The Real-Life Diet of Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Who Runs 100-Mile Races When He’s Not on Tour

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Photograph: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte

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As far as rock-‘n’-roll excess is concerned, Death Cab for Cutie probably isn’t the first band that jumps to mind. Especially back in their mid-aughts heyday, when they were soundtracking shows like The OC and posing with bloody hearts on the cover of Spin, the beloved Seattle indie rockers—and their frontman Ben Gibbard, in particular—were poster children for a sweeter, more sensitive, less chaotic brand of guitar gods. But the temptations that came with life on the road eventually caught up to Gibbard all the same.

“We were never the kind of band that was just getting fucked up all the time,” Gibbard says now. “But being a musician, it’s one of the only jobs in the world where you’re encouraged to drink at work. You show up at a venue and they’re like, ‘Hey, I just want to make sure you guys have enough alcohol for work.’ It became a slippery slope and eventually I lost control of it. I had to cut it off.”

After Gibbard got sober in 2008, he replaced his drinking habit with a running obsession. He started off with a couple of regular marathons before finding his true love in ultras—trail races that stretch on for 100 miles (or more), through rugged terrain, sometimes requiring multiple days to complete. “It’s a callback to the things I loved as a kid, being out in the woods and mountains here in the Northwest,” he says. “It helps me to achieve this kind of meditative thought that I had not been able to find doing anything else.”

When I reach Gibbard via Zoom at home in Seattle, he’s a few days removed from an 100-kilometer jaunt through the Columbia River Gorge and preparing for the second leg of the massive world tour that his two bands—Death Cab and The Postal Service—are currently on to celebrate the 20th anniversaries of their seminal albums Transatlanticism and Give Up. We chopped it up about his training regimen on the road, how it feels to revisit your 26-year-old self every night on stage, and why podcasts are better than music when you’re out on a 13-hour run.

For Real-Life Diet, GQ talks to athletes, celebrities, and other high performers about their diet, exercise routines, and pursuit of wellness. Keep in mind that what works for them might not necessarily be healthy for you.

GQ: Given that you've been on a tour celebrating two albums you made 20 years ago, I was wondering if you could take me back to that time: When you were 26 and had just put out Give Up and Transatlanticism, what were your eating and exercise habits like back then?

Ben Gibbard: Oh, my exercise routine was non-existent and my eating habits were kind of—I didn't really hold back on anything. I think when people are in their twenties for the most part, their metabolisms can handle a lot more. Death Cab was playing pretty long sets, but I was drinking, I smoked a little bit off and on during that time, and I was just a young person who wasn't really thinking about any of those things.

It didn't even register to me that exercise might be a good idea. Even though I grew up a swimmer—I swam competitively all through high school and played baseball as a kid, so I was active. We always hiked as a family. It wasn't like I lived a sedentary video game life. But I think when I became a professional musician, I never even thought about those things.

I guess you burn a decent amount of calories on stage, and that's probably enough in your twenties to get by?

I mean, based on my waistline towards the end of my twenties, I don't think that was enough. [Laughs.]

I was the heaviest I've ever been at what I would assume was probably my most visible or famous. It was like 2006 or something like that. And that was just a function of a tour bus lifestyle—when we were touring in vans, you didn't have a refrigerator and a freezer full of food there all the time. We'd maybe take a bottle of Jack Daniels from the venue or something like that, but we didn't have a bar and a cooler full of beers to get drunk at 2 in the morning after a show. I wasn't eating pizza at 1 in the morning when we were in the van days that often.

I've heard it said that at 28 you get your man weight—that’s the age when your food and drink choices start to catch up with you a bit. And that definitely was true in my case.

So at what point did you decide to make a change? And how did running become the thing that grabbed you?

Well, I started to run a little bit at the tail end of my drinking career. At the time, I was running two or three miles on a treadmill at the gym or something like that. When you stop waking up hungover, you have a lot more energy and a lot more desire to be out in the world and be on your feet. I was doing a lot more physical things, because I wasn't run down from my own substance abuse. I wasn't waking up with a headache or not sleeping well and just like, "Oh, I just want to go back to bed."

