The Penguin Chronicles: Paying The Price For Fitness

Illustration: Neil Numberman

Sometimes it’s just not that easy. 

Thinking about embarking on a new lifestyle, improving your current lifestyle or setting new running goals? The first step in that process is being honest. It’s not enough to want to change or achieve. You have to know what price you’re willing to pay to do it.

I used to be a smoker. I told myself that I was an intentional smoker, not a habitual smoker. I intentionally had a cigarette as soon as I woke up. I intentionally had a cigarette with my morning coffee, before lunch, after lunch … you get the idea. I gave up the pack-and-a-half habit about six months after I started running. But I didn’t give up cigarettes altogether. I convinced myself that there was a measure of discipline in only having one or two a day.

And yes, I was still smoking part-time when I began writing “The Penguin Chronicles” column in 1996. I was even still smoking when I wrote my book “The Courage to Start: A Guide to Running for Your Life” in 1999. I was encouraging people to do what I had not yet been able to do—fully embrace a healthy, active lifestyle. I finally gave up cigarettes altogether about 10 years ago, and I paid a price. The price was giving up the illusion of the suave, debonair, worldly man that I convinced myself the cigarette projected.

Nowadays I have other goals. I’d like to weigh less, but I’m not willing to pay the price of giving up the pleasure I get from eating certain foods. But I am willing to make a healthier choice from a restaurant menu.

I’ve run 45 marathons. I’d like to run 50. My struggle is that I can’t quite bring myself to write the emotional and physical check that this would require. I haven’t given up on the idea, but I’m being honest about what it’s going to take.

I have to train rigorously to run marathons. Marathon training divides my life neatly into two categories: what I have to do because I’m training for a marathon and what I can’t do because I’m training for a marathon. For right now, the price of seeing the 46th marathon finish line seems too high.

What I’ve learned for myself is that I’ve only got so much self-control. I’ve got plenty of drive, tenacity, talent and ambition. What I’ve got in limited supply is the ability to make good decisions.

The questions I will ask myself this January—and you should, too—are: What can I honestly expect from myself? What part of me is eager to become something else and what part of me is simply content?

What I have found, and what I think you’ll find, is that small sacrifices yield large benefits. By moving a little more, eating a little less, and making better choices more often, you’ll be surprised at how your body will respond. More importantly, your spirit will be lifted as you live up to your best expectations.

This column first appeared in the January issue of Competitor magazine. 

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About The Author:

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 thepenguin@johnbingham.com.

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