How do you spell “winner?” As of Sunday, August 19th, I spell “winner” E-R-I-C S-T-R-A-N-D!
Yes, folks, he did it. 101.8 miles in 29 hours, 14 minutes and 28 seconds. 1,100 runners entered, 802 began and only 358 actually finished. Eric Strand was one of those 358 elite ultramarathoners who hung on, running the distance and winning the coveted “Buckle” at the 2012 Leadville 100.
Town & Country’s “Marathon Man” ran the Leadville 100 on his 52nd birthday- Saturday, August 18th. He began in darkness on Saturday morning at 4am, ran all day Saturday, continuing into Saturday night until it turned into Sunday morning. He finally crossed the finish line at 10:14am on Sunday the 19th. What brought Eric to this day- was he channeling Forest Gump? Why did he have a burning desire to show the world that he could run, nonstop, for almost 30 hours?
The desire to run the Leadville 100 had been gnawing at Eric for some time. He had been running marathons since he was 39 years old. He’s participated in numerous Boston and Chicago marathons, Grandma’s Marathon- he even ran the treacherous Pikes Peak Marathon twice! He thought that this particular race would push him further than he ever thought possible on his own. Eric’s mantra became: “You can do more than you think you can, you are better than you think you are.”
The day before the big race, Eric admitted to feeling a little helpless. The training was over; he was giving his body a much-needed rest and eating whatever he felt like. Friends and family were flying in from near and far to be a part of the event. Cousin Susan Vickerman and her running buddy Todd Rowe; next-door neighbors and BFF’s the Turpins; wife Tami, son Collin; and marathoner Kerri Simafranca made up “Team Leadfeet.” Who knew it took so many people to ensure that one guy crosses the finish line?
The morning of the Leadville 100 was clear and cool. Oh, it was also a new moon as well. Unfortunately, that meant no moonlight- the evening sky enveloped the runners in complete darkness. At 4am, equipped with a headlamp, iPod, water, food and flashlight, Eric headed off into the sunrise. For 50 miles he had to creep, shuffle, walk and run alone. The big difference about Leadville is this: most other marathons find you running with herds of athletes. There’s a real sense of camaraderie as there is almost always someone to talk to, joke with, trade strategy with and so on. In Leadville, it’s you. You might see an occasional runner pass you. Another might be sitting on a boulder for a break. Another might actually be breaking down (physically and/or psychologically) in front of you. The “I’m unable to move- I can’t do it- send a gurney” kind of breaking down. That was immensely disheartening and a little humbling for Eric to see.
I wondered if there was a point at which most runners fail: in fact, there is. Eric said that most runners give up at the 38 or 62-mile marker. The 38-mile marker is Hope Pass. It’s an excruciating climb- in the back of your mind you know you have to come back and do it again. If you’re struggling the first time up the pass, your surely won’t make it the second time. At 62 miles is Twin Lakes. You have to wade through freezing water, continue with wet shoes, knowing that it’s there for you to repeat over again. But, if you make it past Twin Lakes, you’re ALMOST home free. Eric DID make it past Twin Lakes. At that point, he was 99% sure he would finish.
At mile 50, you get your “pacers.” Who are these “pacers” and what exactly is their job? Well, I can tell you one thing: without the pacers, these marathoners would be up a creek without a paddle. The pacers have many jobs: they need to be firm and insistent when the runner doesn’t want to eat, drink or listen to reason. They need to make sure the runner has water every 15 minutes and food every 30 minutes. Their job is referred to as “Muleing” because they carry provisions that the runner might need. They lighten the runners’ load, keep the runner focused and on course, making sure they’re fed and drinking adequate fluids. Todd, cousin Susan’s running buddy was Eric’s first pacer. Todd was the only ultramarathoner of the group. Joining Eric, after Todd, was Dan Turpin. Dan became Eric’s “mule” at 10:30pm on Saturday night for the longest leg of the marathon, the climb out of Twin Lakes. Like Hansel, who dropped breadcrumbs for Gretel in the famous nursery tale, Dan dropped breadcrumbs for Eric. Little by little, bit-by-bit they forged ahead. Eric knew that Dan, being an engineer and BFF was the best choice for this long stretch of tough terrain.
Dan traded his pacer job to Eric’s cousin Susan. It was still dark and only 20 degrees when they left the Fish Hatchery, climbing to Sugarloaf Pass on Sunday morning. Susan led the way and Eric followed her, kind of like a puppy dog. The pacer is also supposed to see that the runner doesn’t get lost. Eric had fun telling Susan that she got him lost at least 3 times- she really didn’t get him lost, Eric’s state of mind wasn’t working at 100% capacity. The low levels of oxygen were messing with him, big time- in fact, Eric has virtually no memory of the run from mile 70 to mile 90.
The final pacer was Kerri. Eric had never run with Kerri before, but she was the one who got him through the rolling, rocky trails around Turquoise Lake to the finish line. In fact, Eric, his pacers and love of his life, Tami, all crossed the finish line together. Son Collin was waiting on the other side with a video camera. Click here to view the video Eric created, chronicling his 101.08 mile trek in Leadville.
