Peter Sagal on Running Toward Mindfulness
by Randy Kambic
The 5 million faithful listeners of National Public Radio’s award-winning weekly broadcast Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! know that 20-year host Peter Sagal infuses wit and wisdom into his views of the news and the world. In his new book, The Incomplete Book of Running, he brings his trademark humor to a memoir that posits running as a mode of survival—and hope, persistence, practice and love as vehicles of redemption.
Sagal’s collection of deeply personal lessons encompasses the emotional spectrum of running, body image and the special bonding between fellow runners. His exhilarating guide to life suggests we keep moving forward in all ways. He also reflects upon the 2013 Boston Marathon, where he finished moments before two bombs exploded, and explores how running helped him cope with a devastating divorce, depression and more.
Sagal is also a playwright, screenwriter and the host of PBS’ Constitution USA with Peter Sagal when he’s not writing about the recreation he took up in mid-life where he found himself “lost, in a dark place” after a personal crisis. He lives near Chicago with his wife, Mara.
After becoming a serious runner at nearly 40, when did you realize running had evolved into something more than a simple mission to get healthy?
I was concerned about my weight, but mainly I was also concerned about getting older. I ran my first marathon in 2005 as an emotional reaction to growing older, and that’s when it all began to change for me. It struck me in a deep way as something I wanted to do better.
I’ve rarely experienced the classic “runner’s high”—that endorphin-caused euphoria—although I do believe it exists. Rather, what’s more common is the sense that everything—body, mind—is working in concert, without discomfort, with strength, with ease. To paraphrase a line from Kurt Vonnegut, it’s when “everything is beautiful, and nothing hurts.”
As an advocate of escaping our “digital dystopia” of electronic screens by running outdoors, what’s the benefit you see in unplugging?
I’m a big fan of evolutionary biology. We evolved in very different circumstances than what we are living in now; to be attentive to the world and not with a screen in front of us. The reason we are up on two legs is so that we can look around and think. We’re supposed to ruminate. We didn’t evolve these extraordinary brains and self-consciousness so we could outsource our thinking. Anybody who has done creative work knows what’s needed to do that is uninterrupted thought.
What can non-runners take away from your book?
Go outside. We weren’t meant to spend so much time in offices. Take the headphones off, move, use your body. Look at little kids in playgrounds—they’re just running around before getting trained into games. We forget that. We spend so much time in our heads reading, watching screens. I’ve met people who say they don’t run, but they walk, ride bikes, hike in the woods. Those people are getting many of the same benefits as running.
Of the many anecdotes you cite about bonding with others through running, which one was the most gratifying?
Probably when I ran with William Greer, who I didn’t even know 24 hours before we ran the 2013 Boston Marathon, and by the end of that day we were friends forever because of all we went through together. [Greer is visually impaired and Sagal was his volunteer guide during the race.] We’re still in touch; we sometimes run together. He wouldn’t have finished if I wasn’t helping him and I wouldn’t have finished if he wasn’t helping me.
Randy Kambic is a freelance writer and editor, in Estero, Florida.
ACROSS THE MILES
Our sport seems mindless only to people who never run long enough for any thought to form other than, ‘When can I stop running?’ But the only way to succeed as a long-distance runner is to do it mindfully, to be aware of the body and the world it is moving through.
I think about my motion and my breathing, my muscles and their state of agitation or stress or relaxation. I note my surroundings—the downward slope I would never notice driving this street, the hawk’s nest I would never see for lack of looking up, the figure in a window caught in a solitary moment of their own. I think about the true meaning of distance—about the learning that comes from running a mile in your own shoes.
From The Incomplete Book of Running, by Peter Sagal. Photo by Kyle Cassidy.