Death Cab for Cutie’s Ultrarunner Frontman

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When Ben Gibbard isn’t on stage performing with his band Death Cab for Cutie, you’ll find him in the mountains, on a 20- to 30-mile run. He started using running to replace a heavy drinking habit back in 2008, and has remained sober — and addicted to running — ever since. After finishing the Los Angeles Marathon in 2011, the lead singer took up trail running, adding the miles as well. We talked to Gibbard, who just returned to his hometown of Seattle after from touring for the band’s latest release, Kintsugi, about how trail running changed his life and bettered his health, and why just about anyone can conquer an ultra’s mileage.  

How did this trail running obsession start?  
Growing up in the northwest and spending so many weekends when I was a kid up in Olympic National Park, out in nature, I realized it was something that I had been lacking in my life. That has a lot to do with living in a city and being on the road a lot; you very rarely have a rural or natural environment. If I could make a deal with the devil and be promised one hundred percent perfect running health for the rest of my life in exchange for not touring or something, you know … I might actually take it.

How has that love for trail running trickled into your everyday life?
I am speaking with you a day after I was out running down a mountain and rolled my ankle really badly. I am hobbling around the house and my thought is not, “Oh man, we’re playing shows in a week…” — it’s, “When can I start running again?” I filter a large amount of my enjoyment in life through it, which may be not the most healthy thing, but I just love it that much.

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Coming off of an injury, is there anything you’ve learned during the healing process?
It is a lesson in patience. I say that literally having just bitched to my girlfriend this morning about my ankle, like, “my ankle is so fucked!” One of my superstitions is to never talk about how healthy I have been to other runners. I never talk about what a great run I have been on, as far as running health goes, because this shit will just get you.

Do you feel your running affects your performance on stage?
My initial concerns were if I was trying to keep a solid base, I would be tired for the shows because I was running so much. But it actually was the opposite. During the extra two hours of being on my feet every day playing a show — and the shows are fairly physical for me — I actually felt fitness gains. I could go and run a 20-mile run before a show and not feel like my legs were dead and feel like, “Oh, I can totally manage this tonight.” 

Is there any additional cross-training you do to stay fit?
I have a strength routine, for the core and lower body. It’s a circuit that I will do maybe twice a week, of walking lunges, hip resistance band work, planks, crunches, and squats. In the past I suffered from some IT band issues, which tend to be the result of weak glutes and hips, so I have been trying to make sure as I add mileage that my core and those muscles are staying aligned and strong. I am not a “gym guy.” If I could have my way I would just start at the base of a trailhead that goes up into the mountains. For me, it has less to do with exercise, and more that it just feels like something I need in my life.

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Any tips for people who want to start trail running, or even do an ultra?
I would say, when I first got into this sport I got really excited about it and tried to do too much, too soon. If you allow your enthusiasm to overtake your base then you are going to get injured and it is going to be discouraging. Build up to it; you’ll find it is just a really wonderful counterbalance to the pace of modern life.