NPR Host Peter Sagal on Running, the White House and His New Book

Paul L. Underwood
by Paul L. Underwood
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NPR Host Peter Sagal on Running, the White House and His New Book

If you listen to NPR, chances are you’re familiar with Peter Sagal. You might say he has had a marathon tenure as host of NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” — after all, he’s been doing it for 20 years. It turns out he’s also literally a marathoner off the air, having run 14 marathons in the past dozen years and recently turned that passion into a new book (available for pre-order, coming out October 30), “The Incomplete Book of Running.”

The book covers roughly a year of his life — plus flashbacks to notable runs and other formative experiences — in which he ran the Boston Marathon, twice, as a guide for the vision-impaired. The first of those marathons is in 2013, when he finished roughly 5 minutes before the bombs went off. Oh, and he also got divorced during this time frame.

Despite all that trauma, the book is by turns beautiful and moving, and laced with plenty of the host’s signature wry humor. We spoke with Sagal about his life in running, how the book came to be, and the time he finished up a run by popping into the White House.

Q. In the book you write that running is profoundly boring to talk about except for with other runners. So I thought we could get boring with some running questions.
Sagal: All right, go for it.

Q. What are your favorite and least favorite places you’ve ever run?
Sagal: Oh, gosh. My favorite single place I’ve ever run — and I think it’s partially because it was so serendipitous as well as being beautiful — was in Yellowstone National Park. I was in West Yellowstone, which is the town literally just outside the border of the park. And I didn’t want to go run back [into the park] because I would have had to pay the admission fee again, so instead I  ran what looked like a path into the woods. I thought I was outside the park — it turns out I wasn’t. I basically bypassed the gate — don’t tell the National Park Service — and I ended up in this extraordinarily beautiful place along a river. Just me. I was running the faintest path and I remember very vividly having a memory of when I was a kid, and I would go walking in the woods of my suburb. And I’d wonder as I put my foot down if I was the first person to set my foot in that particular place. And I remember, for the first time in, what, 45 years, I was having that same kind of thought: Am I the first person ever to be in this particular spot? The answer is probably no. But it was just so astonishingly pristine and beautiful and it felt so beautiful to be moving through that landscape at a decent pace that it was really just kind of extraordinary.

Q. That’s beautiful. Well, what about least favorite?
Sagal: Any treadmill.

Q. You take your show on the road a lot. Have you found any great running spots in those cities?
Sagal: Forest Park in Portland. Also in Portland, the bridge loops. The Esplanade in Boston. The Embarcadero in San Francisco. Then absolutely Town Lake in Austin.

Q. Do you have a favorite spot up in the Chicago area?
Sagal: The lakefront is kind of unique. Chicago, God bless us, because of the Great Fire and Daniel Burnham’s plan, he had this vision that the lakefront would be, as he put it, forever free. So that means there’s nothing — with one funny exception I can actually see from where I’m standing — between Lakeshore Drive and the lake. You can run along that lakefront path, and have this beautiful unhindered access to the water for 20 miles. If there’s anything else like that in the country, I don’t know about it.

Another place in Chicago is called Waterfall Glen, which is a circle of public land around Argonne National Lab, and it’s a beautiful crushed gravel path that’s very, very popular, especially with runners. Unlike the lakefront path, where there are tourists and there are bicyclists and there are rollerbladers and everybody, Waterfall Glen is really kind of a running mecca. A place where you tend to only find runners.

Q. Is there any running advice you wish you had received earlier.
Sagal: That’s a good question. My career as a midlife runner began with, as I write about, a lot of mistakes. I trained way too hard. I tried to do it by myself. I ignored the plan. I ignored resting. I ran even though I was in pain and aggravated an injury. So I made all these basic mistakes. While I wish someone had explained all of those things to me beforehand, when I think about it …  somebody did! You know, I was using a training partner, and he said don’t go too far, don’t do all this, and I ignored it. So I kind of wish somebody told me all this. But I realize now I had to figure all these things out on my own.

