Eric Strand had been fascinated by long-distance running ever since Frank Shorter won the marathon gold medal in the 1972 Olympics.
Years passed and before he knew it, 39-year-old Strand had just finished graduate school and his kids were becoming self-sufficient. “I’d always wanted to run a marathon and everyone knows you can’t run 26.2 miles once you turn 40, so I signed up for the Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn.,” he said.
That year — 1999 — he finished the “one and done” marathon. But instead of hanging up the running shoes, Strand has upped his running game to scores of marathons and ultras, including 100-mile races.
The Grandma’s Marathon was “a life-changing experience even though two or three 70-year-olds came in ahead of me (my kids were kind enough to point this out),” Strand recalls.
Now, he considers himself a bit of a streaker when it comes to high-profile races.
Strand completed his 19th consecutive Grandma’s Marathon in June, his sixth Leadville 100 last August, and plans to complete his 13th consecutive Chicago Marathon this fall and 12th straight Boston Marathon next April.
(The selfie, at left, was taken moments before bombs went off at the 2013 Boston race.)
“I guess I like the discipline that comes with the various race season cycles,” says Strand, who was more of a backyard athlete — baseball, football, hockey — as a youth growing up. His ascension to ultra running began with a conversation with a man synonymous with the sport — Dean Karnazes.
“I had read Dean’s book, Ultramarathon Man, and then had a chance to run with him in St. Louis when he was running home from New York to San Francisco in December 2006 following his 50/50/50 (50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days),” says Strand.
“We were running near downtown St. Louis and he mentioned that I had a pretty efficient, neutral stride (I had no idea what he was talking about) and then asked if I’d ever considered stepping up to a 100-mile race. That, of course, sounded like the craziest thing anyone had ever asked me. But he planted the seed and a few years later I signed up for Leadville. We keep in touch and I count him as both an inspiration and a friend, Dean is just a great guy.”
When it comes to Leadville, Strand respects the 10,000-plus-foot elevation, terrain and other challenges. On his blog, he writes, “When you sign up for Leadville you know you are paying for a complete sufferfest and I was getting my money’s worth.”
Still, there’s a certain draw for him. After all, he is at six “sufferfests” and counting.
Once again he is looking ahead to the Leadville Trail 100 in August. Each year in preparation for the race, he does his “Grandma’s Double” — starting at the end of the Minnesota marathon, running 26.2 miles to the start and then joining the other runners for the actual race.
But 100 miles is a different challenge. First, you are at elevation, which poses a training challenge for someone who lives in the Midwest. In order to complete a 100-mile race, runners also need to prepare to make it through the night, beating the cutoffs, and properly hydrate and fuel.
“It’s hard, it’s beautiful and there is no guarantee of success,” he says. “Leadville demands your best … both physically and mentally. And it requires extraordinary teamwork. I have been blessed to be surrounded by the most amazing crew and pacers. It’s easy to think of running 100 miles through the mountains as a solo endeavor but nothing could be further from the truth.”
And nothing beats the exhilaration of crossing the finish line at 100 miles.
“When you cross the finish line with your crew and pacers in Leadville after watching the sun rise two times, after having run over 18,000 feet of vertical ascent, after surviving 35 percent less oxygen than at sea level, you feel this heady mixture of gratitude, accomplishment and total badassery,” he says.
“Everything else in life gets a little bit easier after that.”
Looking ahead, Strand wants to keep his dedication to Leadville and the Boston Marathon.
“I’d like to continue to qualify to run in the Boston Marathon and I’ll probably keep signing up for Leadville,” he says. “Every year about 30 miles into Leadville I start vowing I will never run it again. It’s just hard and it hurts. But when you cross that finish line and feel this wave of euphoria and gratitude and so many other emotions roll over your being, you just start thinking about wanting another hit of that good stuff.”
GUs, cheeseburgers and mashed potatoes
To run 100 miles at significant elevation, takes dedicated training, an iron will and easy-to-digest food. Lots and lots of calories.
