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Ben Gibbard, Trail-Running Rock Star

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When not on stage or in the studio, the Death Cab for Cutie frontman hits the trails

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Courtesy of We Are the Rhoads

By early 2008, Ben Gibbard, the lead singer of The Postal Service and Death Cab for Cutie, knew he had a problem. Death Cab was about to release its sixth album, “Narrow Stairs,” and Gibbard was dreading “another tour cycle, another year and a half on the road, waking up hung over at 1 p.m. and getting myself together for sound check, and then drinking before the show and drinking after the show and then doing it all over again.” So he just stopped.

Shortly thereafter, Gibbard took up running, for the first time in his life, and, in 2011, ran his first road marathon. Now 38 and living in Seattle, the indie-rock star has completed some two dozen trail races, including California’s Pioneer Spirit 50-mile in October and the Leona Divide 50K, also in California, in April.

In a little over a week, Gibbard will run the Squamish 50-mile, in British Columbia. So the last few months, he’s squeezed in as much training as possible—while Death Cab toured 35 cities in North America and Europe for their new album, Kintsugi. We spoke to him in April, just before the big summer tour kicked into gear.

Do you have any destination runs scheduled during your Europe tour?

We’ll be in Switzerland in the summer, and I might be able to get something in there, but really it’s just “take it as you can get it” as far as nice trail runs go.

Every once in a while you’re surprised. A couple of years ago Postal Service played a venue in San Francisco, and the bus was parked literally right at a trailhead. But those days are fairly rare. Usually you’re just running off in some urban direction, hoping to find green space.

Are you able to maintain your training during tours?

I’ve trained for marathons on tour before, but never for ultra stuff. I think it’ll be doable [for Squamish], I’ll just have to get really creative about it. I feel like there’s gonna be a lot of hill work on a treadmill, maybe, or just hill repeats and long, flat runs.

How much were you drinking before you stopped?

It’s hard to say, but certainly enough to have been 30 pounds overweight and making a lot of poor choices.

Being a touring a musician is one of the only jobs I know of that you’re actually encouraged to drink at work. You show up, and there’s a case of beer and three bottles of liquor waiting for you. And they’re like, “Yeah, why don’t you have as much as you like, and then go do your job.”

A touring band is its own bizarre world, where things that are definitely not normal in regular life become totally normal. It was important for me to recognize, Oh yeah, there is definitely something unusual and unhealthy about this behavior.

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Gibbard pefroms with the Postal Service in Los Angeles in 2013. Photo by Nicholas Triolo

Not drinking is one thing. Why start running?

One day, I was working out at this gym I was going to in Seattle. I remember looking at a treadmill and being like, “I bet you I could run two miles. That sounds like something I could do.”

I pushed myself, struggling, huffing and puffing, through two miles. And then, you know, two miles becomes three miles becomes four miles, and on and on.

When I was younger, I never saw myself becoming a runner. It was something I saw as lunacy, that anybody would want to run a marathon. I didn’t even know that there was anything longer than that. I thought a marathon was the farthest distance a human could run without dying. Because, you know, the first guy who did one allegedly did.

Now, at this point, I can’t imagine my life without it.

How did you get into trail running?

I got into trail running on accident. It was 2011, and I had done the L.A. Marathon. It was my first marathon—my first anything. We were about to go on tour, and I didn’t really have time to get ready for a marathon. I found this race in Marin [County, California], a 30K.

The race started at Rodeo Beach. I’m wearing road shoes—I don’t belong there. I look at this guy, and I’m like, “Hey, where are we running? Where’s the road?”

He looked at me like I was insane. “We’re going up there.”

It’s this really big singletrack climb up to the top. It kicked my ass. For me, running was: you run, it’s flat, there might be a little, slight hill, and the really difficult part is when you gotta go up a three-percent grade for, like, a mile.

From that point on, I was just obsessed. Everyone was so friendly, and it wasn’t like a triathlon, road race, macho, high-tech equipment—it was just a bunch of dirtbags out there having fun on the trails.

A lot of trail races are so small—100 people, 200 people—compared to road races. What’s it like running such a small event as a big-name celebrity? Do people treat you differently? Do they even know who you are?

I always like talking to people at races, because if someone recognizes me on the street or at a show, what we have in common is me. They recognize me from the band, and they want to talk about the band.

At a race, we’re all there because we’re runners. We’re all there because we love being on the trails, because we want to complete this particular distance. More times than not, you’re running and somebody will be like, “Oh my God, you’re Death Cab. Cool man, what’s up? Yeah, what else you running?”

All of a sudden we’re talking about running. We’re not having an awkward fan interaction.

Have you had any awkward fan moments at races?

Every once in a while, I’ll be running on a turnaround and somebody will recognize me. I’ve stopped and taken photos with people. But never anything that’s uncomfortable.

The vast majority of people who are involved with this sport tend to be really cool people. I’ve only met one or two assholes in my four or five years of running. I’m sure they’re out there, but I think there’s a particular kind of respect for the natural world that draws people to this sport. There’s a code of conduct built into doing this.

Also, the ultra distances really break down your ego. There’s so many variables, so many factors that come into play on race day. That’s been really beneficial for me as a musician, as a performer who spends a good amount of his time on stage in front of thousands of people, to have this counter-weight in my life.

Has trail running affected your music at all? Does it factor into your song-writing routine, for example?

I don’t go on long trail runs and write songs. But if I get up in the morning and go out to the trail and spend a couple hours running, and then go to the studio from there, there’s a calm and centeredness and a focus that I have. Whereas, if I didn’t run that day, I might feel restless and want to go for a walk to kind of shake my mind out.

Are there any Ben Gibbard songs on your running playlist?

No, I don’t listen to myself. I usually bring a shuffle for late in a race, when I start hurting. The last 20 miles, I just need something else to focus on.

Aside from Squamish, do you have any goal races this year?

I’m turning 39 this summer. I’d like to get to the 100-miler before I turn 40, or in my 40th year. I had grand ideas of trying to do Cascade Crest [a 100-miler in Washington state] this year. But I’ve come back down to Earth and realized that attempting to train for my first 100-miler while on a world tour is probably not the best idea in the world.

A version of this interview appeared in our July 2015 issue.