An Accidental Athlete is an everyman story of John “The Penguin” Bingham’s transformation from couch potato to “adult-onset athlete” and celebrates the unexpected joys of running—the pride of the finisher’s medal, a bureau-busting t-shirt collection, intense back-of-the-pack strategizing. Please enjoy this chapter from the book!
Chapter Seven: Off to the Races
Nothing in my experience as an athlete changed my life more than competing in my first race. I use the word “competing” as a euphemism for what really happened at that first race, which is that I started and finished under my own power without requiring medical attention.
I was about to undergo the biggest professional change of my career. After four years as the associate dean of the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music in Ohio, I was moving to become the chair of the music department at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, just outside Nashville. The change in jobs was provoked, in part, by wanting to live in a geographic area where I could more comfortably run and cycle year-round and, in part, by the desire to find a job in which I wouldn’t have to work 16-hour days and seven-day weeks—also so I could run and cycle more.
On the weekend that I was to go to Murfreesboro to look for housing, the husband of a friend and fellow doctoral student at the University of Illinois asked if I’d like to go to a race with him. He was a few years older than I and at the time had completed something on the order of 70 marathons and several Ironman® triathlons. We had never met, but I was certain he would not look as middle-aged and unathletic as I did.
It turned out that he did. He was, by his own admission, a back-of-the-packer. He delighted in telling the story of riding a Huffy bicycle in his first Ironman. I figured no matter how slow I was, he was going to be right there beside me.
He told me that on the weekend I would be visiting there was a race called a duathlon that we could sign up for. Not having any idea what a duathlon was, I naturally said I’d love to. Only after I had made the commitment did I have the sense to ask him what we’d be doing.
This duathlon, he explained, was a 5K run followed by a 25K bike followed by another 5K run. I had just run 3 miles for the first time about a week before this conversation, so, needless to say, I was sure I could run the first 5K. Then, with all the resting time during my 25K on the bike, I’d be able to run the second 5K. Ha!
I had no experience in running races or duathlons, but I was a motor sports fan, so I asked him what we’d have to do to qualify for the race. I figured we’d have to get there a day early and demonstrate to the organizers that we were able to compete.
No way, he said.We’d just show up on race morning with our bikes and our checkbooks, and we’d be ready to race. We’d write a check for the entry fee; they’d give us numbers for our bikes and ourselves; and we’d be racers. Wow! All I needed to become a racer was a checkbook. Duathlon sounded like the sport for me.
Sure enough, we got to the race site in Fayetteville, Tennessee, unloaded the bikes, rolled up to the registration table, and handed the nice lady a check for $25. She gave us numbers, and we were all set. She told us to take our bikes to the transition area and then come back for the start of the first run.
At about this point I realized that I had no idea, none at all, what I was doing or what I was about to attempt to do. I didn’t have the foggiest idea what the transition area was or what we’d be transitioning into, but I had 25 bucks invested, and I wasn’t going to quit before I even got started.
My friend knew what the transition area was all about, so I just followed him to a large parking lot filled with rack after rack of bicycles. All the bikes were painted fancy colors, and they certainly looked faster than my steel Schwinn Le Tour, but I spotted my advantage right away: Very few of the bicycles had actual pedals! They all seemed to have some kind of small protuberance hardly big enough to find with your foot.
And my bike was the only one with a luggage rack.
I was so nervous that I went to the bathroom about ten times while we were waiting. Each time I went, I had to walk by the table with all the trophies and awards. I started to look more carefully at them once my friend explained that I was only competing against men my own age. I wasn’t going to have to beat the young guys—just the other old guys like me.
Earlier that week, in preparation for the race, I had run the fastest mile I had ever run in my life. My pace? Twelve minutes. Bearing in mind that I had started at about 25 minutes per mile, I knew I had made a monumental improvement, and I was certain that no man my age could possibly run much faster than a 12-minute mile. So, naturally, I was eyeing the trophies.
I noticed that the start area didn’t seem to be all that well organized. I figured that someone would soon get us arranged by age or gender or something. But no one did. In fact, no one seemed to care where we positioned ourselves.
Being a motor sports fanatic, I immediately grabbed the pole position: inside the first row. After all, I knew how fast I was. Surely I was entitled to the pole position if no one challenged me for it.
My friend tugged on my arm and told me to follow him.
“Where are we going?” I asked indignantly.
“We’re going to start at the back with no one behind us,” he answered.
“Hold on!” I said. “I know that at a 12-minute-permile pace, I’m probably one of the fastest guys here, but look, I can’t give them that much of a head start.”
My friend just laughed and repeated that we would start at the back with no one behind us. Turned out that was where we finished too.
When the start gun sounded, we were left standing there as if we were tied to a tree. I couldn’t believe how the crowd of runners just took off. Confused, I looked at my friend.
“What now?” I asked.
“Now,” he said, “we start racing.”
And we did. We took off at a comfortable pace and began to make our way around the 5K course. Somewhere in the middle an old man was sitting on his porch waving and cheering for all the racers. I gave him a big smile and a wave. It was the first time anyone had ever cheered for me.
