Not His Job: ‘Wait Wait’ Host Peter Sagal Writes A Book About Running

PHOTO: The avid runner and author of The Incomplete Book of Running moonlights as Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! CREDIT: Kyle Cassidy



You may know Peter Sagal as the host of the NPR news quiz, Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! which just celebrated its 20th anniversary. But he is not here to talk about the show.

He came to talk about his other pursuit — one that pays even less than public radio.

Peter Sagal is a serious runner, with 14 marathons under his belt and a personal best under 3:10. (“I’m so glad you brought that up, because otherwise I would have had to,” he says.) He’s a regular columnist for Runner’s World magazine, and now he has a new book, The Incomplete Book of Running.

He never thought he would do any of these things — until he turned 40.

“When I turned 40, some years ago, I was transfixed by the panic that people who are turning 40 often have, which is, ‘Oh my God, I’m turning 40. That means I’m going to die,’ ” he says. “And I said to myself, ‘Well I know, I will run a marathon, and thus I will not die.’ And it doesn’t make any sense, but it has worked so far. What was unusual and unexpected, in my case, is that when I finished the marathon, instead of saying, ‘OK, that’s done, now I shall buy a sports car or go trekking in Nepal,’ I said, ‘I wonder if I could do that faster.’ ”

Interview Highlights

On the observation that runners rarely talk about the greatest elite runners

Yeah, it’s a little weird. I technically have “raced” Meb Keflezighi — the finest American runner of our generation — twice. And yet at the same time, those of us who do run really don’t pay a lot [of] attention to the people who are best at it. And that is, I think, because this is something that we do by ourselves and for ourselves. And what people are looking for out of running is much more complex than merely a winning time.

On the line: “To simply run makes excellent sense. To run a marathon is to go beyond sense”

I remember once — I think it was after my second or third marathon — and I came home, as I often did in those days, as if coming back from the war. You know, limping and miserable. And my then-wife said to me, “Why do you do this when it hurts so much?” And I said, “I think that’s kind of the point.” And certainly, there was a time when, like a lot of people, I thought that suffering was the point. Because our lives are pretty comfortable compared to, well, any other time in human history. We don’t even have to walk anyplace if we don’t want to. So I think that for a lot of people, to actually do something difficult, to physically suffer, is in a weird way, to feel alive, to rise to some challenge that you might feel is missing?

But I have actually, I think, grown away from that perspective, that suffering is the point. Running long distances is not an opportunity to see how much you can suffer, but see how much you can prepare, to see how much you can apply discipline and practice and mindset. I’ve come to think of it as a much more meditative endeavor, with the rewards of meditation — of mindfulness, of being in the moment you’re in, rather than gritting your teeth and seeing how long you can stand it.

On running without listening to music or podcasts

I don’t

anymore — certainly not in races. And that’s also part of the whole mindfulness thing. … I’ve met people who say, “Well, I can run, but I can only do it on a treadmill while watching movies ’cause it’s so boring.” And nobody else talks about any other kind of activity as if “this is something I love to do, but it’s so terrible, I can’t think about that fact that I’m doing it. I have to distract myself.” And so I honestly believe that to the extent that we can, we should be mindful of what we’re doing, including something that seems mindless, like running.

On what’s next for his pursuit of running

I had started seriously running at age 40 — which is when, according to all the studies, your athletic performance begins to decline, no matter what else you do. And it became very important to me to see if, in fact, I could at least delay that. And I did it. And it remains inspirational to me. But now that I’m some years older, I know that kind of time is behind me. So my emphases these days are different. I’m not running as fast as I used to, or as long as I used to, but I’m still doing it almost every day. And I think that in the future, although I will run until somebody or something stops me, I’ll be doing it for different reasons. And those reasons will have more to do with getting out of my head, where I spend way too much time; and getting outside, where I don’t spend enough time; and trying to unplug, maybe, and just be — which is something that’s becoming increasingly difficult for all of us.

Tim Peterson and Bridget Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

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