There’s something about sitting down and talking with a person that has a genuine passion for fitness and nutrition that can inspire you to pursue (or continue to pursue) a healthy lifestyle. It became clear to me during our interview that Amy Eck is one of those individuals who incites that kind of determination in the people she meets. As the creator and Race Director of XTERRA Freedom Fest (an annual race event held on July Fourth weekend at Kualoa Ranch on the island of Oahu), Amy and her staff mix fun and physical exercise in a hugely successful effort to create lasting memories for event participants, and raise funds for both local and global charities. After all, the element of FUN is what Amy believes to be a driving force behind the pursuit of fitness goals.

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The first Freedom Fest took place in 2009 when Amy (a former Marine and U.S. Navy Port Engineer) and her husband, Erik (prior U.S. Navy active duty and current Reservist), were celebrating their wedding weekend by combining their love for each other, off-road racing, and their desire to encourage others to join them in life-enriching activities. They continued to grow the event annually, partnering with XTERRA in 2011. This July 5th and 6th, XTERRA Freedom Fest will be in its sixth year, and according to Amy, it has seen growth by 30 – 40% each year. In 2009, the triathlon portion of the two-day event had fourteen participants. Last year, the triathlon had 150 athletes competing.

Amy encourages Hawaii’s community to come out, participate, volunteer, or simply buy a ticket to the BBQ and experience the beauty of Kualoa Ranch while helping this year’s selected charities: Wounded Warrior Project, AccesSURF, and a Clean Water Purification program. Among the scheduled race activities which include the Triathlon, a Kids Fun Run (both days), and a 5k & 10k Trail Run & Adventure Walk – just to name a few – there will also be LIVE music, BBQing, and arts and craft activities for the keiki. Let’s just say that Amy’s got the enjoyment factor covered for you!

Hawaii VA Loans is honored to have Amy Eck as our July 2014 Hawaii VA Loans Ambassador. The drive and exuberance she demonstrates working as the director of her non-profit organization, Camp Bennett, which promotes fitness, nutrition, and community through classes and training programs, and organizing the Freedom Fest each year is exactly the kind of helping spirit that our company values. Read more about how Amy went from being a young girl who enjoyed multiple sports to a fitness leader here in Hawaii.

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What is your military experience/background?

I went to the Merchant Marine Academy where I got a commission out of the Academy. Then I went to Officer Training School for the Marine Corps. I was selected for Public Affairs and did a tour at Marine Corps Base Hawaii and loved it. I got out and went back and worked at Pearl Harbor as Port Engineer using my Merchant Marine license. I was in charge of the USS Lake Erie, a guided missile cruiser. Then we decided to start a family. We had our son, Bennett, and hopefully once he gets a little bigger, I’ll go back.

Have you always had a mission toward physical fitness and challenges? When and/or how did that pursuit develop for you personally?

My whole life I’ve been into physical fitness. I ran from the time I was a little kid. In high school, I ran cross country and track. I was a cheerleader, and I wrestled in high school and college. When I was at the Merchant Marine Academy, I got to be the Regimental Athletic Director my senior year. I was in charge of all the fitness for Midshipmen and we ran the Plebe Indoctrination. I really loved that. Here in Hawaii, I had some people ask me if I would teach a boot camp program, then they all wanted to do triathlon, so I went and got certified as a USA Triathlon Coach. Now I’m a Level 2 Endurance Coach, so I focus on a lot of Ironman distance racing and long mountain bike and running racing.

When did the idea to create your fitness company, Camp Bennett, develop?

There was a mountain bike race out at Kualoa Ranch and someone was teasing that we were all camped out together and said, “Look, Camp Bennett’s up there!” Bennett is my maiden name, and we were like, Camp Bennett…that’s a great idea! We opened the company and recently, we changed to a nonprofit. We focus on teaching people about fitness and nutrition at every age. My husband and I went to Nutrition Response Testing school which is an applied kinesiology, holistic nutrition. What’s great is that as an engineer, I’m looking at the chemical makeup in the body. I’m looking at the fuel going in and the power and the work that the body is performing. It’s really looking at the whole aspect of fitness.

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I’ve been to your website, and you offer so many programs. What is especially motivating to you about providing these opportunities for others?

I’ve had a lot of people invest in me and make me a better person. I see how one person can just do a little bit and is able to make a difference. Anything that I can do to help others – that’s huge. My favorite life mantra is “do not withhold good from others when it’s within your power to act.” I always think about that if I have the knowledge, and I have the strength, and the time and the ability, why not go out and just really make a difference? So with the online training, a lot of times people sign up for a big race and they need someone who can guide them through each step. They may be a mother, they may be someone who works in an office, and it’s nice to get an email that says, okay today, you need to do a 5k tempo run or a weight workout. They can also call me and say that work ran late and I can adjust the rest of their schedule. It’s one less thing they have to think about.

In 2009, you started the first XTERRA Freedom Fest. Explain more about how the event originated.

