Over the years, over countless miles loping off into the great yonder and coming back again, my mind has probably drifted through a million different thoughts.
Sometimes, it’s keeping track of a sore muscle: “Ouch, the ole gluteus maximus is being a real pain in the ass today.” Other times, it’s playing out a familiar fantasy: “Here comes Tim, the surprise American hero, kicking it home past the Kenyan pre-race favorite…and the Ethiopian pre-race favorite…to win Olympic Gold! The crowd is going wild!”
When I’m listening to music, I’ll occasionally picture myself up on stage before a packed music hall, leading a chorus of rowdy fans through
Arcade Fire’s my biggest hit. In all those years and miles, though, I never imagined that a rock star might be up there, well, thinking of running.
Today, loyal RunnerPub readers, we have a treat — an exclusive interview with Chris Freeman, bona-fide rockstar from the band Parsonsfield. He happens to be my cousin and — like his father, my Uncle Mike — he’s taken a liking to the sport of running.
Recently, Chris ran the Hartford Marathon, his first 26.2-miler. In Part I of our conversation today, which took place the week before Hartford, we discuss his preparations, much of it done on the road…
RunnerPub: Thanks for chatting with us today, Chris. In the unlikely event that some readers are not familiar with Parsonsfield, I’d like to take a brief moment to rectify the unfortunate circumstance. I’ll post one of your band’s early music videos.
Chris: “Weeds or Wild Flowers”?
RunnerPub: That’s the one. That’s you up in that tree, in the green hat.
Chris: That is correct.
RunnerPub: With your rockstar credentials now firmly proven, let’s turn to running. So the Freeman family has a bit of a tradition with the sport. How did you get pulled in?
Chris: That’s true and, like any sad-eyed teenager, I resisted it for many years. I used to go see my dad in races — from Falmouth (Cape Cod) to Boston and other marathons. Meanwhile, I hated distance running. I was into playing soccer and hockey instead. But when we’d go to races and I’d see him run, I’d often jump in with him, without any training. I’d push as hard as I could and, inevitably, I’d be unable to walk at the end of, say, the 4.75-mile Manchester Turkey Trot. And so, the combination of my inability to walk after such moments, and my sister laughing at me, and my dad telling me to train and live up to my potential — it all became the impetus that got me into the family tradition.
RunnerPub: I know the feeling well. Embarrassment can be quite the motivator. All right, now there’s one thing I find interesting, and impressive. It’s that you jumped right into the marathon. Was that something you’d been kicking around in your head for a while or more of a spur-of-the-moment decision? (When I signed up for my first marathon, I needed the liquid courage from several rounds of beer pong before hitting the “purchase” button).
Chris: So for me, this past spring, I was on tour in Ohio when my sister Bridget called me during the Boston Marathon. You and Leslie (editor’s note: that’s Mrs. RunnerPub) were running and the whole family was at our favorite spot to watch the marathon, Mile 24!
RunnerPub: Ah, yes, I recall the spot, and the agony…
Chris: I love the Boston Marathon — the history and the whole vibe of the city that day. I think Bridget said we should run a marathon and I was so caught up in the nostalgia and sadness of missing the holiday known as “Marathon Monday” in Boston that I agreed immediately and went out for a four-mile run. When I make a decision, I make it fast and I go deep into intense planning about how I’ll get it done. I knew that being on tour, there are so many reasons not to run. But once I decided to focus on the reasons to run, there was no turning back.
RunnerPub: I like the resolve. So how’d you plan out your training?
Chris: I was pretty much starting from scratch. Thankfully, I have always been very lucky to have good genes for running where I could go out and do a few miles without much of a problem. But I never did it with any consistency and in the times when I’ve caught the running bug in the past, I’ve met with early injury and disappointment.
So I talked to my dad, who told me to first get a base of 30 miles a week without raising mileage by more than 10 percent at a time. So, I slowly worked that out and was doing four or five runs a week that were three to five miles each and slowly built from there.
Chris: In the early stages, it was just my dad. Then once I made it up to 30-35 miles a week, I consulted the Boston Marathon website, which has a general training plan based on your goal time. I also started using MapMyRun, an app that keeps track of your mileage and routes on your phone. My dad, the purist, is still getting over seeing me with an armband and a cell phone, but he proudly kept the headphones out of my ears.
RunnerPub (ashamed): I retract my statement above about listening to music while running.
