Persistence makes Jonathan Eig a better runner, writer, father

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Dripping with sweat, Jonathan Eig put down a towel on his chair to stop it from getting wet, and quickly typed up the sentences that came to him during the morning run along the Chicago Lakefront Trail.

What started as a simple desire to get in shape has become an integral part of Eig’s life. He went out for a long run every other morning, come hell or high water, accumulating more than a thousand miles per year for the last 10 years.

“Once I started doing it, I just wanted to push myself to see if I could do more,” Eig said. “I just liked the discipline.”

The persistence Eig developed through years of running was especially useful when he was working on “Ali: A Life,” the best-selling Muhammad Ali biography that became the high point of his career. After working for the Wall Street Journal for seven years, Eig took his editorial talent to explore the untold tales of influential figures like Ali.

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Jonathan Eig was working at home on his latest book project, a biography of Dr. Martin Luther King. (Photo by Cyan Zhong)

To interview people in Ali’s circle, he “knocked on hundreds of doors” and had a fair share of them slammed in his face, Eig said. It took two years of back-and-forth to sit Ali’s third wife down for an interview, and Ali’s brother Rahman wouldn’t talk unless he could get paid.

Despite the challenges, Eig persisted because he wanted to include all the important people in Ali’s life.

“I don’t want this book to be incomplete or compromised in any way, so I just have to keep trying,” Eig said. “If they tell me 10 times ‘no,’ I’m just going to come back the 11th time and try it again.”

Bryan Gruley, the former Chicago Bureau Chief of WSJ who established a camaraderie with Eig over beers after work, described him as a “dogged” writer.

When he is not running or writing, Eig dedicates time and energy to his community. Through Jewish Family Services, he became the “big brother” to a 7-year-old boy Jeffery Schams, who lost his father very early. To make up for the missing male figure in Schams’ life, Eig would play with him or take him to sports every Sunday. He “never really missed a week” since 1997, said Schams, who became emotionally attached to Eig.

In 2004, Schams’ mother died of a brain hemorrhage. Eig did not hesitate to welcome the 14-year-old orphan into his home and provide the mourning boy with a complete family. They have been like father and son ever since.

Having lived in extreme poverty and bullied at school for being overweight, Schams said Eig is “the best part” of his entire life. Eig’s military-like disciplines got Schams into working out and eating healthily, which turned him into the fitness trainer he is today.

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Jeffery Schams, 28, Eig’s adopted son, works in fitness training. (Photo by Cyan Zhong)

“This guy’s responsible for creating a decent human,” Schams said. “He needs some type of recognition for that because all the nonsense I went through, I’m not supposed to be a good human. It’s not supposed to work out that way.”

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