Wait, Wait, Peter, Don’t Run From Me

Mission: To promote driving less so all may live more.

This post offers some quotes from Peter Sagal’s The Incomplete Book of Running (2018), a confessional book, both humorous and insightful.

covers: Incomplete Book of Running

Peter Sagal, the host of NPR’s Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me! is also a notable amateur runner in his own right. At the age of 46, he ran a sub-40 minute 10k, a sub-90 minute Half Marathon, and a 3:09 Marathon. In his words, “Sub-three [hour marathon] people, while not quite the separate species that sub-2:30 marathoners are, are still different from the rest of us. If you run a 3:09 marathon, you’re a great amateur runner and you should be very proud, as I was. If you can run a 2:59 marathon, then you can do anything, including, perhaps, depending on the day and the field, winning the thing” (143).

Some of the readers of this web log are “different from the rest of us,” but even they would probably appreciate the book for its humor and honesty. One of my daughters lent me the book and said Peter was not as snarky in the book as he is on the radio show. I completely agree, and this makes him more lovable.

Peter Sagal also qualifies for “person versus automobile.” One day while riding his bicycle, an “Orange Nissan of Death” failed to yield to him at an intersection, with the result that he left a Peter-shaped impression on the car and had to recover from a broken back. His critique of the American dependence on machines is worth quoting at length:

Citizens of these United States don’t so much travel as we are processed through space, like some sort of industrialized, extruded meat product, human Slim Jims. Metal boxes carry us to processing centers that put us on conveyor belts that put us in metal tubes that take us to other processing centers and conveyor belts that put us in different metal boxes that take us to temporary storage cubicles, many of them with lovely minibars for overpriced sustenance. Like hamsters in Habitrails, we think we’re free, because that’s what the enclosure’s designers want us to think. If we didn’t do something drastic to punch through the walls, we’d never even know we were trapped. (xii)

While Peter, as do many of us, finds running a way to explore a city, he concluded some cities are not worth exploring that way, such as Los Angeles: “Eventually, I realized all that brown stuff hanging around the horizon was being sucked into my lungs whenever I ran, and I gave up running to devote myself to more practical forms of exercise, like failure” (32-33).

Running appeals to the minimalist within us, the part that sees no need to accessorize:

No: you have everything you need to begin. If you don’t have sneakers, just grab your most comfortable shoes, or go barefoot on dirt or sand. If you don’t have shorts, get an old pair of jeans and cut off the legs. If anybody judges you for wearing ratty clothes, one of the privileges and benefits of running is leaving people behind. (35)

Before setting his personal record on the marathon at the Philadelphia Marathon, he realized he had “no notion of what the course would be like…”:

So I consulted Ian Chillag, a Wait, Wait producer, onetime Philadelphia resident, and 2:39 marathoner.
I asked him, ‘Any advice on the marathon?’
Chillag said, ‘Yeah, don’t be stupid.’
‘Don’t be stupid?’
‘Yeah, you’re always stupid. You always go out too fast. So don’t be stupid. You want to negative split this course. If you cross that halfway mark fasther than 1:37:30, I’ll hit you.’ (137)

He did cross at 1:33, wasn’t hit by Ian, didn’t bonk—but it is refreshing to hear the sometimes snide host of a radio show allow others to call him stupid.

Part of the impetus behind his 46-year old effort at a new personal record was to refute an economist (Professor Ray Fair) who predicted that, “on average, marathon times inevitably decline about a minute per race for every year of age past forty…” (129-130). And so it was that on finishing the Philadelphia Marathon, while he “had not reversed time, or gotten any younger,” he had shown, at least to himself, “that time and age are not walls but fences, and fences can be jumped” (143).

During this amateur running career, Peter’s marriage was failing terribly, and he occasionally likens a marriage to a marathon for which one has not trained. The two were not related only metaphorically: running was what kept him above water, mentally, during this period:

The next year, 2012, was the last year of my marriage, with its many and increasing trials, and during that time, and in the years since, I have often tried to hold on to that feeling from the early miles of the 2011 Philadelphia Marathon. Not the confidence, or even, God help me, the sense of having been well and truly prepared for what I was enduring, because I knew, as my divorce unfolded, that I had never trained a single moment for that. No: what I have tried to remember, and occasionally achieved, is that sense of handing myself over to the moment I was in, trusting that what had brought me there would carry me through, allowing things to transpire not with effort, but with something like ease, even grace. (144)

Peter then ran two (and about 24/26) marathons in which he guided runners who had severe vision problems. The first provides the epic story that is important to the book but also has been told outside the book: he was guiding William Greer whose occipital lobe had been damaged years before, with the result that while his eyes worked fine, his brain could hardly interpret the images it was receiving. This run occurred, epically, in the 2013 Boston Marathon, co-inciding with the bombs detonated at the finish line.

The second runner he guided was Erich Manser in the 2014 Boston Marathon. Erich suffered from retinitis pigmentosa, which narrowed his field of vision to the point that it was as if he saw the world “through a cardboard toilet-paper tube” (146). It became clear to Peter that “Erich never complains, about anything, despite his surfeit of reasons. Maybe I could absorb some lessons from him; after all, he also found it difficult to see his kids. (I was known around Team With A Vision for my tasteful sense of humor.)” (156)

Guiding Erich became problematic when Peter began to get dizzy, either from dehydration or from not taking some medications he had left in another city. Luckily, another available guide, Monte, joined him, so he was able to hand Erich off to Monte. They continued while Peter drank Gatorade.

This was worse than death; this was failure. In the end, just as I had feared would happen when I guided William the year before, I had promised somebody I’d be there for him and I couldn’t do it. I cheesed out. I hadn’t been strong or dedicated enough. I’d blown it. Well, add the 2014 Boston Marathon to a long list of things attempted but not conquered: marriage, fatherhood, lawn maintenance, baseball…
I got another cup of Gatorade, and as the runners streamed by, I thought about Jacob Seilheimer. (162)

Jacob was a man who, in 2007, “ran” the Boston Marathon course, after the race had ended, in roughly eight hours, due to his obesity and lack of training. He was someone Peter, in his cockier years, hated for not applying himself. But later Peter got to know him and realized “Jacob has carried with him more burdens, handicaps, and back luck than I…Could imagine” (167). Inspired by these reflections and refreshed by the Gatorade, Peter began running again, catching Erich and finishing the race as his guide.

The book ends happily, as many do, with the acquisition of a couple of dogs, something Peter’s marriage disallowed because of his wife’s allergies.

Post script: I would be remiss not to mention what is likely the most useful chapter in the book, Chapter Five. It covers both his anorexic tendencies and his discovery of what a good diet consists of. He writes, “At the age of fifteen I looked into the mirror and saw somedoy I didn’t like, so I started to run away from him. I used obsessive running as a way to make my fat self disappear, as quickly as could be managed” (83). The problem was deeper than fat: he couldn’t see or accept himself; he couldn’t even see that he had become thin.

On dieting, he writes, “One thing that will help of course is diet, and that too, is something your running will affect, and something that will affect your running. By diet, I mean what you actually eat, not what some magazine or author or murdered doctor or celebrity or wife of Jerry Seinfeld recommends you should eat” (89). This sentence is followed by common good advice about eating well without swallowing a new neurosis in the process.