I wanted to get up. I wanted to do things. Alcohol is a depressant, and when you remove that depressant from your quiver, you go to bed and you sleep better, you wake up in a better mood. I mean, it's not like woo woo, this is straight up science. Your moods are improving. You're not waking up hungover, you're not detoxing from alcohol. So I think maybe there's something to be said about this window that opened up where all of a sudden I desired more physical exertion than I did before because I had more energy.

From there, what was it about going to the extreme of ultramarathons that appealed to you?

It started when I signed up for a trail race by accident. It wasn't an ultra—it was like a 30K, which is around 18 miles. I had run a couple marathons at that point. I had run the LA Marathon when I was living in LA and it felt like an accomplishment, for sure, but I didn't particularly like road running. It was just too much running. It was just the culture of it. I mean, it was fine. It was fun, it was running, and I'll take running on the road versus running on a treadmill or not running. But I signed up for this race in the Marin Headlands outside of San Francisco. I didn't know it was a trail race. I just thought it was a 30K, like, "Oh, that sounds like a distance I could do."

And I showed up and it was at the end of this road in Rodeo Beach, and I was like, "Where are we going?" And the guy's looking at me like I was a moron: "We're going up there." I went, "What do you mean we're going up there? You can't run up that."

And while it was a very painful experience, I was just hooked. I was like, What is this crazy sport? You can do this? You're allowed to do this? For me, trail running and ultra running felt like a callback to the kind of things I liked to do as a kid in the Northwest. I spent all my free time in the woods goofing off with my friends. My parents would take us hiking in Olympic National Park. It felt then, and still does to this day, like pure freedom.

As I started to push myself, going further and further, trying longer distances and more challenging terrain, I started to hit these meditative spaces where I'd never been before as a human being. The world just seemed to fall away and I was just like a being in space at my core. Nothing else matters. All of the problems in my life don't matter for this time I'm on the trail. My band doesn't matter, my people I know being sick or dying doesn't matter. It's just this. You are so in tune with your body. And look, there's other ways to do it. People meditate, they do yoga, they do ayahuasca, whatever the fuck. People do what they gotta do. But for me, it just became this.

And then finally, one of the many things I love about the ultrarunning community in general is that it felt very akin to what it was like being in punk and indie circles when I was younger. Everybody who's doing this is doing it because they love it. People are coming from all walks of life to participate in this sport and challenge themselves—not because they think they're going to make money or get famous or whatever, but because they just love it. There's a real grassroots, DIY kind of vibe to a lot of the races that I run. It's a very community-oriented sport, in the same way that those early music scenes that I was in were: We're all doing this because we love it. We're all going to help each other. We're all going to participate and volunteer and give our time to this because we love it.

There's nothing else to gain from it, aside from somebody giving you a buckle when you finish a hundred miles. That's it. You're doing it for a buckle and to be a member of this community. To me, as my career as a musician has grown and I've found myself in different echelons of the music industry—some for better, some for worse—it is very valuable. It's valuable to have this callback to a more innocent time in my life.

And the fact that we all come from different walks of life and do this sport also means that I'm spending a lot of time with people who I normally wouldn't get to know if I was just doing music. I'm here to tell you, man, I'm so bored of hanging out with musicians. I really want to hang out with some people who do other shit. I don't want to sit around and talk about gear with anybody ever again. I'd rather hear about what somebody does for a living, what their life is like, why they're at this race, share routes and data about mountains. That, to me, is so much more exciting.

Do you feel like the meditative state that running offers you has affected your creativity and your songwriting?

When music was the sole focus of my life, I was fearful that if I took my eye off it for one second, I would lose my edge or my creativity would escape me or something. I've learned over the years that remaining creatively viable is hard work, and I put in more hours of writing now than I did when I was 25 to get less back.

