By Henry Howard
When Eric Hamm was in the Marine Corps he was a runner. He just didn’t realize it at the time.
“Running was the main source of physical training in the Corps,” says Hamm, who left the service after five years in 2009. “We ran every day in boot camp and almost every workday in the fleet Marine force. I really enjoyed the cadence, it’s very helpful with controlling breathing.”
Hills. Circuit training. With — and without heavy equipment — on. Sometimes three miles. Other days up to nine miles. Running was routine for Hamm. But after returning to the civilian world, life took over and running was set aside.
Semper fi — Marine loses 100 pounds, finishes MCM
“I went from a very active lifestyle to an extremely inactive one,” he says, noting that both he and his wife, Keelie, were in college full time and working full time. “I spent long hours studying and sitting. In my free time I just watched TV to get a mental break. With two young kids, we were very busy. I didn’t have much time for hobbies or ‘me’ time. It was work, school and kids.”
Hamm admits he was never really one to eat vegetables. Without the daily physical activity, his weight ballooned — gaining 100 pounds to 350 pounds — within six months after leaving the Corps. He and his wife finished school and continued to raise their family.
Then reality set in.
“In July 2016, I went to get my yearly checkup and do the blood work and stuff to get my health insurance set up for the new year,” Hamm recalls. “I got the results back, and they weren’t good. High cholesterol, high blood pressure, liver tests were bad, etc. I mean every measurable they tested me on was bad. Not to mention I was diagnosed with severe obstructive sleep apnea in 2015.”
Then the doctor told Hamm he was pre-diabetic, which really hit home.
“Diabetes runs on both sides of my family so the likelihood of me getting it was extremely high,” he says. “I watched the disease just destroy my grandmother when I was a kid and I started thinking about what that would mean for my kids. Literally the next week, I started running. August 2016. I decided to start running because of my time in the Marines, I never really enjoyed running but it was something I knew how to do.”
Veterans look back at their time in basic training or boot camp with memories — some inspirational, some upsetting, some humorous. As Hamm begin his running journey, he looked back on the greatest lesson he learned in boot camp.
“My senior drill instructor, Staff Sgt. Zetina, told me that ‘Your mind quits before your body does. The human body can take an ass kicking and keep pushing. So if you quit, it’s because you gave up not because your body failed,’” Hamm remembers. “Throughout my time in the Corps and to this day that lesson drives me and inspires me. Combine that with Phil 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Even though those first miles were extremely difficult, Hamm did not quit. His first attempt was barely a quarter-mile. But he kept at it, running five days a week.
“Within two weeks I was running three miles, then not long after six miles,” Hamm says. “I ran all that winter, without missing a training day, regardless of weather or temperature.”
Then came another significant change.
“I changed my diet at this time too,” Hamm says. “I stopped drinking soda, mostly consuming water, minimal carbs and actually started eating veggies! I know! I still don’t really like them but hey you gotta do it.”
He quickly dropped 50 pounds, and has since dropped another 50. When a co-worker commented about Hamm’s running, he was — literally — off to the races.
“A guy from work made a sarcastic comment about my running, just joking around, and told me that he didn’t think that I could ever run a marathon,” he says. “Well, don’t tell me I can’t do something! I decided that if I was going to run a marathon, I would run the Marine Corps Marathon for the obvious reason. I love the Marines! I signed up for the race, got accepted to run it and bought a training plan book and off I went.”
Hamm ran his first organized race — the Parkinson’s 5K in Tulsa — in January 2017 and followed that up with a couple of other 5Ks before toeing the line at the Marine Corps Marathon on Oct. 22, 2017.
Coaching accountability and community stabilityBut to get to the start line, Hamm needed more. He needed a coach. He needed a community. He needed Marathon Training Academy and MTA coach Jennifer O’Donnell-Giles.
“Jennifer was great,” he says. “I decided to use MTA because I just wasn’t getting the results I wanted from the book training plan I had. Plus I need the accountability of knowing that someone was looking at my times and my workouts. Just knowing that she would see if I cut a run short or if I didn’t give the intervals my best effort made me want to push harder and complete the training.”
