’t know what to do. A friend of mine was a bicyclist. I started riding a little then put on a pair of running shoes and I was hooked. The first “run”, which was more of a walk and waddle was only about 1/4 of a mile but I knew right then that running was what I was looking for.

RD: It’s no secret. I love food. I try very hard (and I’m usually pretty good) to eat healthy foods. I’m big on whole grains, complex carbs, fruits, veggies, etc. But I do allow myself to indulge from time to time in some of the more “sinful delectables.” What are some of your favorite foods for fueling your running? What are some of your favorite “non-training foods” that may not make sense for running, but sure to make for some good eatin'?
John: Well, I grew up with my Italian grandparents, so I’ve never met a plate of pasta that I didn’t like. I spent a lot of years “carbo-loading” even though I had no reason to. I’m not a big subscriber to the “high carbohydrate” athlete diet. I really think a diet that is more balanced, with carbs, protein, and even some “good” fat is better for most of us. I went about 5 years without eating any meat and eventually it just didn’t work for me. So, these days, a hamburger on the grill is about as good as it gets.

RD: You’ve completed 40 marathons and hundreds of 5K and 10K races. If you’re like me, some races are better than others, but there’s something about each one that I take to heart and remember. Of those many races you’ve run, which stand out as memorable ones for you.
John: Some stand out for being great experiences. Other stand out for being miserable experiences. But, in every case I learned something. In fact, I probably learned more in the miserable experiences. It’s hard to beat the “first times” and the fast times [even for me]. So, coming across that first marathon finish line in Columbus, Ohio was very emotional. Running the Marine Corps Marathon in October of 2001 and going past the Pentagon was VERY emotional. I’m an Army vet and my son is Active Duty and stationed in Washington, DC. My first Chicago marathon was special because I was running in a city that I love. I walked off the course in Huntsville, Alabama at mile 15 of the Rocket City Marathon. It was the first time I’d ever walked off a course [and still only one of two times] I just didn’t want to go on. I was done. And I learned that sometimes being a runner for life means not running today.

RD: Some runners are very avid in taking a stance on various training techniques, training foods, when to run, when not to run, etc. I’ve always been a big believer in if it works for you, then it’s right for you. What’s your take on the barefoot and minimalist running craze?
John: I’m concerned that people get excited about something and don’t do the research about how to do it right. A good friend – in the running shoe business – says it takes about a year to make the transition to the minimalist shoes. But, people put them on, go run 5 miles, and then are surprised when they get hurt. My view on shoes is that they are the same as eye-glasses. You only want as much correction as YOU need. For some runners that means not much. For others, it means a little. And a VERY few need a lot of shoe. But, what’s right for you is ONLY right for YOU.

RD: Are you a lone runner or do you run with some buddies? What do you like about each?
John: I spend so much of my life in “public” that I really enjoy the solitude of running alone. I’m not anti-social. There are times when I’ll run with a group and have a great time, but, in general I like to have my running time to myself.

RD: What’s the funniest or oddest thing that’s happened to you while on a run?
John: WOW. That’s a great question. I remember running in a remote area of northern California and I guy stopping to ask me why I was running and what I was running from. He couldn’t understand why anyone would just run. Probably the funniest experience was being the sweeper for Team in Training in Anchorage one year. I has several large helium balloons tied to my waist. Every time I went into a porta-potty I had to close the door with the balloons OUTSIDE. It looked like was trying to launch the porta-potty.
RD: Oh man, too bad there are no pictures of that!

RD: What’s your biggest running accomplishment? Why?
John: I think it’s that I’m still running, now nearly 20 years later. I’ve had plenty of reasons to quit. I’m not very good at it. I’m never GOING to be very good at it. But, I enjoy it enough that I just keep doing it.

RD: Do you have a favorite brand of running shoe? Which model? Why?
John: That goes back to the earlier question. A shoe that works for me isn’t the right shoe for someone else. I’m very lucky. Nearly every shoe manufacturer sends me shoes. There are LOTS of great shoes on the market. You’ve got to take the time to find the one that’s right for you.
RD: I agree. It's definitely a personal process of elimination. And often, once you do find the shoe that works for you, it's discontinued or modified and the search starts all over again.

RD: What’s your favorite race distance(s)? Do you have a favorite race you run each year?
John: I’ve done more marathons than any other distance, but it’s not my favorite. These days I like doing the half marathons. It’s a serious distance but it doesn’t take it all out of you like a marathon. The distance I like the best is 10K. A well run 10K is a work of art. I’ve only done it once in my career.I’ve run the London Marathon 7 times. It’s the one race I’d do again if I could only do one more race.

RD: I see now that you’re the National Spokesperson for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Team In Training program. Many years ago, I participated in a Team In Training program and had a wonderful experience. TNT was one of the first such charity marathon training programs. Others organizations have tried to replicate TNT. Some have been successful while others seem more focused on the fundraising and not on equally supporting the runners in training. What do you think has been a key factor in TNT’s huge success?
John: I think there are two main reasons. One, this generation of runners and walkers is more social than the “nylon shorts” generation. So, I think the group training aspect has been a big part. Also, I think this generation sees running and walking as something more than just personal bests. I think they see it as a way of helping others while they help themselves. TNT gives them a chance to do that.