But at the same time, spending my free time in the mountains—running with friends and camping and traveling to go run races or hang out with people and do the sport—I need that counterweight to the time I spend in my head. I need to walk away. I think one of the most important things that creative people need to do is take time away, to walk away from their work, to leave the studio and come back with fresh eyes or ears. Because otherwise, we lose perspective on what's good, what's bad. You get too into the minutiae. So for me, coming back into my studio to write after spending the morning in the mountains, I just feel I'm able to focus a lot better and see what's working and what isn't a little more clearly.

So, I looked up your race results online earlier and I noticed that you literally ran a 100K [62 mile] race on Saturday.

Yeah, I did.

How are you feeling, first of all? And then when you're preparing for a race like that, what does your training regimen look like and what are you eating during that process?

I'm feeling really good. I had a really good training. 100K is kind of my favorite distance because it's a really long day—it took me 13 hours, which was a little longer than I was hoping it would—but at the same time, you can have dinner afterwards. I'm coming in finishing this thing and my legs feel really good, and I'm kind of thinking like, man, if this is was a 100 miler, I could fucking do it today. My legs are feeling strong.

Nutrition-wise, when I'm training or racing, I've tried a lot of different things. Sometimes I'll do more real food, sometimes I'll go more chemical food. But I do a combination usually of [real food] and GU brand gels. I like those because they have a lot of different flavors, and one of the hardest things to do when you're training for ultramarathons is to find something that doesn't give you flavor fatigue. Because you might be out there for a day or longer, and if that's all you're eating, you're going to get really tired of it, and you need those calories in. So the GUs are easy to get down, because sometimes your stomach's kind of rotten or you just don't feel like eating, but you really should be getting at least a hundred calories in every half hour, usually more.

Your body can process about 250, 300 calories an hour. When I'm racing or training, I'll do a GU every half hour after the first hour or two, and I'll supplement that with something like Gnarly Nutrition, which is a liquid-based nutrition. That has about 200 calories per 20 ounce bottle, plus electrolyte salt, everything like that. So I'll be getting 200 calories an hour from the GU, and then I'll get an extra 50 or 100 calories from Gnarly Nutrition.

And so you're consuming those while you're running?

Yeah, totally. If I go out for anything under a two-hour run, I won't bring food with me because you have roughly two hours of glycogen stores in your body for a high-effort activity. But anything over that, I [do bring food]. One of the important things in training for ultras—or even, I'm sure, triathlons or marathons too—is that you have to simulate the conditions during the race. There's an old adage: Nothing new on race day. You don't do gels and Gnarly for your training and then go, "I'm going to see what these gummy bears do." No, you got to stick with what works.

And as far as training goes, for years, I just went off training programs I would find online. But a couple of years ago, I hired a coach, this guy named Gary Robbins, who is an incredible ultrarunner and has been a friend of mine for a long time. So it was a nice way to have somebody to help build a program for me based on my schedule, especially when I'm on tour or touring a lot.

When you are on tour, what does your typical training regimen look like and what are you eating?

When I'm on tour, I'll usually try to cap it at 35 to 40 miles a week, which is a good base for me. And then I'll probably do one strength session and one core workout a week, as prescribed by Gary. My diet in the last year or so, the best way to put it, is kind of like a non-dogmatic paleo diet.

I think a lot of people, when they start running ultras, they kind of just go, "I'm burning tens of thousands of calories a week running. I can eat whatever I want." And that's true to an extent. But around a year ago, I got some blood work done. I'm sure stress had a lot to do with it, a lot of personal things, and also getting ready for this big tour we did. But I had some pretty wonky results come back. and I was starting to move into slightly pre-diabetic territory, because I was just eating like a trash compactor.

So that was all the motivation I needed. Around eight or nine years ago, I cut out wheat and dairy from my diet, and I had my best year of running ever during that time. I was down five or 10 pounds just from not having bread, because I would eat bread with everything—toast for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, pizza or pasta for dinner. I was just a total carb nut. Now, I've kind of shifted to this diet where it's…like I said, I’m not dogmatic about it. I'm not going out to eat and asking the waiter if there's sugar in the salad. It's not that kind of thing. It's more just trying to focus my diet on meat and fish as a protein source. And then a lot of vegetables, a lot of salads, avoiding rice and grains, desserts and sugar, that kind of stuff.