Chris: I did find that app to be very helpful in keeping a pace and realizing when I was going too hard. I did not consult many people or articles until my first injury…
RunnerPub: Uh-oh, the dreaded “i” word! Let’s take a quick pause to show a video that I recorded myself at one of your recent concerts in Connecticut:
RunnerPub: Okay, before we get to the injury situation, let’s continue the rundown of training before that…
Chris: So my goal was to be at around 50 miles a week, running five days a week. I did one long run on Mondays, which I gradually increased from nine miles at the beginning up to 21 miles, which has been my longest. I also did interval runs each Thursday, where I tried to up my pace to 6:30 or 6:45 a mile. My dad always says that the hardest part of a marathon is getting to the starting line.
RunnerPub: A wise man.
Chris: Yes, I’ve found it to be very true as my eagerness and quick decision to jump straight into being a marathon runner has led to my share of aches and pains. I’ve learned what an overuse injury is and how running through the pain can lead to a week of limping. I’d gotten my mileage up to about 40 a week when I had my first ankle injury, which had me out for close to two weeks in June — and then another that led to a few weeks off in August. Finally, in September I strained my groin, which has kept me off the road for two-and-a-half weeks waiting for a full recovery before I go back out there. I have switched my training to swimming to give my leg muscles a rest but hopefully keep my cardio up. It will be a dramatic finish to my preparations, seeing how it feels on race day.
RunnerPub: Indeed it will be. Before we get to that, though, I’m still interested in your process. You get around the country quite a bit with Parsonsfield. Where have you been training these recent months? Anywhere especially unusual?
Chris: This summer, I’ve run all over the country and in Canada. Touring makes running incredibly difficult and incredibly easy at the same time. It can be difficult to find time to run each day when we are traveling so much but the routes you find are unbelievable and different everyday.
I live in Boston, which is an incredible running city. Since I moved there, I had been going on long walks for creative stimulation and to see different parts of the city. But running just made that easier and more fun. But I have also loved running through the West.
RunnerPub: Go West, young man, as they say. So what have you seen?
Chris: I did a long run with my dad in Canyonlands National park in Utah which brought us deep into the desert, among the quietest places on Earth. I also ran alone past a herd of bighorn sheep in Badlands National Park in South Dakota. I ran in the shadow of a great mesa in Colorado and many runs on bike paths along the Mississippi River. One particular crazy run was up in Canmore, Alberta, which has a trail that goes along the Trans-Canada Highway between Canmore and Banff. As I talked to some locals about the trail they all said, “Watch out for Bear 148.” It is apparently this large grizzly that has been charging humans, including a cross-country skier, and a mother pushing a stroller with a newborn.
RunnerPub: Here in Manhattan, we try to avoid grizzly bears.
Chris: Well, there, too. In fact, I stopped at an outdoor store and rented some bear spray for a couple toonies and set out on the trail. I passed signs that said “Bear in area!” I stopped and realized they had been put up only the day before and I saw the trees were filled with berries which would attract them to the area. I yelled “Hey Bear! Hey Bear!” and had my finger on the bear spray trigger for all 12 miles.
RunnerPub: Our readers are not accustomed to this level of drama on this website. Do continue…
Chris: Of course, whenever you get bear spray you don’t need to use it, which I’m thankful for. But I would love to see Bear 148 someday! I found out after that a few days beforehand, they had tranquilized the bear and brought it a few hundred miles north to Jasper. See you next year, 148!
RunnerPub: A novel training method, no doubt, but I see how it could make you practice running very, very fast. So tell me, how does training fit into your day while on tour?
Chris: On tour I just train whenever I can. Sometimes we’re forced to do it in the morning before we leave for the next city, but other times we leave too early so I try and do it after soundcheck. In an ideal world I would always run right before a concert. It’s amazing how it opens the blood flow to the lungs and I can sing better. It is a better singing warmup than anything a singer has ever taught me. I also love performing with the running endorphins flowing. Keith Richards realized at 65 that it’s no good to perform high, but I’m not sure he’s ever performed with a runner’s high (it’s amazing!).
RunnerPub: Here’s another Parsonsfield video filmed in what looks like a pretty good place to get some training in:
RunnerPub: Wow, so marathon training has helped your approach to music/performing?
