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A champion of slow running, John Bingham tells it like it is from the back of the pack. No speed training tips here, but there are plenty of other running books for that. An Accidental Athlete: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Middle Age is a light memoir about running and enjoying the slow, scenic route.

accident alathlete

Raised in Chicago, Bingham loved playing scrappy baseball as a kid. He longed to be an athlete, but as he aged he couldn’t help noticing he never quite measured up. Being cut from teams and grouped with the non athletes, he soon forgot that it’s possible to enjoy a sport without worrying who’s fastest, strongest, tallest, bestest. These early years make up a bigger than expected portion of the book. For a while I forgot I was reading a running-ish book, but the details of Bingham’s high school years were funny enough to keep me reading.

After years of complementing a diet of whatever with an ambitiously sedentary lifestyle, he started cycling around age 43 and liked the way it made him feel. He found himself looking forward to rides and that’s what it took to awaken the athlete in him. This athlete went at his own slow pace and that was fine with him because at last he was having a good time being active. From here he shares common beginner blunders like buying shoes too small and suffering the consequences.

Black toe nails, like so many running afflictions are eminently preventable yet universally experienced.

I liked the lighthearted tone to this. It’s nice to read a book by a runner who finds value in just running. Most running books are written by super athletes, recounting first place finishes at Western States or Death Valley. I love reading these stories, too. There’s room for both. Running is an inclusive sport and its nice to see more age and pace representation on the shelves.

Unique to this book is the perspective of someone who has come in last, or close to. There’s competition back there – some races have an award for first and last. I forget which book it was, but one of the big names pointed out that slow runners are on the course for twice, sometimes three or four times as long as the elites. They’re going the same distance, but if you look at it in terms of running five or six hours versus two, slowbies are badasses, too.

After completing more than 40 marathons, Bingham knows how to run on tired legs. He knows only runners will drive 80 miles or fly across the country to run 26.2 miles. With a race shirt collection that topped more than a hundred, clearly the racing bug bit him big time. His most amusing stories are those about memorable races or fellow racers. He details one local Tennessee racer’s energy management strategy of walking up the hills then screaming at the top of his lungs, “I’m a downhill runner!” and shooting past everyone.

I learned that you can have a quiet dignity about your own effort, which has nothing to do with anyone else’s effort.

I get just as much out of running slow as fast, but the gains are different. It’s nice to go at my own pace. Slow running is less stressful to the body and what stress you do endure is gentle and stimulates healing from previous harder runs. This article on Active points out some of the advantages. Here’s the gist:

At the end of a tough run, your body sustains microtears in muscle fiber, dehydration, glycogen depletion, and more. Good thing most of the best runners in the world have a team of people to take care of them after a tough tempo run.

There’s serious trauma associated with the act of running fast. Running fast all the time clearly won’t work over the long haul because sustained trauma over time will inevitably lead to burnout and breakdown.

Bingham isn’t trying to convert all runners into glaciers, but he does encourage the community to lighten up. After catching yet another runner cringe for not crossing the finish line fast enough, he wonders why some wind themselves up so tight they don’t enjoy a race unless they PR. His thoughts on sustaining a running life are simple. We shouldn’t overuse our bodies. We should learn to maintain our most important piece of equipment.

I have to say this book could be much shorter. I wasn’t surprised to learn the author has a column and several other running books. A few sections felt like expansions on topics he’s already written a lot about, filler to hit a word count.

Overall, I enjoyed reading what Bingham has to say. He’s full of thought and offers a refreshing perspective. This is one I think non-runners would enjoy, perhaps more than runners. His story is a point of entry in for people who want to be more active. He opens up athleticism as a way of life everyone can and should enjoy.