That all makes sense. When you feel the need to branch out a little bit, are there any cities on tour that you always look forward to eating in?

Man, good question. It used to be that whenever we went to San Francisco, I would make a beeline to the Taqueria Cancun on 17th and Mission. For the longest time, that was my last meal: a veggie burrito from Cancun with this green sauce there that's just incredible. I don't know how they make it, but every time I go in there, I want to take an empty mason jar and have them just fill it. I never have. I'm like, "I got to get this stuff home, I don't know what's in this stuff."

But in the last year or so, [things have changed]. So I ran the 100K on Saturday, and after I do a big event, I usually give myself a couple days of just eating like shit, because I burned 9,000 calories on this race or something like that and I’m starving. I had a burrito, and at first I was like, Oh man, burrito, so good. But then I immediately just felt like garbage.

I think as we get older, we develop—not so much allergies, but sensitivities to foods in ways that we didn't before. Either they affect our bodies differently or we're just old enough to feel that we don't feel great, if that makes sense. When you're young, you're just like, Fuck it, Cheetos! Funyuns? Who cares? Your body can just process anything. And then as you get older, your body starts to rebel against you a bit.

So [after that post-race burrito], I was like, "Nope, I'm done. I’ve got to get back [to eating healthy]. I don't like feeling like this." There are certain foods where the satisfaction that they give you going in do not outweigh how they make you feel when they're in you or—God forbid—when they're coming out of you. That was a good check in and reminder that I'm doing the right thing for my body. This is what works best for me.

That's great. So are there paleo meals specifically that you do look forward to now though?

My go-to that I could eat for the rest of my life is this: I go to the co-op and buy a bunch of broccoli and Brussels sprouts, potatoes, onions, carrots, whatever, any kind of combination of this kind of stuff, and get it all chopped up, put it in a bowl of olive oil, salt and pepper, and then throw it on a baking sheet with some dukkah. I make my own dukkah, which is a kind of Middle Eastern condiment of nuts and seeds and spices—it’s a flavor and texture bomb. So I'll put all these vegetables on a baking sheet, throw a bunch of dukkah all over it, roast it for a half hour at 400, and then either do some chicken thighs in a skillet on the stove, make a steak, or barbecue chicken or pork or something like that out on the grill. And that to me, strangely, is the meal that I crave the most when I'm away from home. Just after being gone this weekend down at the race, I was like, man, I cannot wait to just throw some vegetables in the fucking oven and roast them and make a salad.

It's so good. It's filling, but it's the good kind of filling. And yeah, I don't have that same feeling of just being weighed down or the GI issues that I had when I was eating a lot of wheat. I'm not one those people who's like, "Gluten is terrible. Bread's terrible." I'm not gluten intolerant, I don't have celiac, it's nothing like that. You just realize some things work better for you sometimes. There are days where I really miss eating pizza, but I don't miss how I felt after I ate it.

Totally. As someone who just ate half a pizza last night for dinner, I completely understand what you mean.

Yeah. It's so good going in and then you're like, "Oh my God, why did I do that?"

I've been struggling today for sure. Do you ever listen to music while you run or do you, for lack of a better term, raw dog them?

I do both. Oftentimes if I'm out by myself, usually I'll cue up a bunch of podcasts—a lot of just nerdy baseball podcasts or whatever. But music I sometimes find is hard. The short answer is yes, I do listen to music, but oftentimes—especially when I'm on training runs—music just marks time in too clear of a way. If a song is three minutes long or four minutes long and you know it, you know how much time you've been running. And when I'm out on the trail, more times than not, I don't like to be reminded of how long I've gone or how far I have to go.

Having said that, at the Gorge Waterfalls 100K this weekend, I was running with a friend of mine, and he was kind of struggling because he was under trained, so he was like, "Just go ahead.” [From that point] it was a 10-mile section of trail with no aid to a turnaround where I was picking up my friend, who was going to pace me for the last 13 miles.

