Numbers Geek: Peter Sagal, ‘Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me’ host and ‘Incomplete Book of Running’ author

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Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” and author of “The Incomplete Book of Running.” (Peter Ringenberg Photo)

Peter Sagal is best known as the host of NPR’s weekly quiz show, Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me, which marked its 20th anniversary in October. But he’s also an avid runner, a columnist for Runner’s World magazine and the author of the new memoir, The Incomplete Book of Running. And he fashions himself an amateur Constitutional scholar, especially after hosting the PBS documentary series, Constitution USA.

On this special episode of our Numbers Geek podcast, the multifaceted media personality talks with us about the role of numbers in his life and the issues he cares about, from marathon times to the U.S. Constitution. And of course, we couldn’t have the “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” host on a podcast without giving him a quiz of our own, which you can hear in the final segment.

We spoke with Peter Sagal during his recent book tour, backstage before an evening event at Seattle’s First Baptist Church, organized by Town Hall Seattle and KUOW radio.

Listen to the episode above, and continue reading for an edited transcript.

Todd Bishop: I’ll spare you my Bill Kurtis imitation, although I assure you it is quite good.

Peter Sagal: You know what? At this point I want to hear it because I try to imitate Bill Kurtis and you just can’t do it because of his unique voice so try it, man.

Todd Bishop: I’ll just say, Peter Sagal, welcome to Numbers Geek.

Peter Sagal: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

Todd Bishop: Thank you. I just finished your book, The Incomplete Book of Running. It was fascinating. Really, it’s more of a memoir.

Peter Sagal: It is. If I were to write a book about, this is how you go running, that’d be about four pages long because basically, as I say in the book, if you want to go running, go for a run. I mean, there are certain things you shouldn’t do like run off cliffs or buy expensive equipment, or go too far at too fast at the start. But that’s basically it. It’s pretty basic.

Todd Bishop: You’re a long-time columnist for Runner’s World. It’s a side of you that people who know “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me” may not necessarily know.

Peter Sagal: Yeah. I won’t say it’s intentional, like it was a secret identity, but I certainly made no effort to cross the streams because one of the things that I’m very well aware of as an author of a book about running, that people don’t run don’t want to hear you talk about running. Because I was writing for Runner’s World, I was able to write, presumably, for people who are very interested in running. There’s a certain freedom so I can talk about it as much as I want. This is an attempt, obviously, to sort of cross over to the non-running community.

Todd Bishop: You did not mention “Wait, Wait” very explicitly.

Peter Sagal: Hardly ever, yeah.

Todd Bishop: Toward the end you talked about, a little bit about Bill Kurtis and Carl Kasell but you explicitly referred to it as your radio show.

Peter Sagal: Yes, the radio show. Well, I mean, some people said to me, “Well, you should write a book about ‘Wait, Wait.’ You know, the Wait, Wait Guide to the News.” But that’s what I do for my day job. I just for some reason haven’t had any interest in sort of, I guess, capitalizing on the radio show in the books I write. I mean, I write things because I want to say them and I have plenty of time and opportunity to say goofy things about the news.

Running the numbers

Todd Bishop: We like to say that numbers tell a story. There are some pivotal numbers in your new book and in your life. I want to just toss some of them at you and you riff on them.

Peter Sagal: Keep in mind, dude, even though I wrote them in the book I may not remember them.

Todd Bishop: I think you’ll remember these numbers.

Peter Sagal: Okay.

Todd Bishop: Four hours, five minutes.

Peter Sagal: Four hours, five minutes. That, of course, was the finishing time that I achieved with William Greer, the blind marathoner at the 2013 Boston Marathon which is an important number to know, four hours, five minutes, because the bomb went off, or bombs I should say, four hours, nine minutes.

Todd Bishop: That was such a fascinating part of the book and really, in many ways, it’s the centerpiece of the book. You return to that story several times. It was also a time in your life when you were going through upheaval.

Peter Sagal: To put it mildly. What I like to say is it’s a book about two explosions, one of which was literal, the other was metaphorical.

Todd Bishop: Right. You talk about your divorce in the book and then, ultimately, your remarriage. What did you learn, what do you take away, how do you reflect on that moment, four hours, five minutes, in the 2013 Boston Marathon? And then, as you said, four hours, nine minutes when the bombs went off?

Peter Sagal: Well, I mean, the story is that I was running with William Greer who was a blind runner who I was paired with him to be his guide, as blind runners often need guides. The reason I was there was because, to mix the metaphors, my home life, my family was exploding. My wife and I had just agreed to split up. I had hoped it would be amicable, she made it very that it was not going to be amicable. And then things got really sour so I just needed to get out of the house in the way that one does. This seemed like a wonderful opportunity to get out of the house so I ran the Boston Marathon without planning to do it.

