The Penguin Waddles On

John Bingham has spent years celebrating "back-of-the-pack" runners. Illustration: Neil Numberman

John “The Penguin” Bingham, the voice of a generation of runners, nears the finish line.

You might recognize him as a Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon Series announcer, “The Penguin Chronicles” writer, or author of five running-related books, including The Accidental Athlete. John Bingham, aka “The Penguin,” has had a huge influence on runners of all paces over the past 18 years. Now the 65-year-old athlete will retire from his announcing and columnist duties at the end of the year, although he plans to continue blogging at penguinchronicles.com.

How did you actually get “The Penguin” nickname?

I had been running for about six months and had changed my diet some and stopped drinking as much, and I was running in a small town in Wisconsin. I thought I looked great—I was sure I looked great. I looked up and happened to see an image in a store window of this short, fat man with black shorts and a white singlet trying to run down the street. He looked more like he was waddling down the street instead of running, and my image of that man was that he was a penguin. I thought, well isn’t this interesting—he’s wearing the same clothes I am. It took me two or three times of looking at the image, because that image in the window and the image in my head were so different that I couldn’t reconcile them right off the bat.

When did you start writing?

Amby Burfoot at Runner’s World had read a few emails I had written, but they were funny; they were from the perspective of former fat guy/slow runner. He asked me if I would be willing to do eight columns for Runner’s World. This was better than winning an Academy Award. So I wrote eight columns and thought that was going to be the end of my career. In 1996 Amby called and said, “Hey, we need 12 more columns.” I was shocked. Once the column got going, they found a readership—obviously it resonated with a new group of people coming into the running world: people who are a little bit older, maybe people who are a little bit slower, who are having fun doing it.

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You have been such an inspiration to so many people—when did you start to realize the impact that you were having?

I never looked at it as being an inspiration as much as I looked at it as trying to be a representative and an honest voice for the people I was seeing. There were people out there who, like me, were struggling to get active, struggling to change some really bad life habits, and they had no one to act as their spokesperson—no one that could go to the industry, whether it was the clothing or print industry or race industry, and say, “Hey what about us?”

Do you like being known as the champion of the slow running movement?

I have never really championed the slower running movement. What I have championed is people’s ability to do their best and be rewarded for their best. As it turns out for many people, that was to run slower than acceptable at the time. In ’96 anybody slower than a 7-minute-mile pace was a jogger. Then eventually anybody slower than 9-minute pace was a jogger, and that kind of keeps moving farther and farther back.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in running?

In 1997, a 4:30 marathon was terribly slow—it was awful. My PR is 4:36. There weren’t very many 5- or 6-hour marathoners out there back then. If you couldn’t run it in under 4 hours, then you hardly bothered showing up. There were no Rock ’n’ Roll races or any races that embraced that back-of-the-pack mentality. I take some pride in having been the voice of those people, because no one believed we were out there and serious about what we were doing. As the announcer for Rock ’n’ Roll, I am there from the first person who finishes to the very last person, and we try to celebrate everyone’s accomplishments equally.

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Since you haven’t run much yourself lately, do you miss it?

I do. I was injured in 2010. I had to take some time off, and what I discovered was that in the interim—I hate to say this—I discovered that I really like cycling, hiking, walking, all that. I want to continue to live a healthy and active lifestyle, I just do not want the pressure of having to be training for, tapering for and recovering from bigger running events. Now all of that said, once I am no longer having to go to events 25 to 30 weekends a year, there are certainly events that I want to run—I want to run The Boilermaker 15K in Utica, N.Y., I’d love to do Bolder Boulder 10K out in Colorado—so I think where I am at right now is going to change some once I am not working in the industry all the time.

How would you describe “runner’s high” for a non-runner?

There certainly is a runner’s high that comes from honest effort—flat-out doing everything I could. For me there is another emotional runner’s high. This comes from knowing that you are in the presence of something extraordinary. I can remember running in Colorado one time, and we came up on a ridge—you are looking at something that is more beautiful than you could ever imagine, and in that moment, I realized that I wouldn’t be there except if I were a runner. That is the kind of runner’s high that sticks with me. Running next to someone and sharing their experience and seeing how emotional it is for them, I get a high out of that too.

This piece first appeared in the October 2014 issue of Competitor magazine. 

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