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Books

Peter Sagal's 'Incomplete Guide To Running'

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Peter Sagal is probably best known as the host of the NPR quiz show, Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me. But listeners might not know that Sagal is also an author — and a dedicated runner. KMUW's Beth Golay recently spoke with Sagal about his new book.

Interview Highlights

Beth Golay: Your book is The Incomplete Book of Running, you know, a bit of a hat tip to The Complete Book of Running by Jim Fixx which...

Peter Sagal: Thank you for knowing that. Not everybody does.

It was published in the 1970s. Rather than a technical guide for beginners, this is more about your story as a runner. When did that story begin?

Well, my story began really when I was 15 years old. I can almost pinpoint the day. I had grown up as a very nerdy bookish kid. Not bad at sports. I'm sorry, I take that back. Not good at sports, which is something sadly that you find out as a child pretty quickly. So I just internalized the message that I was not an athletic person. I should not be out there athlete-ing. But my father was a big runner. One of the reasons I named my book after Jim Fixx's book was that my father had Jim Fixx's book and like many people in the '70s was inspired to run by it.

And one day, after making fun of my father for the silly running around he'd been doing all my life to that point, I just got tired of being who I was — overweight and bepimpled — and I said to my dad, "Can I go running with you tomorrow?" And he said, "OK." And he woke me up at 6:00 a.m. — keep in mind I was 15 —and I remember putting on my orange Keds and trying to keep up with him as he ran up a hill and I could hardly do it, and I staggered back home. But the next day he woke me up again and I went. Pretty soon I was literally running circles around him. And that's sort of my first running room and when I was a teenager.

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You wrote that a major marathon is the only sporting event in which an amateur who pays the fee can compete against the best athletes in the world.

Well, it is true. I mean, it is kind of amazing. Imagine if, say, at a golf tournament, you know, Tiger Woods teed off and then coming after Tiger Woods, 40,000 enthusiastic amateur golfers playing the same course on the same day. That's what a major urban marathon is like. One of the reasons that running is so great is because every one of those people is a marathoner. It doesn't matter if they win. They're not going to win. The great thing about running is you can set your own goal. For some people finishing a marathon or a half marathon or a 10-mile race or a 5K race — three miles — is a huge deal. And when they do it when they train up and practice and get out there and run enough to get in shape to do it, that is a huge victory for them. So one of the great things about running is it provides rewards for you at any level to make you feel better about yourself, because you should! Because you did a good thing!

You wrote about your first marathon, which was in 2005 and it was the Chicago Marathon.

It was.

Talk a little bit about what happened at mile 22.

This was my first marathon and I made every mistake that you can make in terms of training for a marathon. I ran too much and too fast, I injured myself, I did everything wrong. But I told everybody I was going to do it. So I had to show up and do it anyway. And I ran this marathon and it was incredibly painful because I wasn't properly trained and it hurt. But I got to mile 22 and I really really wanted to stop. I was just miserable. But then I realized if I ever want to finish a marathon in order to do it I'll have to run these 22 miles all over again just to have the same opportunity I do now, so I might as well finish. And I did! That may have been one of the hardest things I've ever done, the last four miles of that marathon.

But what was really amazing, of course, was when I finished in a little over four hours I said to myself, something I never expected to say after finishing my first marathon, which was, "I wonder if I could do that faster." And that's what started the whole thing.

You don't like treadmills.

I hate them!

And you live in Chicago.

I do!

Is there any weather or bottom degree limit where you will not run outside?

The answer to that used to be no, that I would go out in any weather, with the one exception being when it was just snowed or if it was very icy, because that's just dangerous. So I don't do that. But if it was like minus five degrees and the streets were plowed, I'd go. I'd just bundle up and go. These days my concession to age is I don't go if it's under 10 degrees.

I also wanted to talk to you about running without headphones.

Yeah, no. A lot of people are one to ask me about that. It turns out that's a controversial thing to say.

I don't know that is controversial, but you think we should run with the voices in our heads?

Yeah, I do. I think that we have drowned them out intentionally, and that is not good, that we would be so afraid of our own thoughts — of where they might lead — that ... the minute we tear our eyes away from a screen, where we spend all day these days, we would plug in headphones in your ears so then we could at least get audio to keep us from thinking. And I just don't think this is good for us.

And I'm not holier than thou, believe me, I spent way too much of the day — anybody who follows me on Twitter knows this — looking at screens and interacting digitally with the world. But I honestly believe that if we don't take out our headphones and put down the screen and just run outside we would never have a moment alone with our thoughts. And I think running is a particularly good way to do that.

Early in this book you wrote, "Running is profoundly boring to talk about except to other runners." Did you intend for this book to be, you know, for other runners or people who want to consider running, or some other audience?

Well, I have become, more than I expected, a kind of evangelist for running. Obviously I think that it's important. But what it isn't is an instruction manual because there's not a lot to say about it. I mean, certainly, if you're training to win a 5,000-meter race at a high level then you need more expertise than I've got. But if you just want to run a marathon, if you want to run a 5K, it's really simple: Go out there, start running, keep at it, gradually increase your mileage, try to find people to do it with to keep you going, eat right, keep to a schedule and you'll do it. Because one of the great things about running, and this is why I am kind of an evangelist, is it's the one sport where you don't need anything but a pair of shoes. And you don't need any training because we were all literally born to run. It's possible that there are people out there who just aren't going to run they can't. They don't want to. And I think, I hope that the book is for them as well because there's not a lot of technical stuff about running.

Like I said, there's not a lot to say. But what I think there is of value, I hope there is of value, is lessons in how to, like, get through stuff. There's an epigram to the book, a spurious quote attributed to Winston Churchill, which was going to be the title of the book at one point, and the saying is, "If you're going through hell, keep going." My book you could read as a book-length elucidation of the wisdom of that advice.

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The Incomplete Book of Running by Peter Sagal was published by Simon & Schuster.

Follow Beth Golay on Twitter @BethGolay.