Strand’s fuels of choice include Salted Caramel GU and cheeseburgers. “But after a while nothing really seems all that appealing,” he says. “The aid stations do a great job of providing enough variety that you can generally find something your stomach can handle. The May Queen aid station at Mile 87 wins the award for World’s Best Mashed Potatoes. Regarding hydration, I carried two handhelds and kept them full with Nuun or whatever sports drink they had at the aid stations.”
While he doesn’t live at elevation, he puts hot, humid Missouri summers to good use.
“We get a lot of 90-degree, 90 percent humidity days in Missouri during the summer,” Strand reveals. “The oxygen density on days like this actually akin to running at altitude. Not 10,000 feet, but there is some benefit. I try to get out to Leadville at least a couple times before the race. Not so much to acclimate my body (that takes up to six weeks) but to get my mind ready for what is to come. You simply won’t run the same with 35 percent less oxygen at altitude and there really isn’t much you can do about that. But what you can do it get your mind ready for what is going to happen so that you don’t freak out 100 yards into the race when you start panting like a porn star.”
Tips for joining the 100-mile club
As ultra distances become more popular, Strand offers some tips to those scrawling “100-milers” on their bucket lists. Leadville was his first 100-miler but he would not recommend a 100-mile ultra at altitude for first-timers.
“If you can run a marathon, you can run a 50K and work your way up from there,” he says.
Get altitude. “Before signing up for Leadville, I’d suggest trying running above treeline (11,000 feet or so) to see if you have trouble with the altitude. I’ve seen the fittest looking guys at 10,000 feet down on their hands and knees throwing up at 12,000 feet because of altitude sickness. I had run the Pikes Peak Marathon that summits at 14,115 feet a couple times so I felt pretty confident that Leadville’s highest point of 12,600 feet at Hope Pass would be doable. It’s good to know that before the race. If you do get into Leadville, plan on eight months of serious training.”
Find a cause. It’s also a way he can help out a serious cause. During his first Leadville run, he launched www.leadfeet.com for fundraising purposes and raised over $15,000 to help cancer patients. That persona grew on social media channels such as Twitter, where he goes by “Leadfeet” — combining Leadville with his admission of “not being the fastest guy in the world.”
A great team. And, of course, behind every good ultrarunner is a great team. First and foremost, Strand credits his wife, Tami. “She does think I am certifiable for wanting to do this, but she has been a rock in supporting my racing in every way.” His crew and pacers at Leadville are Dan Turpin, Susan Vickerman, Linda Turpin and Zach Strand. “I would seriously have not finished ANY of those Leadville 100s without their support, love and cajoling,” he says.
Inspiration. Lastly, he finds inspiration in other everyday runners. Anytime I see someone running anywhere at any pace, regardless of their ability, I am inspired,” Strand says. “They are doing something great for their selves, their families/friends and they make me want to go for a run."
Name: Eric Strand
Hometown: Wildwood, Missouri; grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Number of years running: 19
How many miles a week do you typically run: 50-plus miles on average. I’ve run over 2,500 miles for each of the past 17 years.
Point of pride: All of my kids have run half marathons or marathons.
Favorite race distance: 100 miles because it’s so much more than just a physical challenge. And the vibe at an ultra is just the best, the runners and volunteers are awesome.
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Nothing special, I tend to have an iron stomach and can pretty much take on anything prior to the race. While I don’t eat much junk food, I do confess that a McDonald’s No. 2 cheeseburger meal with fries and a Coke provides the perfect mix of carbs, protein, fat and sodium to fuel 25-plus miles.
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: This changes every race, but my current favorite is Nine Pound Hammer by Muskateer Gripweed, a band I heard at a beer festival in Colorado.
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: I’ve got a few:
“You are better than you think you are, you can do more than you think you can.”
– Ken Chlouber, founder of the Leadville 100 Trail Run
“Not everyone who chased the zebra caught it. But those who caught it, chased it.”
– African proverb
And my reliable go to: “SUCK IT UP BUTTERCUP”
– Eric Strand
Where can other runners connect or follow you: