Every runner has a story.
And every runner with a blog has a unique expression of their running story. Today's interview features Ed Hammerbeck. He discusses his blog, his start into running, and a racing "first" coming up in 2009. Meet A Viking, Running.
Your blog name is A Viking, Running. What’s the story behind the name?
I was racking my brain with the cursor blinking in the “Blog Title” text box when I created the thing, and I could not think of anything good. I didn’t want it to be something lame like “Ed Hammerbeck’s Running Blog.” In fact, at first I wanted to keep it somewhat anonymous for some reason. Other running blogs I subscribed to had clever titles, and I really wanted mine to be clever too. Something funny would be nice as well. So I thought and thought, and the cursor blinked and blinked. Nothing came.
After about two and a half minutes of this agonizing soul-searching, I remembered what an old physics professor told us to do when we got stuck. “Always go back to first principles.” Well, what did that mean in this case? Let’s start with my name, I thought. My last name is Hammerbeck, which is Swedish. Although my true ancestry is a pale, Anglo-Saxon potpourri, I’ve latched onto my Swedish identity as primary in the same way people say that a big dog with pointy ears and bushy tail is a “shepherd mix” even though the dog’s true parentage is anyone’s guess. Vikings, obviously, came from Sweden, and I get a lot of satisfaction out of making my wife roll her eyes when we watch stuff with Vikings in it, and wistfully say “Ah, my people, my rich cultural heritage.” I try to do this during the scenes of mayhem, plunder, and carnage rather than when they’re talking about shipbuilding or exploring the New World.
So thinking along these lines, I started playing around with the word Viking and how I could tie it to running. And then I started to mouth the words together, noting their easy consonance and liking the music of them together. The idea grew on me. I plopped a comma in between the words and added an indefinite article to ensure that it would be close to the top if it was on a sorted list. Thus, “A Viking, Running” was born.
Tell us how you got started running and racing?
I wanted to lose some weight. Since my late 20s, I have had this spare tire flopping around. Then in my mid-30s, and my cholesterol started creeping up, and my depression got bad. I knew I needed to get some exercise somehow. I tried circuit training, but I never really got into it. I tried hiking, but I could never do it consistently enough to get any weight loss benefit. Eventually, this idea popped into my head, “You never see any fat runners.” Thus, I decided to run.
Looking back, having seen plenty of zaftig runners, I know I had fallen victim to an availability heuristic. My eyes were drawn to the svelte, fit-looking runners with their graceful bodies and natural movements, and I thought that all runners must be like them. Somehow I blocked out the numerically superior army of flabby guys and gals with beer guts, heaving their lungs out. Now I am one of them, and I have seen plenty of marathoners with love handles.
But that’s how I got started. My running is founded on a cognitive bias.
Once I started running, sustaining the habit became my big problem. In the first year or two, I didn’t like running and struggled against a lot of negative self-talk compelling me to not run. So I started scheduling little 5Ks with the idea of committing to these monthly external goals that I knew I had to be prepared for. Sucking wind and finishing last on race day feels bad, and training was the only way to prevent it from happening. Then I discovered races are just plain fun to go to. I looked forward to the free t-shirt and goodie bag, the free snacks afterward, and the festive atmosphere around race day. I was hooked. Now, with about three years of data to look back on, I can see that when I schedule monthly or semi-monthly races, I run more consistently. When I don’t schedule races, I tend to have more lazy weeks.
Which blog posts have been the favorites of your readers?
I don’t know about reader-favorites, but according to the data, the post that has received the most traffic is entitled “The Horror of the Men’s Locker Room.” Most people find it by Googling things like “men’s locker room” and “naked men” and so on. I am sure these folks are disappointed that it’s just a neurotic blog post about me wanting some privacy while I change into my running gear.
The post that generated the most comments is entitled “What Motivates Me,” which was a Take It & Run Thursday post. In this post, I confess to being a lazy slob, incapable of motivating myself without resorting to tricks and coercion.
Care to tell us about your job and how it supports or detracts from your running?
My job supports my running quite well. I am lucky enough to work at a company committed to their employee’s wellness. There is a gym on-site with a locker room and a shower. And my building is downtown with plenty of sidewalks but also convenient to some running trails along the Ohio River. So I easily get the bulk of my runs in during the week on my lunch break. Another advantage is that my work schedule is flexible and results-driven, so nobody hassles me if I come in five minutes late from lunch because of a longer-than-usual workout. My boss isn’t watching the clock, tapping his foot, wondering where I’ve been.