Peter Sagal: To make a long story short, William was having a pretty hard day, and when we had timed, he had been suffering and having to stop quite a lot. He didn’t think that he could finish the marathon at a run. But at my encouragement, but it was all his guts, he just decided to do that because the last mile of the Boston Marathon you don’t want to be walking that so he ran that last mile. When we crossed the line, as we’ve established, just four minutes before the bomb off, or five, five minutes.

Peter Sagal: On reflecting upon it later, obviously we didn’t know we needed to get by the bombs before they exploded, this wasn’t a video game, when I reflected on it later I realized that if he not really gutted out that last mile and chosen to run it we might have been a little bit further back near the bombs, before the bombs, inside of the bombs, next to the bombs, who knows. It really kind of, I won’t say shook me but kind of showed me how precarious things can be.

Todd Bishop: Did you change anything about your life? Obviously your life was in the middle of a major transition at the time.

Peter Sagal: Yes, a lot of things. I don’t know if I changed anything about my life because of the bomb. It’s interesting, I don’t explicitly say this but I describe in the book, later in the book, an accident that I had some years before, three years before, in fact, when I was hit by a car, which was pretty traumatic. Far more traumatic for me personally than the Boston Marathon bombing. When I was hit by car, I got put in the hospital.

Peter Sagal: As anybody will tell you, if you have a near death experience or an experience that could have been death had the Nissan Sentra hit me a little bit different than it actually did, you tend to think about what am I doing with my life? It could have just ended, is this how I want to be living? That started me on a series of, shall we say, introspective journeys about the state of my life, the state of my family, the state of my marriage that led me to the next explosion.

Todd Bishop: To what extent do you use numbers as a motivator as a middle aged amateur competitive runner as you describe yourself?

Peter Sagal: Less than I used to. It’s funny, when you asked me to do the podcast I’m like, “Well, I don’t do numbers.” I mean, because I was thinking about those quantified guys who are constantly logging their heart rate and taking their glucose or whatever the hell they’re doing with their FitBits. I didn’t do any of that stuff. But it is true that for an intensely interested amateur runner as I have been and sort of still am, the numbers matter tremendously. Your PRs, personal records, for all the standard distances, 5K, 10K, 10 miles, and half marathon, and marathon. As well as breaking it down like what are your spits? Meaning, the split differences for each mile. What is your average pace? Stuff like that. Even sometimes your heart rate.

Peter Sagal: Yeah, numbers, certainly at the most intense years of my running career, numbers were very, very important. To give you one example, the number 40. Forty minutes was a time for the 10K race that I never could break. No matter how hard I trained I always seemed to come in at like 41 minutes or 40 minutes and 30 seconds until one year, 2011, when I decided to really train up as intelligently and diligently as I could. I ran that race, a race that had actually started my mid-life running career when I saw it go by some years. I ran that race in 38 minutes, my friend, 38, 26 I think it is. I felt pretty good about that number.

Todd Bishop: Same year, another number that was key was 3:09.

Peter Sagal: Which was my PR still and I think will always be my PR for the marathon. That was interesting because I was pretty old to set a PR. I started running at the age of 40, I was now 46. My times had been decreasing according to a mathematical scale that had been established by an economist. I wondered if I could reverse that trend by really changing up how I went about it, by running more seriously. Again, as I was saying, another level of intensity. It worked. I had met my PR, personal record, going into that race. It was 3 hours, 20 minutes. I meant to beat it. I told people that I was trying to run a 3:15 but I secretly told myself I was trying to run a 3:10 and I did it.

Peter Sagal: Thank you by the way for bringing that up because I would have had to find a way to work it in. That’s how we role, we runners, we mid-life guys. Well, I ran 309 marathon once. Oh, I’m sorry, was I bragging?

Todd Bishop: To what extent has running and goal-seeking impacting the rest of your life, your professional life, your personal life?

Peter Sagal: It’s funny, I used to say to myself, especially that year when I was running particularly well, “Man, if I applied to anything important the way that apply myself to this silly sport I’d have a Nobel Prize by now,” because in my daily life I’m absent minded and procrastinating and don’t do nearly the stuff that I should be doing. I thought it was two separate magesteria, as Stephen J. Gould used to say. They don’t overlap. I would go running and pursue that and then I’d come back and deal with the mess of the rest of my life and never the tween shall meet.