In ultra running—often in races longer than 50 miles—you can have somebody hop in with you later in the race. And their job is basically to keep you company, keep you safe, make sure you're eating, make sure you don't go off course. And it's also just an opportunity to have somebody new to talk to. So I had this 10-mile section where I was like, "Man, I'm not over this, but I need something." I’ve got a long way to go with no stimulation outside of…obviously [the surroundings are] beautiful, but I've been out there at that point for nine hours—I get that it’s beautiful here.

So, I ended up listening to the Nas record Illmatic, which I love, and this Jeru the Damaja record called Wrath of the Math, which is one of my favorite records from the '90s. I mean, that record's genius. So I will definitely use music on races like a treat. Like: "Okay, when I get to mile 50, I get music." And then, even though it might contradict what I just said, getting that music as a reward made the miles tick down after that. I was like, “Oh man, fuck yeah!” when “New York State of Mind” came on. And then I was just playing songs on repeat, like, “Oh, I got to hear that again.” And then before I know it, I'm pulling into the parking lot.

I asked earlier about how running has affected your writing process, but how do you feel on stage now? Does performing feel different with your improved stamina and fitness?

Oh, 100%. I remember when we were touring on Plans, which was the last record that we toured when I was drinking, and we were playing an hour and a half [sets], and I wasn't smart enough to realize that the reason I was tired is I was drinking so much and I was out of shape. I wasn't in great cardiovascular shape. But I mean, to be honest, [getting fit has] made the shows just so easy. No matter how tired I am, no matter how jet-lagged I am, I have a reference point not that far in the distant past where I persevered through something way more difficult for way longer. It's like, dude, I just ran through the mountains for 28 hours straight. I can do a two-hour show.

Psychologically that's helpful because I know that I'm able to be on my feet moving with my heart rate elevated for a lot longer than the set time. When we were heading out on the first leg of this [Death Cab and Postal Service] tour in the fall, people were like, “How are you going to do that? You're going to be so exhausted.” I'm like, “Motherfucker, I run 50K on the weekends! I run 30 miles for fun!” Standing and playing music and moving around a little bit is not going to be hard. That's not going to be physically draining.

So playing two albums back-to-back isn’t much of a challenge for you at this point?

No, I don't want to be flippant about it. I want to catch myself here and not make it sound like I'm just patting myself in the back. I'm just saying that it's like, what do you think is more difficult? Running 100 miles through the mountains or playing for two hours on stage? Not even close.

The thing that's been interesting about doing these two albums back-to-back is really that when Death Cab's playing our own shows, and we're playing a little under two hours from start to finish, I'm creating a set list that has a particular arc to it. Doing these shows, we play Transatlanticism, which has some rocking moments, but it is mostly a pretty mid-tempo, down-tempo record. And then, when Postal Service comes out, the first two songs are the biggest songs that we have. So because we’re playing the albums in order, the first two songs are peak crowd energy, and the context switching between those two things was jarring at first. It wasn't exhausting, but it was like, “Oh man, normally when I'm an hour into a set, I'm kind of just getting my groove and we're maybe playing some slow songs, but now we're coming out with bangers immediately.”

Anyway, even though I'm saying it's not it's not super difficult for me given my level of fitness, I haven't allowed myself to get cocky with it. Everybody else is staying up [after performing] doing whatever they're doing—watching movies, having a glass of wine, whatever, late into the night. I'm not going out after the show with friends. I'm going to sleep, because I’ve got to get up and run, and then I have to play a show.

Are you refueling between sets at those shows, too? Are you eating anything?

No, no. I'll definitely make sure I'm staying hydrated, though—I’ll always have an electrolyte in my bottle, like a Nuun tablet or something, because you need the salts as much as you need the water.

But when I'm on tour, I definitely move into fourth meal territory. I eat a pretty small meal beforehand so that I'm not playing on a full stomach—but that means I'm starving after the show. Eating a meal at 11:00 PM isn't the greatest, but given the exertion, I think it's fine.

