The Accidental Athlete: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Middle Age, John “the Penguin” Bingham
There are some books you pick up and you just know the story is going to be about you. You may know the author so well you feel he or she is a kindred spirit. You may have read the book a hundred times. You may love the topic of the book so much that there’s no room in your heart for anything but acceptance and understanding. I have encountered a number of books like this over the years – these are books that don’t change your life so much as reinforce that the path you’re on is the right one. For me, Bingham’s memoir on becoming an “adult-onset athlete” is one of those books.
I’ve been enjoying his articles in Runner’s World since I started running myself in October 2010, and when I saw that he had a book out, I put it on my Christmas list along with Born to Run. Without having any idea how old he is (in his 60s), where he lives (Tennessee, I think), or how long he’s been running (20 years), I felt immediately that this man was my running soul mate. I had to hear his story, the complete version, rather than the bits and pieces that make it into the magazine, and I wasn’t disappointed.
“The Penguin” might as well have been me as a child. He was chubby, unathletic, and desperate to be the kind of person who got picked first (or at least not last) to be on a team. His dreams of who he could be were tangled up with the joy of being a child, and the disappointment he experienced as he faced down a system of organized sports that slowly sucks the fun out of games for the vast majority of children was so familiar to me I felt like I was reading an old diary.
He was 43 when he started running, having been a heavy smoker, drinker, and eater for most of his life. Twenty years later, he has run countless races, from 5ks to marathons to Iron Mans, and his focus is on discovering the fun in running rather than insisting on that it’s only fun to be the very best. Unlike Born to Run, which made me weep with joy for the pure sport of it, Bingham’s book made me get up and go for a run yesterday afternoon after I’d already decided I was going to skip it for the day.
There is no higher praise for any coach or motivational speaker than that – I literally put down the book when I reached the end of chapter 8, got dressed and hit the road. It was a brutal three miles. My whole body felt fatigued from two tough workouts on Tuesday, and on top of that, I hate to run any time but the morning. It’s too hot. There are way too many other people out who are much faster than I am. I just ate lunch. I have about a thousand excuses to pull out when I don’t run first thing, and this book shut me up and got me on the trail.
His book was a constant reminder to me of why I run. I run because even though I’m not good at it, it makes me feel good. While I was reading it, I felt like I was, for once, not alone in this bizarre mindset. Most of my friends are, from my perspective (if not an Olympic one) phenomenal runners; it’s no trouble for them to run eleven miles at a go or consistently clock 8 or 9 minute miles. They run triathalons after training for only a few months. They have medals from more than one marathon. It has taken me almost a year and a half to feel comfortable running 5k, and even now, I’m a twelve-minute miler on my good days. I barely clock ten miles a week, and I often wonder why I’m not getting any better.
Bingham’s story made me feel like I don’t have to get any better – not to enjoy running, not to be considered a runner – because I run, I’m a runner, and that’s final. It’s not that he doesn’t believe in back of the packers improving; he’s done it, and I know I eventually will too. It’s more that he has captured, for me, the essence of running – that it’s an expression of strength and joy and respect for the life I’ve been given.
It’s incredibly difficult, and at times downright discouraging, to be an adult coming to running for the first time. So many runners have been doing it their whole lives, and it’s a constant game of catch-up for us beginners. Maybe that’s why I cherish this book, my new running bible, as a testament to my ability to discover courage in a place where I’m very comfortable (the world of books), and then take that advice out to the roads and trails, where I am still a struggling novice.
John Bingham has plenty more to say at http://www.johnbingham.com/ I’m personally going to check out his training section right now.