Peter Sagal: But in writing the book what I discovered is the things that I had learned from running intensely, applying myself, and the experience of it actually had a lot of use which mainly have to do, at least in my case, with endurance because running is hard, marathons are particularly hard, you end up enduring them as much as you enjoy them. As fate had it, I had a lot to endure. It turns out that all those many, many miles when I really would rather be doing something else but had to finish this thing, they actually paid off.

Numbers and health

Todd Bishop: Little known fact about you, people know about “Wait, Wait,” they may know about running, but Constitution USA.

Peter Sagal: Yeah, I wish that was not so little known because I’m very proud of it.

Todd Bishop: Yes, as you should be.

Peter Sagal: Thank you. We did it in 2012, it was broadcast in 2013, it’s a four part documentary that I did with a director named Steve Ives and his company. He’s a prodigy of Ken Burns. We decided we wanted to make a documentary, it was linked to the 225th birthday of the Constitution but it was really, the idea was people learn civics and it’s really boring or they don’t learn civics because it’s really boring. You get the class, you have the three boxes, Legislative, Executive, Judicial and then maybe you see some pictures of old 18th century people in wigs. And then you forget the whole thing because it’s boring and abstract. We decided we wanted to talk about stuff that was actually relevant to people’s lives today so there are no paintings of dead people.

Peter Sagal: We talk about the founders but it’s all about people today and dealing with Constitutional issues ranging from same sex marriage to marijuana legalization, which is an interesting case for federalism. As you know, marijuana makes everything more interesting. And a lot of other things and a lot of other people including interviews with the Supreme Court Justices and so on and so forth. I just loved it. It sparked almost an obsessive interest in constitutional order that I’ve got. In fact, I have side career as sort of a fake constitutional scholar. I will often opine on these issues. According to the lawyers I know, I’m not completely off base.

Todd Bishop: It’s great because we’re embarking on this podcast with USAFacts, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s nonprofit. They actually use the preamble to the Constitution to create mission statements by which they then judge the country and split up all the spending.

Peter Sagal: Wow. Oh, yeah, that’s interesting. I mean, it’s particularly interesting because I believe that the courts have decided that the preamble of the Constitution has no legal weight. But I’m glad somebody’s using it.

Todd Bishop: His whole idea was what can we learn from business and apply to the reporting of the government.

Peter Sagal: Well I would say that from just thinking what I know about Steve Ballmer’s career the one, maybe, applicable lesson is we should take the United States, unplug it, wait at least 10 seconds and then reboot it. I think at this point there’s only thing to do.

Todd Bishop: What is the old saying? Problem exists between keyboard and chair?

Peter Sagal: Exactly, exactly. It’s interesting to think of the Constitution as an operating system because one thing we’ve certainly found in recent years is as the programmers used to say in my youth, “Garbage in, garbage out.”

Todd Bishop: Exactly. Well, one thing I wanted to point out in the USAFacts 2018 Annual Report is page 57, which is all about obesity and health.

From the USAFacts 2018 Annual Report.

Peter Sagal: Oh my gosh, that’s a lot of facts.

Todd Bishop: One person I talked to, it’s appropriate we’re here in a church in Seattle, called this the Book of Facts, which I consider almost biblical. Which numbers should have that kind of reverence, right? Two thirds of the population, approximately, is obese. It’s at about 30% now as opposed to about 20% in 1999. You talk about this at length. Do you see running and simple exercise as a way to make people healthier?

Peter Sagal: Yeah. Although one of the things I’m very cautious about is an obsession with weight. That’s a number that I think people should ignore because of a couple of reasons. First of all, there’s health and then there’s body weight and they’re only tangentially related. You can be very healthy while being technically overweight. For example, at my absolute fittest when I was running in that 3:09 marathon, according to the body mass index I was still overweight. Which means I’m never not going to be overweight if I was that fit and still doing it. The other reason is is that you say you’re certain height and you say, well, I should weigh some number that some famous person is with the same height. Well, the numbers that sort of summarize their body may not be the best numbers for you. If you try to achieve it, it will not go well for you. I’ve tried it. What I advocate for is just general principles, exercise, get outside, do something, don’t just sit there.

Peter Sagal: I also, I don’t say this explicitly but I’m kind of against gyms because people think … I know people love gyms, people thrive there. There are some people who are gym rates and that’s awesome. I also know that some people you couldn’t get through the required exercise without a class or an instructor yelling at them and that’s great. But one of the things that I feel strongly about is movement and exercise is actually something that used to be and should be again very simple.

