NPR Host and 2013 Boston Marathon Participant Peter Sagal Talks Running Ahead of Cambridge Show

By Andrew Cook

It’s impossible for today’s paleoscientists to gauge just how much our Early Human ancestors walked on a daily basis – caveman FitBit data has unfortunately been lost to history over the millennia (blame the lack of reliable chargers). But suffice it to say, it was a lot. In the hunt-or-be-hunted world of prehistory, paleoscientists estimate that Early Humans moved across distances that would shame today’s collegiate cross-country teams, at speeds that we today would best describe as Olympian.

Cue a collective sigh of relief that evolution has now produced super markets.

But Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s smash Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me! podcast and best-selling author of the recent Incomplete Guide to Running, is of the mind that we shouldn’t be neglecting this deep-coded aspect of our species’ DNA, even amongst the conveniences of the modern world. “On its once-functional level of ‘I need to increase my travel speed so that that sabretooth tiger doesn’t catch and kill me,’” jokes Sagal, “running is useless, not necessary in the modern world. We’re not running from predators anymore. So why do people do it? I think it comes from asking the question, ‘What can I learn from it?’ And the answer to that is, a lot.

Sagal has experienced two running booms in his life, both having to do with personal dissatisfaction. The first came as an adolescent, when, troubled with all the textbook adolescent woes, he began training with his father, who was a member of the ‘70s generation running boom. He continued obsessively through high school, then sporadically through college and a few years beyond – before (you know the routine) adulthood happened, and running fell by the wayside.

The second, current boom happened as Sagal was about to turn 40, and realized he was thoroughly dissatisfied with many aspects of where aging seemed to have taken him. “Yeah, the weight thing, the cholesterol, all those obvious things people associate with it,” he says, “but midlife crises happen for a reason. You have emotions that you grapple with about it. And running became how I responded to those emotions.”

So, in 2005, Sagal completed his first marathon, and has gone on to finish another fourteen in as many years since. The most recent of these came only a few weeks ago, as Sagal clocked in a successful run at California’s Big Sur Marathon, which he describes as the “most beautiful” of the bunch so far. Reflections on these and other races can be found in The Incomplete Book of Running, as well as his numerous articles over the years as a contributor to Runner’s World Magazine.

Of all these impressive marathon accomplishments, however, Sagal often finds himself reflecting on one in particular… and unfortunately, it’s for reasons that have nothing to do with running. In 2013, Sagal volunteered as a guide for visually-impaired runner William Greer in the 117th running of the Boston Marathon, pushing Greer to successfully cross his first Boylston St. finish line while navigating the not-inconsiderable potholes found on 26.2 miles of asphalt after a New England winter. They kicked hard, and crossed the finish line together in four hours, four minutes – just five minutes before Boylston St. exploded in a terrorist attack.

Sagal recalls, “We had no idea what had happened. ‘What was that? Was that a generator? A firework?’ All the runners in the finish chute were the last people in the world to know what the hell was happening.” The NPR host is emphatic: “I’m not a 2013 survivor. I was there, sure, but to say I’m a survivor would be to insult the actual ones. All I did was kept going.” 

Remember that earlier question – “What can I learn from running?” That’s Sagal’s biggest answer, right there. Keep going.

“Skills as a distance runner are the same ones that are valuable in life: patience, dedication, commitment…. an awareness that you can get through everything. That one’s key. It all ends at some point – no hill is infinite. So just keep going, and you’ll get past it.”

Leg cramps, personal problems, sabretooth tigers… doesn’t matter. Lace ‘em up.

Just keep going.

Tickets for An Evening With Peter Sagal at Cambridge's Sanders Theatre on Friday, May 17 at 8:00 pm are $49 - $69, and are on sale now at www.sagalatsanders.com. Sagal will offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse into his celebrated "Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!" podcast, and explore the show’s beginnings, share memorable moments, dive into today’s current events, and discuss his new book, The Incomplete Guide to Running.