Runners I Know: Eric Nusbaum
Starting out, not quitting, and the mysteriously addictive psychedelic side of running
I’ve never met Eric Nusbaum, yet I’ve known him most of my internet life. We first became acquainted when he edited a piece I wrote about Peter Gent’s apocalyptic football novel, North Dallas Forty for The Classical; one of many in a long line of late, lamented websites from the early 2000s. (I’m happy to say I still have the chip clip.)
I appreciated Eric’s deft editing touch during that process, and we became friends in the way that two people who have never met and live on opposite coasts can become friends. It’s funny. Despite both of us working in sports for the last decade, we somehow never managed to work together again after that initial experience.
Eric is a fantastic writer, as well. His book, Stealing Home, is about the battle to build Dodger Stadium and the people whose lives were upended to make room for the ballpark. He’s also the co-creator of Sports Stories, which I highly recommend.
I was delighted when Eric got into running during the early days of the pandemic, but when I asked him if he'd be interested in sharing his experiences for Runners I Know, he demurred saying, “I don't really know if I feel fully comfortable identifying as a ‘runner’ yet.”
When I reminded him of the First Law of Running Probably -- if you run, you’re a runner -- Eric said he was game, and I’m happy he did.
Running Probably: How did you start running?
Eric Nusbaum: I always played sports so running was a part of my life. But it was in a kind of secondary way. I never liked it. In high school baseball I was the slowest guy. I had asthma, I was miserable running. I ran cross country one year to train for baseball, but I half assed it. My head and heart were not in it, and I stayed slow. To this day I’m slow.
There have been different parts in my adult life when I jogged for exercise. But it was during the pandemic -- early in the pandemic -- that was the first time when I was like, you know, this is the thing that I like and I’m going to keep doing it.
RP: What prompted you to start during the pandemic?
EN: I was feeling crappy and the gym was closed.
RP: Good answer. What about it clicked for you?
EN: I’m not sure. Maybe it was the time and place in my life. I’ve had moments where I would run for a couple months and think it was alright, but it would never last.
Part of it, this is going to sound selfish or something, but we were all stuck at home together. We have two young kids, my wife and I were both working from home, and running was a place of solitude for me. That was the time when I needed it.
RP: I can absolutely relate to that. It’s a weird thing where you’re being selfishly unselfish in a way because you’re taking care of yourself, but you’re also disappearing.
EN: Totally. There were times in the pandemic where I felt like I was truly just taking care of myself because I know that if I go for a run I’m leaving my wife holding the bag.
She understands, and I think she appreciates, that I try to run at times that make sense to run, and are not inconvenient to my family. Especially this year when we haven’t had a lot of routine going.
That way I feel better about it, so I can go into the run with a better attitude and not, oh no, I have to get back in 25 minutes.
RP: What’s your routine like?
EN: Truly, honestly, I just try to make sure that I do it three times a week. Just that has been kind of a revelation for me. Not quitting is the real ethos of my routine. I’ve gone through phases where I'll try doing programs. I was doing a half marathon program -- the Hal Higdon thing -- and I got pretty close to the end of it, but I got some pretty gnarly plantar fasciitis. So I stopped for a couple of weeks. I haven’t got back to that (level) yet.
The main thing is just to not stop running and not be hard on myself when it doesn’t go smoothly or it’s not linear in the way that I want it to be.
RP: It’s really interesting to talk with you because I hear a lot of how I sounded when I started getting the bug. There’s a lot to be said for just doing it, staying with it, as trite as that might sound.
EN: Yeah, I think it becomes a question of who you’re doing it for. I got to a point in my life where, if this is going to be the next thing that I do, it’s going to be a thing that I do for myself.
There’s something liberating in that. Whether it’s running or writing or whatever it is, taking that attitude has helped me pursue the things I want to pursue without feeling as if I have to conform to somebody else’ standards.
RP: That’s super powerful. What is your motivation now, has it changed?
EN: Part of it has always been to be in shape and feel good physically. I’m about to turn 35, I’ve got two young kids, I work a lot sitting down, I need to take care of myself. I’ve also had a fair amount of back problems, probably because I’m tall and sat at a desk a lot in my career.