Peter Sagal: I was in a park in Portland yesterday. Here are these kids running around laughing like maniacs. They’re just running around and they’re chasing each other and they’re running away from their father. They’re just running. It’s like that’s beaten out of us. You can’t just run, you have to play a game, or you have to put on a uniform, or you have to join a league or a class, or you have to learn a skill. No, you don’t, you just need to move. If it’s not running, ride a bike. If it’s not riding a bike, swimming. Or maybe pick-up basketball if you need a game but just move.

Peter Sagal: When it comes to weight loss and food, again, and I’m alone in this, dieting is terrible, it won’t work because all diets, no matter what they tell you, whatever celebrity is on the cover of the book are just about calorie restriction. If you restrict your calories, you’ll also become very hungry and you’ll eventually break the diet. Instead, I advocate for just eating simply and cleanly and healthfully. Meaning, non processed foods you cook yourself, not too much meat, not too much fats. It’s fine, just basic food.

Peter Sagal: Michael Pollan, of course has his famous thing which I totally agree with, his entire wisdom of dietary advice comes down to eat food, not chemical byproducts extruded into a little package and then heat sealed. Mostly plants because plants are good and we all eat too much. Not too much. That’s it, do that. Really, that’s all you need to say about diet.

A 28th Constitutional Amendment?

Todd Bishop: Big picture, when you think about the country, the future of the United States, the issues that you care about, I don’t need you to know the numbers but are there metrics, measurements, things that you think about most?

Peter Sagal: One of the things I care very deeply about is civic engagement and how do you … I mean, I want people to know what’s going on. I want people to be involved what’s going on. How do you measure that? One way is through participation in elections. I’m encouraged by the last election because participation was very high for a midterm. That helps.

Peter Sagal: If you really want to pick a number, I like 28 Constitutional Amendments. I’d like to get rid of the electoral college, I think that’s a bad idea. As a student of the Constitution, I can tell you that’s one of it’s big flaws. I’m trying to think how to measure … I think, and here’s another one, I know this is something of a political football, which is the popularity of the United States. The United States approval rating around the world. I think it’s important because, as some people seem to have forgotten, the United States is not and has never been just another country, just another contestant in a beauty pageant. I don’t know why I used that metaphor. It has been a beacon of hope into the world, a lamp shining high. To the extent that we can regain that aspect of our country that makes other people in other countries aspire, not just admire but inspire to the United States, we’ll be closer to the path we should be on.

Todd Bishop: We’ve got a game of our own for you.  I can’t have you here, and I realize this may be sort of a common tactic in interviews with you but-

Peter Sagal: It’s the burden I bear.

Todd Bishop: I will tell you that I meant to bring the bell and I forgot the bell from the office.

Peter Sagal: I appreciate that at least.

Todd Bishop: We’ll have to add it in post.

Todd Bishop: All right, here we go. We call it Who’s the Numbers Geek This Time?

Peter Sagal: Right.

Todd Bishop: I’m going read you three quotations about numbers and politics. If you can correctly identify or explain just two of them, you’ll win our prize, our resident numbers geek former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer yelling, “Numbers, numbers, numbers” whenever you boot up your computer.

Peter Sagal: Oh, that’d be exciting. Windows or Mac?

Todd Bishop: He can do both, cross-platform now. It’s a new world, it’s a new world.

Todd Bishop: All right, Peter Sagal, are you ready to go?

Peter Sagal: I am.

Todd Bishop: Okay, great. Here’s your first quote, it is someone reacting to the news of a 4.1% increase in gross domestic product in the second quarter of 2018. “As the trade deals come in one-by-one, we’re going to go a lot higher than these numbers and these are great numbers.” Who was expressing such unbridled optimism about GDP growth?

Peter Sagal: I’m gonna guess it was President Trump.

Todd Bishop: That is right.

Peter Sagal: He likes the numbers. He likes to talk about the great numbers. It’s weird, he has this … I mean, it’s in many ways a critique of everything you’re doing right now how much he cares about numbers.

Todd Bishop: In fact, the increase of more than 4% was the highest quarterly jump in nearly four years. As it turned out, GDP growth in the third quarter was 3.5%, though, which was also among the largest in recent years. But last we checked, 3.5% was not more than 4%, although we’re still waiting to hear from the White House for the official word on that.

Peter Sagal: That old thinking arithmetic again.

Todd Bishop: All right, Peter, here is your next quote, you’ve got one right. This was a rising political star on the Daily Show as a guest struggling to get a handle on US defense spending. I will warn, this is a difficult one.

Peter Sagal: Okay.

