Home: Chicago, IL
Occupation: Construction project manager
Height: 6’ 8”
Starting weight: 335
Current weight: 275
Total pounds lost: 60
Four years ago, Erik Gunderson was a 6'8", 330-lb offensive lineman who spent his weekends inflicting pain onto others in five- to 10-second bursts. This October, though, he had a harder task: inflicting pain on himself for over 15 hours.
He traded his Michigan Wolverine jersey for a triathlon suit, swapped his football cleats for cycling and running shoes, and—to the astonishment of his friends and O-line teammates—completed the 140.6-mile Louisville Ironman in 15 hours and 10 minutes.
Part of his motivation was to lose weight, hoping to drop 100lbs from his post-football weight at graduation. Part of his motivation was to find a new emotional anchor, substituting previous bonds with football teammates with friendships in the tight-knit Ironman community. And part of his motivation was the group of children in a cancer ward in Mott’s Children’s Hospital he visited weekly during his time in Ann Arbor.
“It is those kids that I think of when I don't want to go out for a run, ride, or swim,” he wrote on his Ironman fundraising blog page, which netted $4,000 in donations for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of America. “It is those kids that I think of when I think of quitting.”
One of those children, a little girl with lymphoma named Evie, especially grabbed his heart. “Her family just sent a video of her wishing me good luck,” Gunderson says. “She spent months going through chemo; I spend a day putting my body through hell. It’s the least I can do.” (She’s now in remission, by the way.)
Gunderson's first big triathlon was a half-Ironman in Wilmington, NC, last October. Almost exactly a year after that, his line of scrimmage was the starting line of the Louisville Ironman. A 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and a 26.2-mile run later, Gunderson reached the finish line on Fourth Street, perhaps as close to the end zone as a lineman can ever get.
The day after he put his body through that hell, Gunderson spoke with Men’s Fitness about his motivation, whether he’ll do another, and the time someone confused him for a superhero (and not Iron Man).
Men’s Fitness: Were your football friends surprised you were doing an Ironman?
Erik Gunderson: My offensive line buddies were like, “Are you crazy?” All the 300-lb guys are shocked.
You were probably glad you weren’t 300lbs out there, especially during the marathon leg.
From when I was 335 to now, it’s a world of difference for my ankles and knees. I was moving pretty slowly. Carrying all that weight was taking its toll on my knees and ankles.
Is there any advantage to being tall and big out on the course? Disadvantages besides the weight?
I have large hands, which are good for swimming, so I don’t have to use my legs at all on the swim. I have an advantage there, because I can save my legs for the bike. On the bike, I’d crush on the downhill, but I’d have all these small people cruising by me on the uphills. On the run I have a longer stride.
But being a bigger guy, your body takes more of a beating. The biggest disadvantage is trying to find things that fit. I had to buy a brand-new Cervelo bike because it was the only frame that would fit me. And it’s really hard to find tri suits that fit.
What was your training like before your final taper?
I was running 30-35 miles a week, swimming 2,500 to 4,000 meters three times a week. I’d usually spend one hour on the [bike] trainer before work and one to two hours after work, and then go out of Chicago to Naperville, IL, to bike on the weekends with my friend TJ, who first talked me into doing triathlons. I was going to bed at 8:30 at night during the week, and getting up at 5 to get in a workout.
Any special diet to help with your weight loss as well?
I stopped drinking beer! I went more or less gluten-free, sticking to meats and vegetables. I eat a lot of vegetables and fruit constantly, about six meals a day, roughly 300-400 calories each meal.
Was it weird losing weight? You probably had to put on weight in college.
I actually got up to 368 the summer before I started football in college, and then I lost 96lbs, and then I built back up again. I’ve done the weight loss thing before; I had an idea of how to do it.
So, what would you like to get down to now?
I’d like to lose another 30lbs this winter.
Still, at 275lbs, that marathon final leg had to be killer.
There were times during the run that I didn’t think I was going to make it. The first three miles were great, but then the ankles started screaming a little too much and I had to back off. Midway through the run it was, “I just have to finish,” and keep my legs moving. It was all about just not stopping.
How about the bike portion?
The last 30 miles, it was scary. It was a downpour, 58°, and going downhill, I was hitting 30, 32mph in aero position trying not to move because I was afraid I’d slip and bite it. It was pretty slick.
That had to have been pretty chilly as well.
My hands were frozen, and I couldn’t feel my feet. It was freezing. It was windy, rainy. I was wearing a trash bag to keep my heat in.
A trash bag?
Everyone around me started pulling out jackets, but with it being my first Ironman, I hadn’t thought to bring one. I had to get creative and asked for a trash bag at the aid station. I had to poke holes in the bag for my head and arms. After a while, my trash bag ripped, and it was like a cape. Somebody yelled, “Hey, it looks like Superman!”
So, after that experience, do you have any desire to do another Ironman race?
I’m definitely doing another one. My goal is to get under 14 hours. This isn’t my last full [Ironman]. I won’t do one every year because I don’t want to put too much stress on my body, and I want a social life. But I don’t think I’ll ever do a year without at least a half [Ironman] or an Olympic [1.5K swim, 40K bike, 10K run].
Any last tips for fellow ex-jocks who might develop crazy notions to do an Ironman?
It’s all about mentality. Everyone told me, “There’s no way you can do this, there’s no way you can do this.” You can do this. It’s all mental.