Part of it is that I just started to like doing it. Exercise in general, but running in particular lately, when I do it, I feel better. Physically and mentally.
RP: I’m curious about the mental piece for you. As a writer, do you find running helpful in your work process?
EN: It’s totally hopeful. And I think things are helpful in a way we can’t always see at the time. Running is helpful because I feel better, and when I feel better, I write better. I’m not somebody who succeeds when they feel miserable. I know that about myself.
I need to be in a routine where I’m working frequently and with purpose to write my best stuff and do my best thinking. Running and exercise in general have become a part of that. I don't think that's a crazy breakthrough, a lot of people will tell you that their physical and mental wellbeing are intertwined.
RP: Do you identify yourself as a runner when people ask you about it?
EN: Nobody asks me about it. (Laughs) So I guess I don’t give off the vibe. I won’t say that I identify as a runner, but I identify running as a part of my life. I’d definitely put it that way. If you asked me five words to describe yourself, I don’t think runner would be on the list.
RP: Have you found that running has had an affect on your lifestyle, aside from the physical act of running?
EN: Yeah, it definitely has. It makes me healthier. I feel better so I can do more stuff. I was always pretty conscious about how I eat. I started running far enough distances so that you can really tell if you eat badly the day before a run how it’s going to affect you, or if you drink. I can feel it when I run. Staying hydrated, all these things.
I plan my day around it now. You think about your work schedule to find a time to do it. I just dropped off my kids to spend the night with their grandparents and I know I’m going to have some extra time tomorrow. I’m going to do a long run in the morning because I have that time.
I work backward planning my week. I went for a three mile yesterday knowing that on Wednesday I’m doing a longer run.
RP: So you’re starting to map it out ahead of time?
EN: In a very fly by night way, yeah, a little bit.
RP: Eric, I have to tell you, you’re thinking like a runner now. So, where do you run?
EN: I run from my house. I live in Tacoma, Washington. It’s a really nice place to run. There’s a lot of hills, a lot of water views everywhere. I can run half a mile and I can be along a waterfront path. If I run an out-and-back it’s about 7-8 miles. At the end of it there's a gnarly hill.
RP: What about running has surprised you, since you got back into it?
EN: I would say the addictive part of it surprised me. I didn’t think I would want to keep doing it beyond knowing I should do it, because it’s healthy.
I wouldn’t call it a runners high, but the Zen nature of it, getting into that place where you start losing track of time and space. In a good way. I like getting into that space and running has the power to get you there. Especially on longer runs. The psychedelic aspect of running has been a pleasant surprise.
RP: Yeah, flow state stuff. I went through a phase where if I didn’t get that kind of charge from it, I’d be frustrated and disappointed. Have you found that at all?
EN: I haven’t got there yet. I can imagine that trying to get to that place makes it harder to get to that place. When you think too much, it doesn’t work.
RP: Right, the whole point is not thinking, and then you’re thinking about not thinking, and then you’re just thinking too much. What are your goals? Are you interested in races?
EN: My goal is really to keep doing it and getting better. I feel like I’m not physically where I want to be yet. I don't like going out for a run and having sore, tired, heavy legs, which I do all the time. I'd like for that not to happen, but maybe it always does.
I'd like to run faster and further. I haven’t signed up for any races. I’ve thought about it, but I’m a little worried that it will take away the magic of it.
RP: It could. I really think those are two different phases. It can get kind of weird if you get too caught up in your racing goals. Let me ask it this way: Why do you run?
EN: It keeps me sane. The mental aspect of it is probably the most important thing. I’m being redundant, but the fact that it’s physical makes it so valuable mentally. The therapeutic vibe of it, I don’t know, I just like it. Wow, I’m finding myself not very eloquent right now.
RP: Not at all. I think you’re getting at something important. Safe to assume the solitary nature of running has an appeal?
EN: I like being alone. I am a solitary person. I like people too. I'm not a loner. But I need that balance in my life. Running, really, for the last year-plus has been the number one place where I have that alone retreat time. That’s powerful.