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Book World: How running transformed the life of an NPR host

Judge and scorekeeper Bill Kurtis and host Peter Sagal at the 20th-anniversary show. (Rob Grabowski / Rob Grabowski)
Judge and scorekeeper Bill Kurtis and host Peter Sagal at the 20th-anniversary show. (Rob Grabowski / Rob Grabowski)
By Lenny Bernstein Washington Post

You’ll want to love Peter Sagal’s book, “The Incomplete Book of Running,” especially if you’re a runner and particularly if you like Sagal, the host of NPR’s popular news quiz show “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me!”

For those of us old enough to remember, the title and cover photo are a spoof of Jim Fixx’s iconic 1977 book “The Complete Book of Running,” which helped set off the U.S. running boom. Sagal, 53, is a very good runner – he regularly qualifies for the Boston Marathon, a feat most running mortals cannot hope to achieve – and a very good writer. He is clever, warm, funny and engaging, and as a longtime Runner’s World columnist, he knows his running stuff.

But the book is not just about running. It’s about running and personal growth, which is both its virtue and its vice. The marathon is an easy metaphor for life’s trials, and if you happen to actually be a marathoner, well, there’s probably no avoiding it. Much of the ground Sagal covers here is well trodden: See George Sheehan’s “Running and Being,” and Haruki Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.”

Sagal took up distance running (for the second time) at 40, in the midst of a horrific divorce and a midlife crisis. He beat himself into shape and eventually became an excellent marathoner despite his lack of athletic gifts. Along those thousands of miles, many of them solitary, he explored the psychic and physical suffering that helped him accept the disintegration of his marriage and find peace as a runner.

If you haven’t read something like that story by now, you probably don’t read running books. Too many people have written it – some well, some poorly – for Sagal to have much chance to say anything original. The same holds true for his advice on starting out as a runner and his tips on healthful eating. There’s little here you can’t find on the internet or in another book.

Still, what elevates Sagal’s reflections is that he has endured some hard times that transcend his divorce and midlife angst. A plump, unathletic teen, he took up distance running for the first time at the age of 15, in the grip of self-loathing and an eating disorder. He lost 40 pounds by exercising relentlessly and secretly restricting himself to less than a thousand calories a day. During that time, Sagal explains in passages that are difficult to read, he would take off his shirt at the beginning and end of each day, examine his “protruding ribs and delineated hips and say to myself: ‘still too fat.’” College, he says, cured all that: “There I couldn’t starve myself because I was too busy: girls; theater; new friends; classes.”

As an adult and running veteran, Sagal guided nearly blind runners in marathons, helping them achieve the goal of traversing 26.2 miles by steering them away from obstacles and potholes in the road. It’s in this role that he found himself at the 2013 Boston Marathon, aiding a runner named William Greer. Greer struggled for the last few miles of the race, often walking, plagued by stomach and muscle cramps, until, somehow, he summoned the energy to nearly sprint the final mile.

Which put him and Sagal little more than 100 yards away when the bombs went off.

It’s frightening to contemplate what might have happened had Greer and Sagal continued walking, a nightmare that becomes a touchstone in the book.

“It only occurred to me, much later, as I viewed online videos of the bombing, how important William’s gutsy last mile really was,” Sagal wrote in a story for Runner’s World magazine that he reprises in the memoir. “We crossed the line at 4:04. The bomb went off at 4:09. Five minutes later. Which might well have been the five minutes that William would have needed to walk those last miserable blocks, had he given in to the urgings of his hip, gut and mind.”

In the end, Sagal endures, persists, stays focused, learns discipline and a whole lot more. He moves into a new home, meets another woman and plans to remarry, always carried forward on a pair of running shoes.

“The lesson and practice of running,” he writes, “is, again, a faith in the possibility of positive change. That in the end, if you run enough miles, with enough dedication and the right kind of mind-set … if you keep at it, if you keep going, you can become what it was you were meant to be.” Trite but true.

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