25,000 Miles of Lessons

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 has taught him.

Men's Journal - - NUTRITION -

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 ref lex, 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 in­dus­trial 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.

Be­come un­teth­ered

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 trail or 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. —As told to Marjorie Korn

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