Chris: Definitely. I feel more energetic from the training and I feel happier and more ready to put on a good show. It also is a very creative experience to run. I love having nothing to do and answering to nobody. To find that time on tour, one has to seek it out. Another way it has affected performing has been at high altitude. I remember playing in Colorado a few years ago and really feeling like I was having a hard time singing. I would get headaches on stage and really feel the altitude sickness. This year, I felt it much less and used our time in the mountains to train even harder and get some natural blood doping!
RunnerPub: So it’s a physical as well as mental benefit?
Chris: Yes, it’s definitely a meditative and creative experience for me. It is a chance to be on my own when we are really crammed into this little van on tour. I love being by myself and focusing my mind on something like my breathing or song lyrics. I found that it helps me see rhythms in everyday life. The rhythm of my feet against the pavement or my beating heart become much more noticeable and creatively stimulating as a musician. I also see it as a means to an end. After having worked out, I feel happier, more energetic and it’s easier to feel excited about my own ideas.
RunnerPub: Interesting. And the changing scenery from being on tour can’t hurt, I’d imagine.
Chris: Yeah, depending on where I am, I can be astounded by the nature around me, or other times it is totally about focusing on breathing and finding that state of flow. Other times I am part-way through a song and I am trying to write lyrics in my head. Running alone is more like running with my unconscious mind than it is actually running alone. I don’t listen to music or anything I just like to be.
RunnerPub: Now, back to the Freeman family running tradition. Your dad’s run several marathons. What do you remember most about seeing him run when you were little?
Chris: The earliest memories that come to mind are actually smells more than anything else. There is a distinct running smell that I remember as I hugged him after some race. I don’t know what it is, but it’s different than the hockey smell or soccer smell.
RunnerPub: I seem to recall my soccer shin guards being rather toxic. Not that my running shoes are roses, of course…
Chris: Sometimes I smell it on myself and think of the mustached version of my dad walking into the house after a training run. I also loved going to see him run the Falmouth Road Race and I jumped into that a few times. One time a bit too young and a bit too close to the end where this 7-year-old was running with some semi-elite runners for the last 200 yards and got called out by the race announcer. “Sorry I jumped in, Mr. Announcer. I’m not the prodigy you thought I was.” I also remember being with our grandfather, Freddy, at the start of the race and him informing runners who were leaning up against a tree, stretching their calves, that they had no chance at successfully pushing over the tree if they all stood on different sides. The runners were confused, but I got it.
RunnerPub: Ha, a Freddy classic. So what’s your goal for Hartford?
Chris: I want to qualify for Boston — 3:05, baby!
RunnerPub: Okay, before we go, there’s something I’ve been wondering. I sometimes get a song stuck in my head when I’m in a good running groove — not even the whole song; just a snippet. That happen to you?
Chris: This happens in every run for me. For a while it was the Hamilton soundtrack. The songs “Alexander Hamilton” and “My Shot” and “Cabinet Battle #1” all come to mind. There are so many words, I was able to perform full songs in my head. So hip-hop is amazing for that. It also happens a lot with new songs of my own bands. I’m trying to memorize lyrics and kind of singing them over and over in my head to get ready for the show. I love that feeling of grooving while running. It lets you know that you are pacing well and feeling comfortable.
RunnerPub: Similarly, if you had to pump yourself up and/or mellow yourself out before a big run, what song would you choose?
Chris: I would say “My Shot” is an amazing pump up song. Although we stayed on 8 Mile road in Detroit and I had to listen to “Lose Yourself” before that run. I think that’s another classic chorus that can get stuck in you head while on a good groove. I was singing it during that whole run. To mellow out after a run, everyone should listen to Julien Baker’s song “Sprained Ankle.” I fell in love with it when I had an ankle injury. The last line in the song is I’m “A sprinter, learning to wait // Marathon running, my ankles are sprained.” It’s a beautiful song.
RunnerPub: Finally, and speaking of maladies, since we here at RunnerPub are big supporters of taking care of your body post-run, of getting all those carbs back, I’d like to know if you have a favorite beer that you’d ideally consume following a tough run?
Chris: Oh we get some great choices of beer on the road. We have local beer on our rider so we often get to try beer that folks are really excited about. But you don’t even need to leave New England for the best! Heady Topper up in Vermont is amazing!
RunnerPub:: I’m getting thirsty already. Well, thank you very much for the interview, Chris, and good luck in Hartford. I’ll leave our readers — who I’m sure are now Parsonsfield diehards — one final music video from the band, one which I think speaks to the unique demands of the marathon, a song called “Everyone Dies.”