Longtime NPR host Peter Sagal is in the throes of a serious affair with running, which he chronicles in a new book, The Incomplete Book of Running. Here’s what all that distance taught him.
Much to my amazement, I’m 53 years old. I ran in high school, but I got serious about it when I hit 40. At the same time, Wait Wait.. Don’t Tell Me! [the show Sagal has hosted since 1998] was on its way to becoming the most popular program on public radio. Running became a way to get out of my head, to disconnect from everything for a moment. It’s now almost a reflex, something I do no matter what city I’m in, no matter my mood. I estimate I’ve run 25,000 miles. All those places, those hours, taught me a lot.
Be open to new challenges
I used to run one marathon a year. My PR is 3:09, and it’s unlikely I’ll ever see that again. My priorities have gone from racing fast to other things, like guiding blind runners and trying different distances. On the plane home from the Boston Marathon one year, a guy sitting nearby told me to run an ultra. If I finish it, it’s an automatic PR. That’s the sneaky trick. One thing I won’t do is use Strava. It’s part of the snobbishness that serious runners sometimes have about so-called joggers. If you go out and run, you’re a runner.
Take a self-guided tour
I travel a lot for work, and running is the best way to learn about a city—what it’s like to live there, the people, the fabric. I have traversed remarkable places at moderate speeds: boreal forests in Alaska, volcanic-sand beaches in Hawaii, and, due to the fortunate circumstances of my birth, many varied and lovely places in New Jersey. I have also ended up in ugly indus- trial strips, become lost in endless, anonymous suburban housing developments, and looked up at hulking remnants of the industrial past, like the GE plant in Schenectady, New York, and felt an odd reverence, as if visiting a giant tomb. For all the people wanting to understand America, throw on a pair of sneakers.
Consider the sacrifice
I have three daughters. When they were little, I’d push them in strollers on my runs. Later, my oldest would bike while I ran. It’s one of my most cherished memories, especially now that my daughters are older. Looking back, one thing I regret is the time I spent away from them pursuing this intense hobby. There were a lot of Saturday mornings when my kids ate breakfast without me because I was out doing a 20-miler. There were Saturday nights when I didn’t have dinner with my daughters because I was racing the next morning, trying to get my first Boston qualifier, or in Philadelphia, getting ready to try for a PR the next morning. Kids grow up really fast, so enjoy what you have when you have it. It’s something I think about.
If you’re going through hell, keep going
That is a quote misattributed to Winston Churchill, but it’s still a good one. Even if I feel somewhat conflicted about how much time running took up, it would have been hard for me to get through the breakup of my family without the lessons I learned from running. Such as: Every run ends, one way or another. Even when it’s going badly—the wheels are coming off, it sucks—with every mile you traverse, you get closer to the end. As long as you keep going, the end will come.
Americans consume a tremendous amount of information. The news is relentless. Running is a time to get away from all the input. Mostly, my preference is to run without headphones. It also encourages you to be conscious of your body, rather than be distracted from it. And there’s a strict no-music rule in place if I’m on a trailor in a park. Not to be too John Muir about it, but it’s important to actually be in nature and listen to the damn birds.
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