My employer also supports me by sponsoring a team for Louisville’s big race, the Kentucky Derby Festival Mini Marathon. They pay for the team’s registration plus two tickets to the pre-race pasta dinner!
Hardest thing for you to run during the winter months?
Doing my long run is very hard in the winter. Not because of the distance or the elements, but because of when I have to do it. In order to not affect the rest of my family and our plans for the day, I run it in the mornings before everyone wakes up. At 7 AM in December, it’s dark and cold and scary outside. And my bed is cozy and safe. Snuggled up in my blankets, in my flannel pajamas and thick socks, it’s all too easy to turn the alarm off and go back to sleep. The choice between that or getting sleet in the face for an hour or two isn’t much of a choice.
But thanks to my local running group, I have a plan to help solve that problem. Every January, my neighborhood running store sponsors a training team for the spring races. Every Saturday at 8 AM, we meet at a local park to knock out our long runs together. Usually, the store supplies coffee, bagels, and fruit and sometimes discounts or free gear. But the real incentive is the people. There’s a great bunch of regulars who’re great to hang out with. There’s a mix of new and experienced runners, fast and slow, all at various fitness levels. So someone always has a mentor available; there’s always someone needing a coach. Nobody has to run alone. They help keep me accountable, and they help me solve the winter long run problem.
You’re really getting into Twitter. Tell us about your interest in using it.
I’m struggling to figure out the value proposition of several of these social networking tools. I think I am getting too old for them. Folks in their 20s and younger seem to just get Twitter and Facebook and stuff in the same way I got the world wide web before my parent’s generation had ever heard of email. I don’t understand what Twitter offers me, and I don’t get a lot of enjoyment out of it yet.
To me, Twitter is the quintessence of this idea of keeping in constant contact with the world and putting your life online, and as such, I really, really don’t get it. I don’t have that urge. I don’t know why I bother fooling with it at all. I mean, I tweet something a few times a day, but just like with Facebook, even as I am doing it, I wonder what’s the point? Who is out there getting any benefit from what I am doing? How is this enriching my life? It’s sometimes amusing to share a funny website with whoever the heck is following me, but if I do or don’t, it doesn’t seem to matter. And speaking of futility, I cannot imagine people get much out of knowing that I am going to go grab a cup of coffee. I guess if I took it more seriously, I could get a handle on my audience and try to be entertaining.
I may be too existentialistic for all this.
For now, I play with Twitter as a micro-blogging project in lieu of setting up more fully thought-out blogs about other aspects of my life. I don’t know how long I will keep it up.
Best race experience?
The 2008 Kentucky Derby Festival Mini Marathon was my second half-marathon and my first year running that race. The “Mini” is Louisville’s biggest race all year, both in hype- and numeric terms. As the name implies, it’s part of the Kentucky Derby Festival, a city-wide series of events in April celebrating and culminating in the most exciting two minutes in sports, the Kentucky Derby. This is a Big Deal in Louisville. Combining elements of civic pride, associations with the Derby, the urge to party, and the excitement of 12,000 people all running in the same direction, this is the event that gets chubby office workers, out-of-shape retirees, school-age kids, and life-long runners out on the streets and training throughout the cold, cruel winter. Starting around March, it’s not unusual to hear strangers asking each other at the gas pump or in the dentist office, “So, are you running the Mini?”
And even non-runners get excited about the race and come out to cheer by the bus load. More on that in a second.
Like everyone else, I trained all winter for the 2008 race, and even though I had some lazy, burned-out weeks late in the schedule, I felt ready. I showed up plenty early to take a bus from the finish area to the start, and I felt I was part of something exciting. Even thought it was miserably cold and drizzling, the runners were animated, chatty, and cheerful. Some were first-timers, while others were meeting up with training teammates (many organizations and companies sponsor teams). Many were meeting friends they run the race with every year.
The starting area was huge – several street lanes wide and a couple blocks long. When I first arrived, I couldn’t grasp the size of the race. But as the area slowly filled with people, the scale of the thing grew clearer as the morning wore on. I had never run in a race with 12,000 other runners, and I didn’t know what to expect.