Like many who run fall marathons Hamm faced the challenge of training during the heat of the summer.
“MTA was especially helpful in the summer,” he says. “It’s hard to train in the summer. It gets hot, I was six months into the training cycle, the distances were getting longer and there were days I wanted to quit. But having the coach there to call me out if I skipped a day or at least the thought that she might was enough to keep me going. She helped me get my race nutrition in order and helped me with my overall diet.”
O’Donnell-Giles was a good fit for Hamm. She has been coaching for 20 years and also is a registered dietician. Her expertise coupled nicely with the inspiration Hamm received from the MTA community.
“The MTA community is soooooo vital to the program,” he raves. “Being able to bounce ideas off each other and get advice on gear and workouts and whatever else is awesome. It’s also great to be able to login on to the Facebook page and read everyone else’s posts and see their runs and pictures is motivating. For me it was kind of competitive.”
A ‘humbling’ experience
The Hamms turned the Marine Corps Marathon into a family vacation in Washington, D.C.
“The MCM is an amazing event!” he says. “It was easy to navigate all the activities and events before the race, very well organized. The Marines were super helpful to my wife as her and the kids tried to navigate the course while I was running. Amazingly she didn’t get lost once. That’s impressive if you know my wife. She gets lost in our little hillbilly town in Oklahoma.”
One of the notable trademarks of the MCM is the “blue mile” — where Marines hold photos of fallen service members and flags.
“It was humbling,” Hamm says. “It was also good just to be around Marines again. It had been several years since I was with Marines, and there’s just something about it. The way they talk, interact and carry themselves. Made me feel like I was a sergeant again with my team. Call me crazy.”
Hamm says the course was beautiful and other runners were supportive. He rode the struggle bus the last three miles of the race when knee pain forced him into a slow jog/death march.
“Every time one of them passed me they had something positive to say and motivated me,” he says of the final few miles of the race. “The finish was a struggle but sooooooo satisfying. The others runners were so encouraging. I can honestly say that I didn’t walk for one second of my marathon, even with the pain and limping I gave it all I had to finish.”
After an active-duty Marine presented Hamm with his medal, he sought out his family.
“I was in such a daze; I just wanted to find my family in the sea of humanity,” he says. “I wanted my children to see my transformation, and to see the finished work, the reason for the hours spent training, to see that if they worked hard enough they could do anything. I hope that this first marathon experience will be a life lesson that my kids can look back on and gain some motivation when they have struggles in their lives, when they want to quit. That alone would make it worth it.”
Looking ahead, Hamm is planning on running the Oklahoma Memorial Marathon in April and the Route 66 Marathon in November. Afterward, he says — at least for now — he’s done with marathons.
“But I would like to run a race of some kind in every state,” he says. “I’m leaning on running at least a half marathon in every state. Honestly I just need to have some kind of goal to shoot for to motivate me to want to keep running. If I keep running, I’m confident I will keep my health in order and be around long enough to run with my grandkids some day! So if I get the run in all 50 states completed, I’ll just have to come up with a new goal to drive me!”
Hometown: born in Hanover, Pa., but I claim Owasso, Okla., as my hometown because that’s where I grew up (since age 5), graduated high school, and met and married my wife. (We started dating freshman year of high school, got married at 19.)
Number of years running: I guess less than two if you don’t count the Marines.
How many miles a week do you typically run: 20-25
Point of pride: Graduating college!!!! Soo many people, rightfully so, thought that would never happen.
Favorite race distance: 13.1 miles
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Ucan
Favorite piece of gear: Bluetooth headphones, I hate cords!!!!
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Victory by Sleeping Giant
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Your brain quits before your body does.
Where can other runners connect or follow you: Well, I’m not that cool or interesting but if people want to see what I’m up to I guess:
• facebook.com, okstmarine
• Twitter, @okstmarine
• Snapchat, @okstmarine
• LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/theerichamm