The one thing that really made a difference is finding other people to do it with. I really do believe that’s the essential element to anybody’s success.

Q. You write that you want to be the second-slowest in your running group. That way, you’re not the worst runner, but you still have other runners to motivate you. My question is: How do you find a group where you’ll be the second-slowest?
Sagal: Well, you have to put in a little work. I recommend local running clubs everywhere. And if you can’t find a local running club by googling, you can go to running stores and almost every running store has organized runs. And you just show up.

Q. Makes sense.
Sagal: If you’re shy, you have to put that aside. You have to talk to people. As I say in the book, it actually is a great way to meet and talk to people if you’re shy. Because you’re all doing something else, so you don’t have to really be focused on the conversation. You’re not even looking anybody in the eye because you’re all going the same direction. If the person you’re talking to is bothering you, just slow down a little bit. And then the best thing about it is it’s over.

Q. Ha, good point.
Sagal: We’ve all had the experience of feeling like meeting a new person is like a date, and you’re wondering what’s gonna happen: Is this gonna be my new best friend? No, you’re just gonna spend a half an hour with them. And if it goes really really well, maybe you do it again next week. And once you have found that group, as I was lucky enough to do, it helps you, I think, reach your goals far, far more easily and more pleasantly than trying to get to them on your own.

Q. And of course, as you write, when you meet a running group everybody’s already smelly and dirty.
Sagal: Yeah. There’s really nothing to be ashamed of. We are all gross.

Q. Do you have any go to mantras or mental motivators during a long run.
Sagal: I’ve done different things over the years depending on what’s going on in my life. But the one thing I constantly come back to is trying to keep myself in the moment. And that’s one of the reasons I often don’t run with headphones. Headphones are distracting — you’re doing it to distract yourself. But I’ve been known to start thinking of something, particularly with the problems I was going through with my family, and I’d get so caught up with what I was thinking about that I would stop running. And I’d be standing there with my hand on my forehead going ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe this is happening, what am I going to do’ about that or whatever. And I’m not running anymore because whatever part of your brain is necessary to keep you running was occupied by whatever. So my constant struggle is, to quote Ram Dass, be here now. Be right there. Be in the mile you’re in.

Q. That’s great advice.
Sagal: And sometimes what’s necessary to do that is to give yourself a short-term goal. We’ve all done that. I’ll just make it to that tree. Or I’ll just make it to that street. Or I’ll just make it as far as whatever. And you start measuring that out. Another way to do that is to turn your focus inward not to your thoughts, but to your body. ‘How am I doing? Am I tense or are my shoulders tense? Am I running easily or am I struggling? What are my arms doing, how about my breathing, am I breathing easy. … Am I adding stress to my run by clenching my chest and gasping for breath. No, I need to be easy. I need to relax…’ And that helps, I think, to make for an easier run.

Q. About how long did the book take to come together?
Sagal: I signed the contract to write the book way back in the beginning of 2012, which it turned out, was when my marriage started blowing up. Let me put it this way: I had contracted to write a breezy book about running, and it was very hard to write a breezy book about running. And then I ended up at the Boston Marathon when the explosion happened. Almost a year later, I told that story at The Moth [at City Winery] in New York, and I realized that would be the first chapter of the book.

Q. For a book that is so influenced by two — well, unpleasant is too weak a word, but — two unpleasant events, divorce and a horrific terrorist attack, the book is also very funny. How did you achieve that lightness?
Sagal: [Laughs.] I’m not sure this is true but I once heard that Robert E. Lee referred to the Civil War as “the current unpleasantness.” I love that.

Well. I have never thought of myself as a comedian. I’ve often thought of myself as a very serious person who had serious things he wanted to say to the world. But this was true when I was writing plays for a living — serious plays about serious topics — I would always lace them with jokes. I think it’s just, frankly, insecurity.