Both of the albums you’re performing on this tour are deeply personal and were written at a vastly different time in your life. How has it felt revisiting them every night for months on end given the stage of life you're in now?

It's not really that dissimilar from the headspace I find myself in during a regular Death Cab show, where we're playing new material from whatever new record just came out, but we're also playing, obviously, a lot more older stuff because that’s mostly the stuff that's getting people in the doors. So on a nightly basis, in order to perform the songs to the best of my ability, I have to just live back in the mind of that person who wrote that song.

I find that when I'm singing a song about a particular person or a scenario, for that three to five or however many minutes, I'm living in that space again—I'm time traveling a bit. And at this point in my life, any of these songs that might come off as kiss-offs or sad breakup songs or feel very emotionally wrought, I've long since dealt with my emotions around the subject matter. So it's not so much that I'm tortured by them—I'm not tortured by them. But it is kind of an interesting introspection to play a song you wrote when you were 25 or 26 and think, "Wow, I really felt that way at that time."

It’s not something that worries me. But it’s certainly a reminder of how much emotional growth I've experienced in my life—how my life has changed in some ways, and how it's stayed the same. The band and I have been writing a lot for whatever the next Death Cab record is going to be, whenever we're ready to make that. That pivot is going to be a little strange [heading into this next leg of the tour], going from very intense writing and forward motion, like, “These are the things that I'm thinking about at 47,” back into, “Here's two hours of me at 26.”

But at the same time, I recognize, as I said earlier, that music is a time machine and it brings people back. When people come to see us play these records, you get to interface with a younger version of yourself and reminisce about the people that were important to you. A time in your life where maybe you're a little more carefree, maybe you weren't. Maybe things were better, maybe they're worse.

And obviously this isn't a public service. We're doing it for money. But at the same time, as a music fan myself, I recognize why these kinds of shows are important to people, because I go to see some of my favorite bands do the same thing for the same reason.

Since you mentioned you listen to nerdy baseball podcasts while running, I just wanted to end by giving you an outlet to get off any Mariners takes you might have on your chest right now.

Oh my God, do we have enough time? I mean, everything that's happening right now [in early April] is pretty much what I had expected was going to happen. When you're a fan of a perennially failing franchise… and let's be honest, I love the Mariners. I've been a fan since I was five. But they are not a good franchise. They've never been. They literally have as many playoff appearances as ruptured testicles. Look it up. It's true.

I mean, this is not a storied franchise. They have no banners of any note. They've never even made it to a World Series, let alone won one. And there are these moments when you see guys like Jared Kelnick and Eugenio Suarez leaving the team and automatically learning how to hit. I've seen this movie so many times.

It's still too early to say they're not going to make the playoffs. It's a long season. But the team on the field is not instilling any confidence in anybody in Seattle. And there are a lot of factors as to why the team was constructed this way, which we don't necessarily have to go into. But the reality is this is not a good team. And they might make some adjustments throughout the season to get better there. It's always possible. They won at least 88 games the last four seasons, and that's really good.

But you're catching me at a pretty bruised period right now. The Mariners haven't won a fucking series yet. The season's been going for almost three weeks. They have not won a series. And I was watching the game yesterday when Julio got picked off. First off, you're supposed to have… sorry, I'm going to go off for a second. You asked about the Mariners, I can't fucking stop talking. But Julio is supposed to have the day off, a mental health day. And what do they do? They put him into pinch run in the ninth inning when they're down by two runs and he gets picked off first.

You're like, "Why is this guy in the game?" What are these choices you're making here? You gave him the day off so he can get a mental day off, and now you destroy his confidence even more by setting him up to fail.

I think I understand why you need the meditative state of ultramarathoning now.

Yeah. I mean, one of the great things about baseball is that it's every day, but one of the worst things about baseball is that it's every day. When the team's playing like shit, and you're like, "I'm going to watch at least some of this, but I'm going to go to bed angry."

Originally Appeared on GQ

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