Smile Politely

Interview with a Penguin

John John “the Penguin” Bingham is not your average runner. Yes, he has finished 40 marathons and hundreds of 5K and 10K races, but fortunately, that is not what makes him special. He is amazing because he was a couch potato for 43 years before he changed the way he lives his life.

Bingham calls himself (and runners like him) “penguins” because they are slow and enthusiastic, and he always ends his articles in Runner’s World magazine with the phrase “Waddle on, friends!”

He has written a number of books on running, such as The Courage to SCourage to  Starttart: A Guide to Running for Your Life, and his most recent work, Running for Mortals: A Commonsense Plan for Changing Your Life Through Running. He is an inspiration to many runners, experienced and beginner alike, because he has captured what running is about: the challenge of overcoming your limits.

I had the chance to talk with the Penguin in advance of his visit to Champaign this week. This is the Q and A:


Q: You went years without running or working out. What made you change your tune? What made you start running?

JB: I was 43; I was overweight, smoking, drinking, and overeating. And I was miserable. I knew I had to do something. I started by walking, then mixed in some running. I wasn’t any good at it, but I enjoyed it.

Q: Why did you choose running over some other form of exercise?

JB: Convenience. It was something I could do anywhere. I didn’t need much equipment. And I could do it by myself.

Q: When I decided to run a marathon, I went from occasionally running a 5K to jumping right into training for a marathon, and I got hurt. Did you do something similar?

JB: Yep. I had been running less than a year and a friend―who had done 70 marathons―suggested I try one. I trained ALL wrong and blew up at mile 6. I didn’t finish. This was in Memphis, TN. Nearly a year later, I trained for and completed the Columbus [Ohio] marathon. So when people ask me how long it took to finish my first marathon, I say 11 months. The time on the clock was 4:56.

Q: I have two friends who have never run before, but they are looking to start. What advice would you have for them as they get started running?

JB: Forget everything you think you know about running. This generation of runners couldn’t be more different from the “nylon shorts” guys of the 70s and 80s. It’s a fun, social sport that anyone can do.

Leave your expectations at home. No one knows how fast you should run. No one knows how far. The great thing about running is that it’s YOUR journey. Start slowly. Be kind, gentle, and patient with yourself.

Q: Do you run with a group or on your own? What do you see as the benefit for you in your choice?

JB: Just because of my job and schedule, I tend to run mostly by myself. I think for most new runners you need a mix. You need some alone time just to get to know yourself. But, it’s also a good idea to train with group. It keeps you accountable.

Q: What is your best/worst running experience?

JB: Well, as I tell people, the worst morning run is better than waking up hung over. In general terms, the best running experiences I’ve had have been when I’ve been able to be a part of someone else’s success. Seeing them finish a 5K or marathon is amazing. And I know that their life will change.

Like most runners, I’ve had some bad races. I had to walk off the Tucson Marathon course at mile 18. But, I’ve learned as much from the bad experiences as I have the good ones.

Q: What can you tell me about your new book?Running for  Mortals

JB: The most current book in print, Running for Mortals is the book I wish I could have read when I started.  It’s straight-forward, non-technical, funny, and packed with information for “normal” people.

Q: I’m running the Illinois Half Marathon dressed as Abe Lincoln, including top hat, tails, and state of Illinois flag.  Have you ever run as a penguin? Do you have any words of wisdom to inspire me through this run?

JB: YIKES. No, I’ve never run AS a penguin. Or, not DRESSED as a penguin. I have a hard enough time running in regular shorts. Good luck.

John “the Penguin” Bingham will speak at the Champaign Public Library on Thursday, March 25, at 7pm.  The event is free and open to the public.  I hope to see you there!


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