As we finished the first 5K, in almost exactly 45 minutes, we found ourselves in a nearly deserted transition area. “Hey,” I shouted, stating the blindingly obvious, “there’s my bike, and the other bike is yours!” We rolled out of the transition area, mounted our bikes, and headed out on the 25K course.
About halfway through the bicycle leg, we started to notice other competitors heading home. I couldn’t imagine that they had finished that far ahead of me, so I assumed they had dropped out.
Nearly an hour and a half after we started the bike leg, we finished. By now most of the competitors were busy packing up and heading for the awards ceremony. Undaunted, we climbed off the bikes and got ready to run the second 5K.
There was only one small problem. When I got off the bike, it felt as if my legs were still bolted to the pedals. It was the strangest feeling. I could see my legs. I knew they were there, but they wouldn’t move. I might as well have stuck my feet in cement.
In time my legs loosened up, and we were running—or mostly walking—the course. The old man from earlier in the day was still out on his porch, although he seemed to have lost interest in the race by that point.
“How you boys doing?” he shouted.
“Just great!” I replied.
“Ya know,” he said, “’bout everybody else has gone home.”
We knew, but we just smiled.
I wasn’t racing them. I was racing myself.
He was right, though. Nearly everyone had gone home by then, with the exception of the ambulance driver right behind us.We could hear him on the radio talking to someone: “Yep, they’re still moving!”
As we approached the finish line, with the clock on a metal chair and the race director standing impatiently next to it, we picked up our pace. I was overwhelmed with emotion. I was going to finish the race. I wasn’t going to win. I wasn’t going to place in my age group. But I was going to finish. And for me— the former fat kid, smoker, drinker, overeater—that was all that mattered.
The funniest part of the day actually happened on the way home. I needed to drive back to Ohio right after the race, so I packed up and hit the interstate. A couple of hours later I pulled into a rest area and tried to get out of my car. Every muscle in my body had locked up. I was stuck in the seated position, and there was very little I could do about it.
I had managed to start hobbling my way to the restroom when a man approached and asked if I was all right. I explained that I was in the best shape of my life. He looked at me and said, “Son, if you were in any better shape, you wouldn’t be able to walk at all.”
But that was it. That was the day my life changed forever. That was the day I discovered a part of myself that I didn’t know existed. I was a competitor. And I liked it. I liked everything about it. I liked lining up at the start. I liked being out on the course. And I especially liked coming across the finish line. I knew then that my life would never be the same.
Running and cycling changed from something I was doing purely for recreation to something I was doing competitively. Everything was different now. I had been transformed from a mild-mannered university administrator to a fierce competitor. I knew that I would find the me I wanted to be deep in the fire of competition.
I started racing every chance I got. I would race two or even three times in a weekend. I would drive 800 miles to run a 5K. It didn’t matter that I was finishing last, or nearly last. I was pinning on a race number and putting myself on the line.
I discovered that the running community was full of wonderful people who were all willing to help me. They would give me advice on shoes, on training programs,on race strategies.They would support me when I needed help and encourage me when I was doing well.
I also discovered that some of the hardest-fought battles are not at the front of the field. They are being fought in the back of the pack by those of us with nothing at stake but pride.
I have chased down runners in front of me for miles just because the shorts they wore got on my nerves. I have reached down and demanded more from myself just so I wouldn’t have to finish behind someone 20 years older than I. There have been times when I have crossed the finish line spent and exhausted because on that day I was determined not to finish last.
What the faster folks don’t always understand is that what binds us as competitors is far more powerful than what separates us by pace. We in the back are often not content with where we are.The competitive juices are flowing through us no matter where in the pack we find ourselves.
To me, that’s the magic in racing. I don’t know a better way to truly find out who you are than on a racecourse with a number pinned to your chest.
I don’t know a better way to discover you’ve got something left just when you think everything is gone. I don’t know a better way to find out what it would take to make you quit, or why you would quit, or even if you would quit.
Racing galvanizes our souls, allowing us to escape from the limitations that we put on ourselves and to test the outer limits of our bodies and our spirits.
Even though there was no hope of my winning a race, or even being among the top men in my age group, I loved the act of racing. I loved the spirit of competition.
I found that each race distance presented me with different racing challenges. In the 5K I had to learn how to stay at my physical and emotional limits for the entire distance. In the 10K I had to learn how to pace myself and how to balance my desire to go as fast as I could with the knowledge that I couldn’t go all out for the entire distance.
As my race distances got longer, the physical challenges were matched by the emotional and spiritual challenges. When I crossed the finish line of my first marathon, with six people behind me, I cried like a baby. I talk more about this in Chapter 10, but suffice it to say, I don’t mean I teared up a little bit—I mean I wept uncontrollably.
I had trained my body to meet the demands of the distance, so I wasn’t surprised that I was able to finish. But I hadn’t done as good a job preparing my spirit for that first marathon finish. As it turned out, with that final step across that finish line, I erased a lifetime of disappointments for myself. Somehow, that little boy who had missed the winning basket had finally been redeemed.
An Accidental Athlete is an everyman story of John “The Penguin” Bingham’s transformation from couch potato to “adult-onset athlete” and celebrates the unexpected joys of running—the pride of the finisher’s medal, a bureau-busting t-shirt collection, intense back-of-the-pack strategizing.