The Penguin Chronicles: The Perfect Race

Finishing near the bottom at a triathlon 20 years ago is still one of John Bingham's proudest moments. Photo:

John Bingham shares one of his proudest moments as an athlete. What’s yours?

I interview enough elite athletes to know that for all of them there is a moment, or a race, that crystallizes and captures their careers. For some it’s an Olympic medal or a major race victory. For others it’s a valiant effort that didn’t result in a win—but shows character.

Of course these high-life moments don’t only happen to elite runners. I had a moment like that as a bass trombonist, performing the Berlioz Requiem with the National Symphony Orchestra in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. The sound of that music, in that venue, with those musicians was my career highlight.

Believe it or not, I had a moment like this as an athlete too. There was no Olympic medal—no medal at all. It wasn’t in a major race and it certainly wasn’t a victory. It was, though, a day I can look back on with pride.

The race was the Memphis in May Triathlon in 1995. I had prepared well, was in the best shape of my life and was there to race, not just to be a part of the action. This was pre-“Penguin,” when I believed that only a full-out, death-defying effort was worth the trouble.

I finished, just for the record, nearly dead last.

The swim course was a giant triangle marked by buoys connected by rope. I was such a lousy swimmer that I was actually faster by pulling myself along on the rope than trying to swim. This did not prevent me from being swatted and kicked and nearly drowned by other competitors.

I didn’t suck as badly on the bike as I did on the swim, so once I was on the bike I was able to have fun. I didn’t have a very fancy bike, but I could ride with, and sometimes pass, other competitors—much older ones.

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Then there was the run. Despite my training and effort, and the very cool sunglasses I was wearing, I was running flat out at about a 10:30 pace.

You’d think I would have been discouraged. As always, most everyone else had gone home by the time I finished. As always, there was a very small group of friends waiting for me at the finish line—because I had the keys to the van. And, as always, I was as happy as I could be.

I had done it. I had finished an Olympic-distance triathlon all by myself and was still upright and didn’t need medical attention. No gold medal could have made me feel better.

I didn’t recognize it then for what it was. I didn’t know that it would be the day that, years later, I would recall as my finest effort. I also didn’t know that it was in that effort that the seeds of the Penguin were planted.

When people approach me now—I am older, heavier and slower—they incorrectly assume that I have no high-life memories to look back on. I do. I have many. Memphis in May is only one. I have memories of great days, of pure effort, of good planning and execution, and of unadulterated satisfaction.

Those moments are solely and uniquely mine. I didn’t have to share them with anyone else because, in truth, a middle-aged man finishing nearly last in a triathlon isn’t very interesting.

Unless, of course, you’re that middle-aged man.

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