Q. How much of the book was written in your head while you were out running?
Sagal: A lot of it was. I would start having conversations [in my head] and end up thinking of things. Like that whole chapter about the utility of running, it really came from one day I was running with my friends, and I’m like: ‘What good is this? What possible usable skill are we getting out of this? When will we ever need to use the strange ability that we’ve trained up to?’

Q. I think every runner in some way keeps a grandiose environment in mind when they’re out there doing it. The apocalypse or something.
Sagal: Yeah, the apocalypse — or something serious. One thing I think of is that great sequence of scenes in the “Lord of the Rings” movies where Aragorn and Gimli and Legolas are running through all these landscapes. Like, ‘Yeah, I could do that! Yeah!’ I wouldn’t be any use when I got there. I wouldn’t threaten any Orcs, but I could keep up with you.

Q. How much do you run now?
Sagal: I still like to run every day if I can. I usually manage five or six times a week. Every now and then I’ll do a full seven days. But mainly I just run as far as I feel like running on any given day. And that seems to work out pretty well.

Q. That’s nice.
Sagal: I don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience, but sometimes you say to yourself ‘I’m just gonna run 3 miles. That’s all I have time for. I’m not feeling very energetic.’ And you get out to your turnaround point at a mile and a half, and you’re like ‘Nah, I think I’m gonna keep going.’ That’s great fun. I love it when that happens.

Q. It’s certainly better than the opposite feeling.
Sagal: Yes. [Laughs.]  Which also happens.

Q. Have any of your guests on the show shared your passion for running?
Sagal: No. I have very rarely discussed it in my professional life. I just can’t imagine anybody is interested in hearing me talk about running. Every now and then it comes in to work.

Q. What’s an example?
Sagal: The one example is — and I love this story — we were going to Washington, D.C. It was [late NPR newsman and “Wait, Wait” judge and scorekeeper] Carl Kasell’s last radio show in May of 2014. We have gotten our special guest, John Podesta [at that time, counselor to President Obama]. And I like to talk to the guest beforehand, just to get a sense of who they are and to make sure they know what we’re doing. I feel it makes for a better interview if it’s not the first time we’ve ever talked to each other. And Mr. Podesta’s people were all like ‘Well, no he’s way too busy, he can’t do that.’ But, I read that he ran to work every morning at the White House. And I said, ‘Ask him if we can run to work with him.’ And apparently that request got to him and he was like OK. I guess he wanted the company.

So at 5 a.m. Ian Chillag [“Wait, Wait” producer, who happens to be a 2:39 marathoner] and I got into a cab. We went out to his place out by the National Zoo, in that part of Washington. We showed up in our running clothes, and we met his wife, and we had a cup of coffee, and we took off. And we ran — at a decent clip! — down Connecticut Avenue.To the White House. It was about a 35-minute run or so. And we chatted, and we got to know him, as you do on a run for all the reasons that we’ve been talking about. The guards are down. And that was great. And then we got to the White House. And he had said bring your IDs, I’ll bring you inside the White House. We brought IDs. And we went into the White House. And we’re standing there, sweating like pigs — in the West Wing! And Denis McDonough, the chief of staff, is introduced to us and he says hello and brings us into the chief of staff’s office, which I’ve recognized in some film clips lately. And it was just bizarre. So we’re standing there, just covered in sweat. You know looking in the Cabinet Room. The Roosevelt Room. Peeking into the Oval Office. It was just stunning.

That hasn’t happened a lot. That’s like the one really good running at work story I’ve got.

Q. Well, that’s an amazing story. One last question: Any suggestions for someone who was a lapsed runner like yourself?
Sagal: Remember how good it felt. You think maybe it was because you were young or because you didn’t have the responsibilities you have now as an adult. No. It really felt good because you were outside running.

And if you go outside running, you can feel like that again.

About the Author

Paul L. Underwood
Paul L. Underwood

Paul is a writer based in Austin, Texas. He tweets here, he Instagrams there and he posts the occasional deep thought at plunderwood.com. He’s probably working on a run mix as you read this.

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