Sunday, August 21, 2011

Review: An Accidental Athlete (2011)

By John "The Penguin" Bingham

There's something of a running argument (sorry) in the running community, and John Bingham is somewhat in the middle of it.

Bingham, known as "The Penguin" as a tribute to his running style, has carved out something of a niche in the field. He has written frequently and sometimes eloquently about the joys of running, even though he took up the sport in his 40's and hasn't seen many winners cross the finish line in his races. It's led to an unexpected career for Bingham, who makes several speaking engagements and has a couple of books to his credit.

There has been a little backlash from the super-competitive types out there, but for those of us who don't win medals all the time at races, Bingham has been a good spokesman for the cause of supporting those in the back of the pack.

That brings us to "An Accidental Athlete." It's Bingham's autobiography, at least in terms of his running history. He may have taken things a step too far here.

Bingham starts with stories about growing up as a non-athlete in an athletic world. There's an anecdote about playing junior high basketball, featuring his coach berating him for taking a bad shot that would have won the game at the end, that's almost painful to read even now. Bingham went into music, and became a respected teacher and administrator at a couple of fine universities.

Still, even though Bingham was a heavy smoker and found it hard to push himself away from the breakfast, lunch and dinner table, he still had those longings to display some athletic ability. And so, he took up running, if you could call it that. After a bit of work, he could actually break the 15-minute mile with a walk/run combination. Note: some fit people can walk 15-minute miles.

It's right about at this point in the story, around halfway through the book, where the book changes. And not for the better.

"An Accidental Athlete" becomes something of a guidebook for the athletically challenged. There are a few stories about his own experiences, such as handling failure or finishing a first marathon, but there is more written about the philosophy of the joys of participation. Bingham's magazine articles usually have a better ratio of anecdote to philosophy.

Bingham certainly has had an interesting running life, and it's easy to guess that he's participated in events all over the country and met some of the best runners in the world. What has that been like? That what a Bingham autobiography could be expected to contain, but really doesn't.

Bingham's book, "The Courage to Start," worked pretty well. For those looking for a little inspiration in starting or continuing a running hobby, it's a fine addition to the library. "An Accidental Athlete" is a painless enough read at just over 200 short pages, but it leaves the impression that there are some other good stories about Bingham's life out there that are still waiting to be told.

Two stars

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