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Lifestyle & Travel

Radio Host Peter Sagal on His Midlife Embrace of Running

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For the last 20 years, Peter Sagal has been the host of "Wait Wait….Don’t Tell Me," the award-winning public radio quiz show.

He has also been, for much of that time, a serious runner.

Some 13 years ago, Sagal was on the cusp of 40, overweight, and going through a difficult divorce when he decided to return to the sport he had dabbled in as a teenager. This time, he became committed. Now 53, Sagal has completed 14 marathons and penned a new humorous book The Incomplete Book of Running.

Sagal recently spoke to Get Old while driving home from the Chicago radio station where he tapes Wait Wait.

GetOld: Are there ways you’re a better runner today at 53 than you were a decade ago or even when you were running in high school and college?

Sagal: I will say I’m not faster. But I’ve become more accustomed to the rhythm of getting out there every day. My dog helps me. I try to run at least five or six days a week. I get antsy if I don’t.

And I’m certainly more patient, primarily with myself. I can’t remember the last time I berated myself. I’m more accepting of the limitations of my time and my body.

GetOld: Are there advantages to being an older runner?

Sagal: Oh, gosh, there are advantages to being an older almost everything. In general, one of the benefits of being older is that your expectations for yourself become much more reasonable. There was a time when was I would compare myself to some idealized version of where I thought I should be and always feeling that I was falling short.

Now, I recognize that I’m a pretty good version of myself. And, in running, I recognize that any time is a winning time and any mile I run is better than sitting at home. Instead of giving myself grief for how slow I am, I give myself credit for running at the time I run.

GetOld: How has running improved your health, physically, emotionally, mentally, as you’ve moved from your 40s into your 50s?

Sagal: The difference between now and what I was like before is measurable. For one thing, I used to have to take a nap in the afternoon. Wherever I was, I’d have to find someplace to fall asleep. I’d arrive somewhere new and think, ‘that place in the corner is a great place for a nap.’

Now I don’t nap and I have much more energy during the day, despite all the effort of running.

I think running improves your life in lots of ways. For me, regular cardiovascular exercise just makes me feel better; I also believe it can be that thing that pulls you out of a serious depression. Then, there’s the meditative aspect of running. Being outside may change your view of things. That’s one reason I’ve given up my headphones when I run. I like to spend my time noticing things, like a hawk’s nest that I would never see otherwise. Running mindfully, aware of my body, my thoughts and the world I’m moving through, is one of the best things about running.

Finally, there’s a tremendous social element to running. Runners tend to be very nice people, who cheer for the 60-something man or woman who came in 20 minutes after everyone else finished the race as much as they cheer for the winner.

GetOld: What advice do you have for people who may want to take up running later in life?

Sagal: I recommend what I call the “three G’s”: gradual, goal, and group.

Make a gradual start. You shouldn’t go out and run ten miles on your first day. Instead, gradually increase the distance and time you run.

Have an achievable goal. An excellent first goal is a 5K, or five-kilometer race, which is 3.1 miles. There are 5Ks happening just about every weekend in any metropolitan area, and the internet is filled with training programs like “Couch to 5K.”

Join a running group. It’s easier to break a promise to yourself to run every other day than it is to break your commitment to meet your running buddies on the corner every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. Your running friends should be roughly at your level of fitness, with similar goals. I write that ideally you should be the second-slowest person in your group. Having a number of friends who are constantly just ahead of you at the track means you will be pushing yourself to catch up and keep up.

Why the second slowest? Because it stinks to be last.

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