From the starting gun through the third or fourth mile, it was stampede. Runners were packed closely and tightly. Even though I made sure to line up with my pace group, there were still hundreds of people all around me running, breathing, smiling, chatting, and enjoying the day. The surge of energy from all that movement was palpable. But, really, apart from the scale, nothing so far was radically different from any other race I’ve run.
What was different, and why this is my best race experience, is that from start to finish, throngs of people were cheering us on. In twos or threes sometimes but often in huge crowds, the community lined up along the whole route to keep us going. Sometimes, I felt like we were running through the middle of a parade. Sure, some people had signs that were clearly for a specific runner, but everybody cheered for everybody. There were DJs pumping music and bands playing. Until I was in the thick of it, I didn’t understand how motivating that kind of community support could be, especially in the last couple miles.
Then, near the finish line, my wife and daughter were there in the crowd cheering me on. That’s not something they usually do, and that was a big surprise. I was tired and in pain and ready to stop; seeing their faces gave be a boost that made me soar through the last quarter mile to the finish.
If I only run one race a year from now on, it will be that one.
Ten miles is a good, natural distance for me. When I started running, I never thought I would say this, but 5Ks are too short. By the end of three miles, my legs are warmed up, and I’ve gotten into frame of mind where I can keep going if I want to. Right or wrong, this is where the majority of my runs end during the year when I am maintaining my base. But almost always, at the three mile mark, my body sends a signal to my brain that says, “Boss, we could keep going if you wanted to.” Needless to say, the temptation to keep going is stronger on some days than others.
Once I get up to the sixth or eighth mile, that’s where I am feeling strongest. I’m at peak flow, and I feel like I can plod along like this forever. As my body does the work of transporting me through space, my mind is in the driver’s seat enjoying the scenery, daydreaming, and just enjoying the day. I’m not worried about anything. My legs don’t hurt. I’m tiring but not tired. Everything is humming along. Then around the ninth mile, I start to get tired and start to think about how good a hot bath will feel. I’m ready to stop.
After a ten miler, I always feel like I have had an excellent workout. I’m centered and relaxed. I know I have used everything up and given all my strength and energy to the road. Those are never junk miles.
Current running goals?
I shall run my first marathon in April; I’m thinking about that a lot right now. I have a training plan, and I’ve joined a running group to help me get through the long runs. Still, the distance intimidates me. I’ve never run farther than 13.1 miles before. But when I think about it deeper, the distance is the least of my anxieties. The sheer scale of the prep work I’ll have to do – the sustained, prolonged commitment – is what’s weighing on my mind. When I think of how many hours I’ll have to find in my week – all the miles I shall have to run to be in good enough shape to finish. Right now, I don’t quite know how I am going to fit all those hours in. My schedule is tight enough as it is with work and family and other commitments. What will have to give? Sleep, probably, but I know there are training consequences associated with that.
But I am going to do it. Worrying won’t change anything. The race is paid for, and I’m going to be at the starting line on race day unless I am physically incapable. My hardest work will be to think these things through, make plans, make backup plans for when things go astray, and keep the project moving forward. I have faith that my body will do what it is told to do. Success or failure will come as a result of my ability to manage my time, energy, and mental state over the next four months in order to run consistently and stick to the plan. Finishing this marathon will be a project management challenge, for me, rather than a physical one.
Non-running and non-blogging interests?
I enjoy puttering around the house, being a dad and a husband. We like to travel, camp, and hike when the weather is nice.
I read a lot. I’ve had a couple reading projects simmering on the back burner for some time, like reading a biography of each U.S. president and reading all the classics I was supposed to read in school but didn’t. My typical pattern is to read some thick, important book on politics or history and then cleanse my palate with a few science fiction novels or a pile of comic books, and then repeat the cycle. I also have a taste for pulpy, lurid fiction from the mid-20th Century – especially horror and hard-boiled detective stories. This is also reflected in my taste in movies, which tends toward b-movies with zombies, kick boxers, giant robots and city-stomping lizards, alien invaders, and mad scientists.
I love playing all sorts of games. I lose a lot of Candyland games to my five year old daughter, but I also enjoy card games, especially Rook and Fluxx. I’ve got a nerdy interest in ancient board games, the older the better, like senet and Chinese Chess. I’m trying to get back into learning and playing the Japanese game called go, which is my favorite game. I used to play a lot of go online and with a local club but fell out of the habit when my daughter was born. Lately, I’ve started to brush back up on it.