Penguin Chronicles: The Heart Of Rock ’n’ Roll

Sixteen years after the Rock 'n' Roll Series was born, it shows no signs of slowing down.

John Bingham writes about the first Rock ’n’ Roll Series race nearly 16 years ago.

I was there. I was there for the birth of the musical marathon. June 21, 1998.

OK, maybe it’s not like being at Woodstock or some other major cultural milepost, and maybe we didn’t understand at the time what we were a part of, but looking back it was the starting gun heard ’round the world.

Imagine creating a race where there was no reason to be in a hurry to finish. Why would you hurry? There were bands and cheerleaders and thousands of people all doing the same thing for the same reason.

I was there with the Runner’s World magazine Pace Team, a motley group of editors, writers and columnists (and yes, there is a difference) that had agreed to lead participants to goal finishing times. Nearly every other pacer was running a time well under their ability. Not me. I was pacing the five-hour finishers—even though I had only run under five hours once.

The event was sponsored by Suzuki and I was able to ride up to the outdoor clinic stage on a shiny new motorcycle while my friends, fans and colleagues looked on with a mixture of amusement and terror.

I was there, with a few hundred of my newest, closest friends in my pace group, and 20,000 people I had never met. We were gathering at Balboa Park in San Diego for what we thought was a marathon. We had no idea that we would be on the front line of a running and racing boom that shows no sign of letting up.

Imagine not being in a hurry to finish a marathon. Blasphemy. The industry, the sport, told us we had to be in a hurry. After all, if we’re not trying to finish as fast as we can, what’s the point?

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Forget that for many of us running a marathon takes months, if not years, of training. Forget that for many of us being able to run a marathon was, for most of our lives, as unthinkable as flying to the moon. Forget that for many of us finishing a marathon would be the single greatest physical accomplishment of our lives.

I didn’t understand why I would want to be in a hurry to finish. Why would I not want to savor every step, every minute, every hour? Why would I not want to share the experiences with others who felt the same way?

Well. I didn’t want to hurry. And I did want to savor. And I did want to share.

My colleagues, and 10,000 or more marathoners, took off in pursuit of a great race, which for them meant a fast time. A few hundred of us took off in pursuit of a great race, which for us meant a good time.

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Once I crossed the starting line leading my pace team I was so focused on helping them that I barely notice anything else. We ran. We walked. We sang and danced. We laughed a lot and even cried a little. It was a tattered group of souls united by our commitment to each other and to respecting the distance, and by the value of honest effort.

Somewhere around mile 20, I looked at the group that was still there and told them to just go on without me. I wasn’t hurt. I wasn’t even particularly tired. But I knew that you can start a marathon as a group, but you finish a marathon on your own. That final step is a solitary expression of faith in yourself, joy in your accomplishment and gratitude for the opportunity.

February 3, 1959, may be been, as Don McLean professed, the day the music died. But June 21, 1998, was the day the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon was born.

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About The Author: 

John Bingham, aka The Penguin, shares his running tales and experiences every month in Competitor Magazine. 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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