Walter Bingham, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S incredible shrinking editor, was down to 158 pounds, which meant it was marathon time in New York. When he came to SI as a clip-desk clerk in 1955, Bingham was a baby-faced, six-foot, 175-pound tennis player. On Sunday he was a wiry 50-year-old distance runner about to start in his sixth marathon. By his own account, he was running "more and better than I ever have in my life."
Bingham is no product of the running boom. He ran his first Boston Marathon in 1965, when most people didn't know what a marathon was. The starting field for the race that year numbered 358; Bingham finished 200th. He was the one wearing white tennis shorts and a blue polo shirt. He would also have been wearing white sneakers, as he had throughout his training that year, if a friend hadn't suggested at the eleventh hour that he might benefit from better shoes. So, taking a subway to a loft in lower Manhattan, the only Adidas outlet in New York at that time, Bingham acquired his first real running shoes, the $22 numbers with the green stripes on the sides. While those shoes still hang on a nail in the cellar of Bingham's house in Port Washington, N.Y., dusty reminders of a simpler era, his latest are a New Balance model that goes for $70 (which may say more about the state of the economy than of the art).
After five straight Bostons, Bingham retired from marathoning. His best time was 3:22.08 in 1966, when he placed 130th; in 1969 he failed to finish. "In the summer of '67 I pulled a hamstring playing tennis on Cape Cod, and I was never quite the same after that," he says.
Nevertheless, running had become a way of life for Bingham, and he kept at it, competing in local five-mile and 10-km. races, training in Central Park at lunchtime and on the roads of Long Island on his days off. He even created his own running boomlet, converting other SI staffers from lunching to jogging, in order not to have to run alone. "With all deference to the concept of the loneliness of the long-distance runner," he says, "I'd rather run with people and talk." As his midday companions will testify, Bingham is king of the long-distance talkers. One strategically placed question can keep him occupied—and the questioner off the conversational hook—for as much as 10 kilometers.
With the advent of the five-borough New York City Marathon in 1970, Bingham began to feel the old 26-mile, 385-yard tug. He would stand on an overpass near the East River watching Bill Rodgers and a stream of sweating runners come pouring off the Manhattan end of the Queensboro Bridge, and he wanted to know how it felt.
On Sunday, Bingham was one of 14,012 people who found out. Though hampered by a cold and an inflamed tendon, he finished in 3:39:07—six minutes faster than his time in his first marathon 15 years ago. "The nice thing about this sport," Bingham said, "is that you always seem to improve as long as you keep working at it." And Bingham remained a fan. "My only regret," he added, "was not getting to watch Bill Rodgers."