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Penguin Chronicles: The Road More Traveled

John Bingham’s running life didn’t start until he was 41 years old.

John Bingham’s running life didn’t start until he was 41 years old.

I rode a motorcycle for the first time at age 14. My uncle brought home a Sears Allstate moped and my cousin and I rode around the neighborhood until my aunt discovered us and made my uncle bring the moped back.

By 15 I was “borrowing” a friend’s Cushman scooter and riding to the next town over. The freedom I felt was addictive, as evidenced by 50 years of riding and the hundreds of motorcycles that I’ve owned.

I took my first running step, really more of a stumble into the abyss of being active, at age 41. It’s not accurate to say that, like motorcycling, I was immediately drawn to the joy and freedom of running. Even the promise of an eventual runner’s high didn’t erase the frustration of trying to move my body with my own two feet.

The two experiences, though, did have something in common. They both provided me with a window into a life that I didn’t know and the possibility of experiences beyond my imagination.

I’ve ridden 1,000 miles in 24 hours. I’ve completed a 24-hour adventure race and run 45 marathons. I’ve watched hundreds of thousand miles pass beneath my foot pegs and thousands of miles pass beneath my feet. I can’t remember every mile—either running or riding—but I know that the sum total of all the miles has made me who I am.

Who is that? It’s a rider who learned to run. It’s a runner who learned to write. And it’s a person who’s learned that sometimes the experiences that have the greatest influence on our lives are the ones we barely notice while they’re happening.

I often talk about my first run; a wayward run-suck air-walk-try to run-suck more air kind of thing. The total distance of that first run, and I know because I measured it, was a quarter of a mile.

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What I don’t talk about, and what I don’t even remember, is my second run. My first run was as much out of desperation as it was inspiration or motivation. I was overweight; I smoked too much, drank more than a little, and was miserable. The second run was a statement of faith: faith that as awful as the first run felt, the second one would be better.

The truth is that my life wouldn’t have changed after the first run if I had never taken the second run. The second run was better, but not much. The third run has gotten lost in the story of my becoming a runner.

I often talk about my first marathon: the 1993 Columbus [Ohio] Marathon. I was blessed with the ignorance and naiveté of every first-time marathoner. I was simultaneously over-trained and under-prepared. I knew how far the marathon was but didn’t understand how far I would have to go.

The second marathon, The Marine Corps Marathon in 1994, has gotten swept up in the litany of the experiences of 45 marathons. The greater truth is, of course, that running the second marathon took much more courage than running the first. Standing at the second starting line I knew both the distance and the depth of the day.

The miles that I’ve run, the miles that I’ve ridden, have been woven together to create a kind of tapestry of my life. Every thread is important. Every mile matters even if I can’t remember them.

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These days when I run—or walk—or ride—I am much more aware of the gift of those miles. I’m aware that all the wonderful experiences I’ve had were not the result of an elaborate master plan that I created. They were, and are, the happy coincidence of opportunity, curiosity, and desire. I could just as easily missed the sustaining joy of those activities.

When I talk to students I tend to tell them to follow their passion. I tell them that chasing a dream is much more fun than work. It’s true, but not complete.

I think now that it’s more about being open to a new passion, whether that’s running, walking, riding, drawing, archery or playing cello. It’s not enough, I don’t think, to have discovered a passion if in that discovery you eliminate the possibility of some new passion.

As runners we tend to define ourselves pretty narrowly. We are marathoners, or 5K runners. We are fast runners, or pretty fast runners, or slow runners. We tend to do what we like and like what we do. Worse, in my view, we tend to like the people who like what we do.

My commitment to myself, and I hope you’ll join me, is to be open to new passions while pursuing old ones. I can’t imagine not running or riding, but I want to allow myself to discover something new that opens up a part of me as yet undiscovered.

Waddle on, friends.

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