Rockers who run
For a couple generations the iconic image of the rock musician has been defined by the Keith Richards’ emaciated look--hunched over a guitar, cigarette dangling, a bottle of Wild Turkey not far away.
But several Cincinnati musicians have for years blown that slacker rock image away by taking it to the streets, getting as much rush from running marathons as they do from thunderous guitar licks and power pop hooks.
When the gun goes off Sunday morning (May 4) for the start of the tenth annual Flying Pig Marathon, there will be at least three runners better known in the community for their music. These rockers “born to run” remind us the healthy body- healthy mind mantra can pay off when applied to the creative effort of making music.
“I was running before I was rock ‘n’ rolling,” says Swarthy who fronts his power pop outfit The Swarthy Band.
Swarthy ran cross country at Forest Park High School and later at Wright State University (Real name, Brian Love. He uses the stage name to avoid confusion with veteran Cincinnati musician Brian Lovely, who also has run marathons).
Swarthy, 35, is the running star of the local rockers. He is ranked 14th in his 35-39 age group among area marathoners by the Running Spotlight, which tracks the local scene. He has run 11 marathons, including Boston and seven Flying Pigs. By seconds, Swarthy broke the four-hour barrier, his personal best, at the 2005 Pig.
“Oddly, I did it after The Swarthy Band played three shows in Chicago--Thursday Friday, Saturday. I came home and did the marathon Sunday,” Swarthy says. “I remember just sitting in the back of my friend’s Chevy Blazer with my feet elevated getting ready for the next show--the 26.2 mile one.”
The dean of the running/musician community is guitarist-singer-songwriter Rob Fetters (Raisins, psychodots, Bears), who has done over 40 marathons, including Boston, New York, Chicago and eight Flying Pigs. He will be doing the Pig again this year.
"I started running when I was 18,” Fetters says. “I was dating a ballerina. She thought I felt pretty soft. She suggested I try to run.”
Fetters says he stuck with it over the years finding it a good counter point to that Keith Richards’ rocker reputation. “Running was sort of the opposite of the unhealthy rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. For me it balanced things out a bit.”
Fetters spent much of the ‘80s and early ‘90s on the road with his bands. He found running was the perfect antidote for the road-weary musician.
“The complaint of being on the road is you’re just in a place for a day and you don’t really see it,” Fetters says. “When you run, you see pretty vast quantities of a town. It’s fun to just shoot out from whatever hotel you are staying at and run four miles out and four miles back.”
All the rockers who run will tell you the benefits of the sport for their musicianship and creativity.
“There no question it’s a way to clear the mind, and become body. Ideas just seem to come when your brain gets out of the way,” says guitarist/producer Brian Lovely (Faux Frenchmen) who has twice run the Chicago marathon. “Between the endorphins, the exhaustion and the mind clearing, you can definitely find some mental elbow room to create.”
“There is a lot of evidence for singers that the better shape you are in the stronger your vocal chords are going to be. For me that’s intuitive,” says Ryan Adcock, the singer-songwriter who has run the Flying Pig seven times and will do it again this year.
“When I sing Johnny Cash’s ‘Folsom Prison Blues,’ I hold this note real long. When I started training for a marathon that note just got longer and longer. I could keep it going forever,” says Jake Speed, the area’s folk/rock troubadour.
Speed has run the Flying Pig and also done triathlons. He has to sit out the Pig this year because of a knee injury.
Swarthy is known for his frenetic on-stage show. “People go, ‘Gosh, you are so energetic. How can you keep that up for so long?’ When you’ve done marathons, what’s 90 minutes sweating it out on stage?”
Speed has brought his on-stage showmanship to running. He once dressed up in an inflatable turkey outfit to run the Thanksgiving 10K Turkey Trot.
“It was inflated the whole time. Actually, it was a like sail when I hit the bridges,” Speed remembers. “In the home stretch a guy just started sprinting by me saying, ‘I’m not getting beat by a dude in a turkey suit.’ I’m glad I was an inspiration to someone.”
“It’s helpful to the songwriting,” says Swarthy. “When I go out and run that’s the time I spend always going through lyrics and melodies.”
Adcock says he listens to new CDs while running; Speed says he still writes songs while in the shower, while Fetters just laughs, “I work out a lot of issues running--songs and otherwise.”
While the slacker image may be more perception that reality for most serious working musicians, the rock world has had its well-documented casualties, from Jimi Hendrix to Kurt Cobain. In fact, a British study reported last year that music artists are more than twice as likely to die young than the general population. It charted the lives of American and European artists between 1965 and 2005 and also found a quarter of all the musicians’ deaths were due to substance abuse.
But most working musicians would agree with Adcock who says, “If you are going to be creative you have to put yourself in the best environment you can, and physical health is part of that.”
As for the Flying Pig all the runners praise its organization and the enthusiasm of the crowds that turn out. Swarthy has own rock star fantasies with the roar of the crowd at the starting line, saying, “When that gun goes off and all those people start screaming, it’s like the Beatles getting off the airplane.”
Fetters thinks the Pig is more challenging than the Boston Marathon. “When I got to the top of Heartbreak Hill (in Boston), I remember saying, ‘Is that it?’ You go up Reading and Gilbert, those are some real climbs.”
But Fetter’s favorite marathon has a slight rock angle. He has twice run the Labor Day race in Tupelo, Miss., Elvis Presley’s hometown. “Sure, every now and then Elvis runs. You run with the king,” Fetters laughs. But it’s the edgy, dark humor of the event that he likes.
“It’s muggy, hot as hell and a blast. It has the best t-shirt. It’s a big scary skull and crossbones with the caption, ‘Trample the weak, Hurdle the dead.’ Now, that’s a marathon.”
Photography by Scott Beseler
Brian Swarthy photos 1-3
Jake Speed photos 4-5