Before runners hit the starting line, before volunteers set up aid stations and before the sun rises, Eric Strand is running Grandma’s Marathon.
Backwards. And then back again.
The “Grandma’s Double” is a long-running tradition for Strand.
About 3 a.m. on race day, his wife drops him off in Canal Park. He runs 26.2 miles to Two Harbors — and joins the other marathoners for Round 2.
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The first 25-26 miles are “the easy ones,” said Strand, 60. “Then you have the benefit of aid stations, the crowd and fellow runners to commiserate with on the way back. It’s a fun way to get a training run in.”
It started as a way to prepare for the 100-mile Leadville Trail ultramarathon. Grandma’s landed on a weekend that Strand needed to get in a 50-mile run. Instead of spreading it out, he decided to pack it into one day.
“It was very interesting running the course backwards, especially when the bars had people filing out. You had an interesting crowd," Strand said in a 2012 News Tribune story.
Strand gets to see things other marathoners don’t: the race course waking up and volunteers getting ready, and some of the aid station captains are there every year.
He has heard his fair share from passersby about going the wrong way, and it happens even more now.
“They've all learned their lines,” he said with a laugh.
The Missouri man, formerly of St. Paul, grew up hearing about Grandma’s, but on New Year’s Eve before his 40th birthday, he registered for it.
He trained for six months and made every mistake.
“There’s euphoria. You hit new distance markers … you get this in your mind that you are invincible. The next day, you wake up, and you have plantar fasciitis or shin splints or your knee hurts, and you very quickly realize you aren't,” Strand said.
But you slow down, heal up, maybe bike for a while and you get back to running, he added.
Strand recalled the end of his first Grandma’s Marathon: “As I was enjoying the runner’s high, my kids reminded me that there were three 70-year-olds that beat me that day. It brought me down to earth; they’re really good at doing that.”
Strand said tying training into a race is one way to make it fun. He averages about 2,500 miles a year; that’s typically 7 miles a day, but sometimes, it’s 100 miles at a time.
Strand ran his first five Grandma’s Doubles solo, save for one year with Ben McCaux. Since then, he has been joined by his son, Zach.
They’ve tackled the Double three times; they ran their first father-son Leadville 100 in 2017.
In a 2017 video of the latter, the pair are seen trekking across Colorado terrain.
“Zach’s doing great,” Eric Strand says into the camera. “He’s fun to run with. As long as he keeps his fueling and hydration in good shape, he’s down for a buckle.”
They have tallied 25 marathons and ultramarathons together.
“He’s better than me now, which he’s quick to point out,” he said.
During training, Strand mostly listens to audiobooks, but, if he needs motivation, there’s Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus — music his kids listened to when they were teens.
As for his powerhouse song, that’s Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.”
He doesn’t listen to anything during races; he likes to interact with others.
His race-day eats were pretty standard: Gatorade and gels; but for ultramarathons, his wife brings him a cheeseburger at mile 50.
Saturday will be his 22nd Grandma’s Marathon — his 10th Grandma’s Double — and there’s no end in sight.
There’s a cadence to the year — the Boston Marathon in April, Leadville in August, Chicago in October, a mix of others — but June will always be Duluth.
“There will be a day when I won’t be able to do this,” Strand said, “but it’s not today, and hopefully won’t be for a long time. I hope to enjoy it as long as I can.”