RD: One of the best parts of your book No Need for Speed, is right up front on page 16. You say, “No one can tell you how much activity is right for you, what eating strategy will work best, or how long it will take to achieve your early fitness goals.” As a running coach and fitness trainer, I try really hard to set up a supportive training and coaching environment while at the same time letting clients explore what they’re capable of and set their own fitness goals. I think it’s so important for individuals to see that if it’s not their goal, then they’ll be less likely to commit to it. Did you learn this from experience?
John: I learned it the hard way by trying to be and do what others wanted me to be or do. This is true in life as well as running.

RD: I think a preconceived image of what a runner and/or fitness buff looks like is often a big obstacle preventing many from getting up off that couch and partaking in life. What are some words of wisdom on how and why newcomers should toss those preconceived notions right out the window?
John: Most adults think they have to be good at something in order to enjoy it. They wait until they get some level of skill before they allow themselves to have fun. Running – at any level – can be fun right away if you just take it for what it is. Patience is the most important element for a beginner. And, tenacity is much more important than talent.

RD: I’m a firm believer in adding resistance training to a running program in order to prevent injury and to help make for a stronger more efficient runner. However when resistance training is mentioned, many runners envision Arnold Swarchenegger and shy away from anything to do with it. I was so pleased to see in your book Running for Mortals that you included a section with some resistance training exercises most of which uses body weight and/or resistance bands or tubes. If you had to pick the two key exercises that all runners should include in their routines, what would they be?
John: My experience is that most runners ignore their upper bodies. The truth is that when the going gets tough it is often the strength and endurance in your arms that carries you through. So, some kind of upper body weight training is important. Also, core strength is critical for runners. Not the old-school sit-ups, but a more comprehensive core workout. And, runners have GOT to work on flexibility. Not “stretching” in the classic sense, but doing something to prevent yourself from getting so tight that you can’t move.

RD: I love reading your many inspirational quotes. One of my favorites is “Frustration is the first step towards improvement. I have no incentive to improve if I’m content with what I can do and if I’m completely satisfied with my pace, distance, and form as a runner. It’s only when I face frustration and use it to fuel my dedication that I feel myself moving forwards.” I often tell my clients that frustration is the fuel that can get them out of rut. It definitely puts a positive spin on things for them. Another wonderful quote of yours “The miracle isn’t that I’ve finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.” is another great motivator, especially for my beginning runners. And then my all time favorite is “Running won’t kill you, you’ll pass out first!” My 14-year-old daughter is a beginning runner and she actually used that quote as a running strategy the other day. We were on an out-and-back run and she decided to up her pace. She figured that if she passed out, I’d see her and pick her up on the way back. She was being tongue-and-cheek of course, but I think your quote really helped her see that you’re not going to die if you just try. What other advice would you give a beginning runner or someone who is just contemplating taking up running for the first time?
John: It’s pretty simple, really. Just get up, get out, and get going. You really CAN change your life with your own two feet. And there’s nothing that’s stopping you except your fear of not meeting someone else’s expectations.

RD: From all that I can see, it looks like the sport of running is growing each year. What's your take on the future of running?
John: I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to be the voice of this generation of runners and walkers. I’ve tried to be true to that voice and carry the message. What I’m finding – after nearly 15 years in the running industry – is that there is ANOTHER generation coming up behind us. These are the folks who saw their moms and dads, or grand moms and grand dads, out running. They stood cheered on the curb and now THEY are out there. It tells me that the future of running is very bright.

A big thanks to John for taking the time out of his busy schedule to do this interview. After 14 years on the pages of Runner's World magazine, John is now bringing his talents as a feature columnist and weekly blogger to Competitor Magazine and (Also, be sure to check out John's website.) I look forward to more books from "The Penguin" as well as following his column at its new home.


Sara Cox Landolt said...

Wow, what a great opportunity to learn more about the Penguin. I've also enjoyed his Runner's World column and have two of his books. I'm excited to catch him at!

Thanks to you both for encouraging fitness & the love found while running, at any speed!

RunnerDude said...

Thanks Sara!!

Avocational Singer said...

My sister bought me all of his books when I started running again and I love this guy. I'm glad you were able to post this interview.

Joan said...

I miss John's column in Runner's World but weren't you quoted in the last issue?

RunnerDude said...

Hi Acovational Singer! Welcome to the blog!

RunnerDude said...

Hi Joan! I'll miss it in RW too, but look forward to many more to come in Competitor Magazine.

Yep, that was me! My 15 mins of fame. LOL! Was honored they contacted me.

Jen said...

I love all of his quotes too. How lucky for you to interview him.

RunnerDude said...

Hi Jen! Wish I had a way with words like he does. Such memorable quotes.

Dena said...

Love the Penguin! Great interview.

RunnerDude said...

Thanks Dena!