Just being selected to the startline of the Western States Endurance Run, perhaps the most famous 100-mile ultramarathon race in the US, is no small feat. Given that the race lottery only selects 369 of the thousands who apply for an entry, the 100-mile race from Squaw Valley to Auburn is a lifetime bucket list item for many. As the title sponsor for the race, HOKA ONE ONE had the opportunity to present one entry to an individual to bypass the lottery system, and that entry was given to none other than Eric Spector, a 73-year old ultramarathon runner whose #fitatallages hashtag (and mantra) embodies the life-changing effects running can have on one’s life. Below you’ll meet Eric, learn what his #fitatallages hashtag means to him, and hear his thoughts on preparing to tackle Western States as one of the oldest entrants in the race’s storied history.
Hi, I’m Eric Spector.
I live in Palo Alto, California, and never cease to be amazed by the beauty of the coastline, spectacular parks and open space all over the San Francisco Bay Area.
I’ve led a busy life, including service in the Peace Corps; management consulting that took me to live in Europe, Latin America, and East Africa; leader of retailing, tech and social enterprise ventures; and, of late, pro bono consulting to nonprofits and start-ups.
Last but most important, I’m the father to two terrific Millennial sons.
I came late to running. My first race of any distance was the 1979 NYC Marathon when I was 32. It was a hot and sunny day, but I loved it, and have been running ever since – more than 40 years. Back then, living in the Village of NYC, I ran lots of short-distance races to prepare for my marathon challenges (Boston, Shanghai, Montreal, LA, SF, Houston, and many more across the US).
In the late 80s, I relocated my business to Marin County, just north of San Francisco. Until then I had run mostly on streets, but Marin has some of the most gorgeous trails in the world, with sweeping views of the Pacific and San Francisco Bay, Golden Gate Bridge, and mountains. I started running trails surrounded by spectacular scenery, and instantly preferred trails over roads.
Soon after arriving in California, I ran my first Dipsea, America’s oldest trail race, a 7.5-mile sprint up and over Mt. Tamalpais en route to Stinson Beach. The race is unique in several ways, including an age/gender handicap system that allows runners of all ages (from eight to 60+) to win. The Dipsea is a terrific challenge, loaded with tradition, and it has become my ‘self-check’ of fitness, annually noting my times over the same challenging trail.
I was also late to competing in ultras, completing my first 50K in my 60’s, first 50-miler at 69, first 100K at 70 and first 100-miler at 71. Several of my running buddies had run Western States, and all cherished that race. I started dreaming maybe ‘me too’ — though admittedly a bit later in life than most.
Running has been the best ‘medicine’ imaginable in my life for lots more energy, good friends, personal challenge, creative problem-solving, time alone and joyful connections to nature.
Largely self-taught when it comes to running, I’ve made most mistakes one can make, and pulled, torn and fractured many body parts over my 40+ years running.
Several years ago, on a beautiful trail overlooking the Pacific as the sun was setting, I glanced at the view and tripped on a root. I went airborne, heading for a face plant — which I managed to avoid, but in the process twisted my right leg, and knew immediately I was in trouble.
Because I didn’t seek treatment until the next day, and didn’t ice or wrap my shin, inflammation obscured the X-rays. Indeed, inflammation persisted for months, preventing diagnosis. It took 4 long months (in a boot, immobilized) – and tests to rule out bone cancer – before I learned that I merely had a bone fracture, which had begun to heal. I would run again!
I was so grateful, my passion for evangelizing fitness was born. I vowed to try to inspire others in part by setting an example during my then-upcoming 65th year. So I laid out a challenge of 10 grueling events during that year, including a marathon, trail 50K, the Death Ride (129 miles, 15,000 of mountain pass climbs, on bike), the Alcatraz Invitational swim, an olympic-distance triathlon, and a full Ironman: nearly 1 race per month. Somehow I finished all 10, and a good deal of publicity followed, with articles in Runner’s World, AARP Bulletin and local publications.
Among many, many benefits, fitness can extend people’s lifespans, prevent many diseases & mitigate others, and enhance self-esteem. And often, pursuing fitness enriches lives, as we meet new friends from all walks of life.
For the past several years, I’ve selected and posted the best of timely science-based articles about new findings and the benefits of health, fitness and running on Twitter at @FitAtAllAges. I post on Instagram @fit.atallages as well.
My HOKA shoe of choice is the Stinson ATR 5 with its amazingly protective cushioned sole. High mileage on trails or roads delivers lots of impact to the back, legs and feet, and I’ve found I can go further with less exhaustion and injury with them. [Editor’s note: this is Eric’s individual experience.]
On trail, I used to scurry around many rocks and roots (adding distance by doing so), but now I mainly just hew straight lines, thanks to my Stinsons. They also have a wide toe box which helps downhill.
I usually wear a full size up from my regular walking shoes. If you were worried about an extra ounce of shoe, I’d recommend you focus instead on comfortable fit and foot protection (and how to better strengthen your legs to more than make up for an extra ounce or so on your feet).
Editor’s note: since our initial interview with Eric, the 2020 Western States Endurance Run was canceled due to ongoing safety concerns around COVID-19. Below are his thoughts and perspective on the change:
Anyone in their 60s or with several preconditions (e.g. respiratory, kidney, autoimmune, overweight) is more seriously at risk when contracting COVID-19. The crowded, chaotic conditions many of our hospitals are now facing add to the risks. Just as with muscle or bone injuries, it takes longer to recover from respiratory or liver infections as you age. Thus, taking precautions matters, including social distancing and quarantining with my partner.
I now do more workouts at home on a treadmill (mostly speed walking at 12% incline), intervals on a stationary bike, with added daily weight workouts and a focus on core strength exercises.
Additionally, during my twice-weekly elevation-gain-focused power hikes and runs up (and down) a local 2500′ mountain, I wear a mask around my neck, keeping it at-the-ready for putting on whenever others are on the trail – and keep my distance by passing, for instance, on the opposite side of fire trails.
Despite the difficult decision, Western States did what was responsible by cancelling the 2020 race due to the pandemic – and did right by the runners by announcing that the 369 2020 entrants will get to run in 2021.
I remain grateful to HOKA for naming me its Western States sponsor entrant.
It was also great fun meeting Jim Walmsley (a gazelle-like ultra runner who crushed the Western States course record in 2018, and then again in 2019!).
His stunning announcement at the December Western States Lottery drawing, informing me that HOKA had chosen me as their 2020 Western States sponsor entrant, was a joy I’ll never forget.
I’ll be thinking of that moment when the lows of exhaustion and doubt sometimes show up during long, challenging events — and when the mantra ‘just keep moving forward’ helps get one to the finish.
For all athletes, as we hit our 50s and beyond, each year we age adds challenge.
But by optimizing my nutrition, hydration, and electrolytes; planning my ultra pacing and logistics, strategically training (including days off), and with an ample dose of grit, I do plan to cross the finish line in Auburn on June 27, 2021, and, at 74, become the oldest finisher in the history of that storied race.