The Penguin Chronicles: Learning The Hard Way

The body is such a fantastic piece of equipment that it will actually allow a person to be a complete idiot for a while.

Written by: John Bingham

This column first appeared in the July issue of Competitor Magazine.

I tend to learn things the hard way. I was sick nearly every winter for 40 years before I learned to wear a hat in the cold. I crammed for exams a few too many times before I studied in advance. And I didn’t learn the benefits of living a healthy, active lifestyle until I had been rushed to the emergency room twice with severe chest pains. I didn’t learn that I couldn’t eat and drink all I wanted whenever I wanted until the circumference of my waist was equal to about half of my height. Like I said, I learn things the hard way.

This character flaw did not disappear because I decided that moving a little more and eating a little less was a more reasonable way to live. Nope. I decided that moving a lot more and eating a lot less was better for me, because I was special.

Sure, I read that you are supposed to start off easy and give your body plenty of time to recover. Yeah, I know, it’s important to take rest days. That might be fine for other new athletes, but not for me.

And yes, I knew that people said that if you reduce your calorie intake too dramatically your body actually thinks you’re starving to death and so it holds on to body fat. And yes, I knew that people said food is fuel and to be an athlete you have to balance your diet to match your effort.

OK, fine for everyone else, but not for me.

I figured if running a little was good, running a lot was better. If cutting a little on my food intake was good, then cutting off my food intake almost entirely was better. See where this is headed?

The body is such a fantastic piece of equipment that it will actually allow a person to be a complete idiot for a while. Mine did. I ran too far. I ran too fast. I ate too little. For a while, I lost weight and felt like I was getting in shape. But about three weeks into my new routine I noticed that I had pain in nearly every joint and that everyone and everything around me started to look like food. The stapler on my desk looked like a hot dog. My computer started to look like a microwave oven. I was hungry, tired and hurt.

Now, years later, I get paid to write and speak about living a healthy, active lifestyle. You would assume that I would have learned—the hard way—that I can’t let my enthusiasm get the better of me. And you’d be wrong.

Every time I embark on some new project, whether it’s training for a half or full marathon or, as I did on Jan. 1, committing to moving every day for 100 days, I make the same mistake. I go at the project full throttle. Wide open. Flaps up. Afterburners engaged.

I’m confessing all of this because I know that many of you are just like me. I talk to you at the events. I get your e-mails. I know that we, the adult-onset athletes, are most susceptible to being driven by our egos and not by our common sense.

So if you’re in the middle of your summer racing season, be careful. If you’re just getting started on your fall marathon training, be careful. Be patient. Be gentle. Be nice to yourself.

The lessons are out there to be learned. They can be learned through the expertise and experience of others. Or, they can be learned the hard way.


John Bingham, aka The Penguin, will share his running tales and experiences every month. Have a story of your own to share or a topic you’d like The Penguin to consider? E-mail him at

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