I met my wonderful husband, Erik, and we hit it off. We got engaged in March 2009. We were talking about a wedding, and some people had asked us to put on some races. We thought, well, if we’re going to have to plan an event, why don’t we do it all together at Kualoa Ranch? That’s how Freedom Fest started – it was wedding weekend. We did all the races and we actually got married at the end of the race. We had American Red Cross and LUNGevity come and say they wanted to do something. We thought why not put a race together that highlights all these fun things we like to do and raise money for local charities. We’ve been able to support a different group each year which is really exciting for us.

What’s your focus this year as far as charities you’re helping?

The focus this year is water – and local wounded warriors being able to get in the water. We’re going to donate money to Wounded Warrior Project, to AccesSurf, to the Stand Up Paddle Association of Hawaii, and to a Wounded Warrior rowing regatta. For our honeymoon five years ago, we rode our bikes across Peru and we worked in orphanages. There was one orphanage that was 300 miles into our ride and they had no water. They had a river that went through but it was very polluted. As engineers, it has been our minds and we really want to create a water program for them, so we’re going to raise money for that this year and we’re going to try to build a water purification program for them. These kids are fabulous. They’ve been on my heart. They’re not open for adoption or all 80 of them would be at my house!

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How have you seen the initial goals for XTERRA Freedom Fest progress over the last six years?

Every year, we’re growing by 30-40%. The community is really getting involved, too. For example, local bike shops are trail marking, providing product and tech support. Kailua Mini Storage is helping us move the product out there to the ranch. Aqua Engineers is funding every shirt for each volunteer and their barbecue for that day. So what’s really cool is to see that people are helping me not only raise more money for charity, but taking care of my staff and volunteers. It’s really cool to see the community wrapping themselves around it.

What do you love about running this event each year? What do you take away from it?

We love the race because if you can’t do a 5k or a 10k or you don’t have kids to do the Fun Run, you can come out and volunteer. We have musicians who play both days, all day for free. I met a couple who did the mountain bike race and they made a YouTube video of it, and they sent it to me – they had a blast and they were all smiles. There’s the volunteers who do it out of labor of love and the goodness of their heart. We have people signed up from the ages four to 80.

What advice can you give someone who would like to begin a physical challenge or goal, but may be hesitant to begin?

One of the things I would remember is to give yourself time. Say, “I’m going to make this commitment for eight weeks. This is not a two or three week thing, I’m going to dedicate eight weeks and be committed to it.” Physical challenges take time and you have to have realistic goals. The other thing is don’t try to do too much, too fast, and too soon. You burn yourself out and you get injured. I tell people never run farther than you can walk. One of the good ways to first build up is to walk. Do a lot of good walking and build up your feet. At the end of the day, you have to have strong feet to run. Then, work on your core, too. Form typically falls apart because the core isn’t strong enough to hold your body up anymore. So lunges, squats, anything like that. Start out small, and once you master that, you can go a little longer.

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What are some personal highlights of yours in athletic achievement?

I had my son naturally at the house in a birthing tub! That was good! I would say, I got to do the Leadville 100 mountain bike race across Colorado. That’s 13,000 feet of climbing at 13,000 feet elevation and I had a broken wrist and my hand was in a cast. That was a pretty amazing event. Another big highlight is that I won the Double one year, and that’s the fastest combined time for the Ironman World Championships and the XTERRA World Championships. It was my first time racing as Amy Eck and not Amy Bennett, and with the wedding and honeymoon, I hadn’t really trained too much, but I was just having fun. That’s the other advice for exercise, always have fun. You have to make sure you’re having fun. When you’re doing things for fun, it’s contagious, and that’s my theme with everything, especially with Freedom Fest.

Describe your perfect day in Hawaii.

I really love to wake up early and be down at the beach with the little guy around 6am, having a coffee and walking the beach with him. That’s pretty much the best way to start the day. Then if I could have a big, yummy breakfast. I’m a big omelette fan, so it would probably be fish and eggs. I would drive out to the North Shore and mountain bike at Peacock Flats. Then I would do a fun little run. After that, I’d hop in the water for a little recovery swim. Then I’d go eat a tasty treat with my friends, head back to Kailua, grab my husband and Bennett and go down to the beach for a stand-up session. Afterwards, I’d get a drink and salad bar a Buzz’s. That would pretty much be my perfect day.

What other advice do you have for our readers about working towards a healthy lifestyle?

Find something that’s fun that fits in your schedule and make it a habit. The other thing I’m really big on is journaling. Write down three things you’re thankful for the day, three goals for the day, and a daily affirmation or mantra. The five minute journal is a really good one. Reinforce positive and direction in your life. Make manageable goals. You may want to get ten things done in one day, but focus on three, and make exercise and nutrition part of your lifestyle.

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Mahalo to Amy Eck for taking the time to share her experiences and knowledge with us! It was a pleasure to meet both her husband, Erik, and her adorable, active son, Bennett. The Eck family is a wonderful example of getting out and playing in Hawaii!

For more information on registering or attending XTERRA Freedom Fest Hawaii THIS weekend, July 5th and 6th, 2014 at Kualoa Ranch, visit their website and the XTERRA Freedom Fest Hawaii Facebook page for further details on the schedule of events.

PC: Keao Sunaoka