Eric will tell you that Tami had the most important job before, during and after the race. Eric says that she’s a “logistical wizard” who never got lost- some of the trails aren’t even on the map! She was always one step ahead at each aid station, making sure Eric got everything he needed, even if it meant putting his shoes and socks on for him.
So, Eric came, he gave it his all, and he conquered the Leadville 100. He finished with time to spare, earning him the envied Leadville “Buckle.” He ate and drank when he was supposed to, proven by the fact that he didn’t lose any weight during the race. He started out at 183 pounds. He was weighed midway and weighed 182.8 pounds. He finished at 182.2 pounds. In addition to the “Buckle,” Eric developed 6 black toes and a feeling of fatigue and achiness he thought impossible. All of them pale in comparison to finishing at Leadville.
After the race, Eric returned to Breckenridge but found sleep elusive: all he could manage was a 45-minute catnap. The entire group had a celebratory dinner in Breckenridge at The Hearthstone. Eric describes the Elk with blackberry glaze one of the best meals he ever had- oh, and a few bottles of good wine made it even better! After a full nights sleep on Sunday, come Monday, it was back to St. Louis and Tuesday it was back to work.
So, what lies ahead for Eric? In October, it’s a trip to Italy- he’ll be surrounded by three exceptional women: Tami, his ever-lovin’ wife, his Mom Corrine, and his Mom’s sister, Fay. There will be lots of sightseeing, but “in typical Eric Strand fashion,” he sneaked a marathon into the trip. Who goes to Italy just to sightsee!
If another Leadville 100 is in Eric’s future, he isn’t reveling it just yet. After every marathon, a specific amount of time must pass before he makes the decision to run again. All I know is, if he runs again, I sure want to be a part of it- it was one of highlight of my year! I have no doubt that I speak for everyone involved: the pacers, Eric’s friends and family, his co-workers and the folks at St. Lukes “Life & Hope” Fund. What began in early March as a commitment to help Eric realize a major life event, became a real force of its own- something each of us involved wanted to see come to fruition. We fundraised for such a worthy cause and something so dear to my heart: cancer patients at St. Lukes. By the way- we are still fundraising and are about $450 short of our goal. Click here to find out more or to donate.
In closing, I hope you all enjoyed Eric’s experience leading up to, and including, the Leadville 100. It’s a true measure of a man who can physically push himself further than he ever thought possible. While doing so he raised nearly $15,000 for cancer patients at St. Lukes Hospital. It’s been quite a ride, Eric…quite a ride!
I’m giving Eric the last word in the fourth and final installment chronicling his “Road to Leadville.”
It's funny how things seemingly irrelevant at the time find a way to stick with you and become meaningful. I took a month-long interim class in January 1982 as a freshman at St. Olaf College where we participated in an Ernest Hemingway marathon . . . in less than 30 days we read every book and short story Hemingway had ever published. I recall the epigraph of "For Whom a Bell Tolls" distinctly, even though it wasn’t even written by Hemingway:
"No man is an Island, entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." - John Donne, 1624
OK, it's a little overly dramatic, but at the age of 18 there was something in this almost 400 year-old poem that sunk in. None of us accomplishes anything on our own; we are all inexorably linked together. This became distinctly evident as we worked toward the goal of running 100 miles (at 10,000 ft altitude, with 35% less oxygen, in under 30 hours) and raising money for the LIfe & Hope Fund to help cancer patients. Less than 33% of those who registered for the Leadville 100 Trail Run actually finished. But with every $$ that was contributed for Life & Hope, with every encouraging comment, with every crew member or pacer who committed . . . I got a little closer to a 100% chance of finishing. I put in a lot of work to get to the start line, and so did a lot of other runners. But, there was simply no way I was going to quit running after everything you and my crew/pace team had done. It wasn't pressure or the threat of negative consequences that scared me across the finish line . . . it was the uplifting support of many, many people and the thought of honoring those past and present dealing with much larger issues that willed me back to Leadville.
I can't begin to thank you for this incredible experience and for the generosity of spirit I have encountered along the journey. It has been a distinct honor and you have my sincere thanks and the gratitude of the Life & Hope Fund patients benefitting from your kindness. I hope you enjoyed the adventure. It is one I will never forget!
P.S. Special shout-outs to Tami, Collin, Kaity, Zach, Corinne & Kent Strand, George & Pat Coy, Claire Chosid, Susan Vickerman, Dan & Linda Turpin, Todd Rowe, Kerri Simifranca, my Drury Family, Ben McCaux, Jerry Armstrong, Mark Larson, Chris Russell, Angie & Trev Spencer and Fay Weber!
If you haven’t read the previous three blogs about Eric’s involvement in St. Lukes “Hope and Life” Fund, and his training for the Leadville 100, just search "Eric Strand" on this website.