'The Penguin' leads the way from the back of the pack

Running is enjoying its second boom, and some of the credit for the increased popularity must go to "The Penguin."

Many marathons are filling to capacity months before the race. Shoes are selling well, and new training groups are sprouting like summer weeds. But unlike the first running boom in the late 1970s and early 1980s, participation not performance is fueling today's growth.

Champion marathoners Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter were the inspiration for runners 25 years ago. Many of today's new runners admire John Bingham, a.k.a. "The Penguin."

Since his column, "The Penguin Chronicles," debuted in Runner's World magazine in 1996, Bingham has become one of the running community's most popular and recognized personalities.

"The second running boom is marked by a different spirit," Bingham said. "Many runners now are not willing to compare themselves to everyone else. They are doing their very best, even though they are not running fast."

When Bingham started running nine years ago, he didn't look like a runner. He was a 240-pound music history professor at Middle Tennessee State who smoked and drank too much. He looked like, in his words, a penguin.

"I got to the point where I knew I couldn't go on looking and feeling like that," Bingham said. "Running worked for me. I wasn't good at it, but I enjoyed it. I got caught up in the spirit of getting active."

In 1995, Bingham frequently shared his running experiences on an Internet chat group. His postings were forwarded to the editors of Runner's World. The magazine was attracted to Bingham's folksy writing style and felt its readers could relate to his struggles to be faster. Soon, the "Penguin Chronicles" was a monthly column in the magazine, which has a circulation of more than 500,000.

The magazine created a cute penguin character that is seen each month in a variety of situations. The image appealed to runners who, like a penguin, may not seem to have an ideal shape for the activity but who don't seem to care. The penguin has become a happy and enthusiastic mascot for many new runners.

Within two years, Bingham left his teaching position to write and tour the country, speaking at races and conducting his flight schools for fellow penguins. His marathon time on a good day is near five hours, and he frequently leads "pacing groups" for runners aiming for that time.

"Through running, I create myself as I have always wanted to be," Bingham has written. "Nothing in my experience was as powerful as crossing the finish line of my first race. With that single step, I overcame a lifetime of unkept promises to myself."

His Web site, www.waddleon.com, includes tips and advice for new runners, a virtual training group and an active chat room for the Penguin Brigade. Team Penguin running clubs have sprung up around the country.

His 1999 book, The Courage to Start: A Guide to Running for Your Life is one of the sport's best sellers. He also has published The Penguin Brigade Training Log, complete with a family photo album and motivational guide for beginning and longtime runners.

"The Penguin could not have existed 10 years ago," Bingham said. "Now a five-hour marathon finish is in the middle of the pack at some races. The growth in marathons is not at the three-hour pace. The swelling is going on at the back of the pack. These are still serious committed athletes who are simply slow."

Bingham is down to 160 pounds now, which surprises many who meet him. They expect someone who is still more round then svelte and perhaps looks more like actor Danny DeVito.

"I'm an example of someone who stayed at running long enough that it made a difference in my life," Bingham said. "I had to overcome my ego to continue to do something I wasn't good at. I view penguin runners like I view many golfers who have a lot of fun, even though their scores are high."

Topics of his "flight school" workshops include diet and nutrition, using a heart-rate monitor and setting up a training program. The workshop is designed for the adult "onset" athlete who has made the decision to pursue a more active lifestyle but doesn't know where to begin. The emphasis is on running for fun and personal improvement and satisfaction, rather than for running for competitive reasons.

"The workshops are designed for new as well as experienced runners who have plateaued in their training. People who start running as adults don't know how to get better," Bingham said. "Improving as an adult takes more planning and information, not just more work."

Mary Northup of Davis fits that mold. The 44-year-old computer programmer has been running for 10 years. She is attending the Sacramento-area workshop June 9 - 10 in search of information and motivation to take her running to another level.

"I am one of those runners for whom 'The Penguin Chronicles' resonated immediately," Northup said. "Running is not an easy thing for me. I have run as far as eight miles. I would like to run a 10-mile race in September and maybe train for a marathon."

Northup said that at her pace of 10-minute miles, she feels like she is too slow to join a running club. She does all of her training alone, although she enjoys running in the larger area races.

"I'm a bit nervous about attending the camp," Northup said. "But I want to connect with other runners, and I'm hoping it will help push me a little bit."

For more information on Bingham or the flight school, visit www.waddleon.com or call (615) 849-8497.

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