Radio personality Peter Sagal in NPR’s sound room, preparing for a run.
As the quick-witted host of National Public Radio’s Saturday morning trivia show Wait Wait...Don’t Tell Me! (which celebrates 15 years on air in January), Peter Sagal has had plenty of practice being on his toes. So it’s no surprise that when he’s not presiding over the beloved program’s roster of quirky panelists and celebrity callers, the 47-year-old Oak Park resident is a passionate runner.
A self-described “pudgy, helpless nerd” as a youth, Sagal started running at 15 with his father, even earning a spot on his high school cross-country team. But it wasn’t until he hit 40 that he picked it up seriously. “I had a classic midlife crisis,” says Sagal. “I turned 40 and said, ‘Oh, my God. I’m going to die someday. I know what I’ll do: I’ll run a marathon, and then I won’t die.’ That was the logic behind it.”
Sound logic or not, Sagal finished his first Chicago Marathon in 2005 in about four hours. (“I was injured from training far too much and too fast, but I got to the starting line, and I did it,” he says.) After joining a running group and training smarter the next year, he cut 40 minutes off his time and qualified for Boston. He has run nine marathons in total (including a personal best of 3:09:25), and running “up and down every street in Oak Park multiple times” is now a part of his morning routine. Sagal’s other favorite spots to get in some miles are the 10-mile trail at Waterfall Glen near Argonne National Laboratory and the lakefront, where benefits include “the fantastic beauty of the Chicago skyline… as well as the cute girls from Lincoln Park who are running up and down [the path]—when you’re in the middle of a 15-mile run, you can use all the distraction you can get.”
Why run in the first place? For Sagal (who is currently writing a book about running for Simon & Schuster), it offers the opportunity to achieve athletic excellence for those who are not otherwise into sports. “You don’t really need anything.... you don’t have to have physical strength, you don’t need equipment. You don’t even need that much time. You just need to get up and do it. And you can accomplish great things; it’s an amazing—pleasure is not the right word—but it’s an achievement.”
It’s also a way, Sagal theorizes, to get in touch with something more primal. “What do we do all day? We stare at a screen, and we get into cars and trains to do it.... There’s this whole born to run idea—this idea that we were all born to be physical and to move; that may be it. The people you see jogging, it’s as if they’re being propelled by some kind of weird evolutionary instinct they don’t even understand. Certainly it makes more sense to go running than it does to do something strange.”