Todd Bishop: “Just last year we gave the military a $700 billion budget increase which they didn’t even ask for.” In fact, they didn’t ask for a 700 billion dollar budget increase or get one because that is actually the approximate total size of the US defense budget, not the amount of the annual increase. This is a rising political star who was just recently elected to Congress, as a clue. Who got that one wrong?

Peter Sagal: Who that one wrong? Oh, I see. She called it a $700 billion dollar increase when it was in fact more or less the entire military budget. Somebody who was recently elected to Congress. I’m going to guess it’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Todd Bishop: Another bell inserted in post there. To her credit, she subsequently acknowledged the mistake and corrected the record which is not not necessarily required these days, apparently. All right, two out of three right so the pressure is off on this one now.

Peter Sagal: I feel good now. I feel relaxed.

Todd Bishop: All right, your last numbers quote is from someone who has become legendary for his colorful comments over the years. “Folks, I’ve known eight presidents, three of them intimately.” Who’s gotten up close and personal with numerous presidents?

Peter Sagal: Gosh, folks that have known eight presidents. Gosh, I’m trying to think, intimately, intimately.

Todd Bishop: Someone who’s been in the White House or thereabouts before, former Vice President.

Peter Sagal: Former Vice President, gosh. Wait a minute, so it’s a former Vice President. Gosh.

Todd Bishop: The word folks is very important in that quote.

Peter Sagal: Oh, god. Oh, Biden. Of course, who else would say that? Excuse me, of course, intimately. I should have … only he would say something that would make you go, “What?” Yes, Joe Biden. I should have known. Sorry. I feel embarrassed.

Todd Bishop: Well, Peter Sagal, thank you so much. Is there anything that you would want to leave folks that we have not talked about yet related to your book?

Peter Sagal: I think that, I’ll relate it to my book. It’s weird because I am very self conscious about the fact, as I said earlier, that nobody who doesn’t run wants to hear about running. But as I’ve gone around and talked of the book I’ve discovered that I really am an evangelist. I honestly believe that you will be better off if you run, if you can. I think it will improve people’s lives. It’s not because there’s anything magical about running, it’s because most people don’t get outside enough and just move away from everything that we’re dealing with, away from podcasts, away from their screens, away from the entertainment, away from the distraction, away from politics. Go outside, go for a run.

Todd Bishop: I’m tempted to leave it there but I have to tell you one of the most interesting parts of the book is that you say to not listen to anything while you’re running.

Peter Sagal: I know. Which, I should say, we’re now speaking to people who are probably listening to this maybe even while running. Here’s the thing, people are listening to this, I don’t know what they’re doing while they’re listening to this. What they’re probably doing is something that prevents them from watching a screen, right? They’re driving, or they’re doing erons or chores around the house, or they’re running, or exercising on a treadmill. Okay. That means by deduction that as soon as you’re done listening to this podcast and doing the activity that prevents you from looking at a screen, you’re gonna look at another screen which will probably lead to another screen, a bigger screen. And then in the evening there’ll be another screen.

Peter Sagal: There is hardly a moment, literally, of our waking lives that does not involve input. It’s as if, the joke I’ve been using is Kurt Vonnegut’s famous short story, Harrison Bergeron, he talks about this dystopia where people are made equal by given handicaps fitted to their abilities. If you’re very strong, you have weights. If you’re very fast, they sort of chain your legs together. The title character, Harrison Bergeron, is very, very smart and the handicap they place on him, these dystopian tyrants, is they put these headphones on his head so that they just go off with white noise at random times so he can never maintain a thought. It always interrupts him so he can’t put coherent thoughts together. I don’t know think Vonnegut ever could have imagined that we would do that to ourselves. That we would buy thousand dollar devices, he said picking up his iPhone, just so that we can constantly do that to ourselves to avoid actually thinking. I think everybody needs to give themselves a break.

Todd Bishop: Peter Sagal, thank you very much for being on Numbers Geek.

Peter Sagal: My pleasure. It was a lot less math heavy than I thought. I’m feeling relieved.

Todd Bishop: Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me host Peter Sagal’s memoir, The Incomplete Book of Running, is available now in book stores and online. I can tell you, it’s a lot of fun to listen to him read the audio book. Follow him on Twitter @petersagal. By the way, Steve Ballmer will be back soon on the show and in the meantime, here’s a preview him recording Peter Sagal’s prize.

Steve Ballmer: Numbers, numbers, numbers!

Jim Valley edited this episode. For more Numbers Geek episodes and videos plus citations to the numbers we discuss, go to geekwire.com/numbersgeek. You can find interactive graphics, charts, and government data at usafacts.org. We’ll be back soon with another episode of Numbers Geek.



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