Eric Loeffler always had a love for running.
And as one of the best marathoners in the U.S., the sport has taken him all over the country.
It started as a kid growing up in Fergus Falls, Minn., where he ran high school cross country, and continued through his days at North Dakota State University.
Even after graduating from NDSU, Loeffler continued competing, despite personal disappointment with the results. Perhaps that drive to prove, if to no one other than himself, that he could run better pushed him to explore new limits.
Those limits will be tested Saturday when he joins more than 160 other elite American marathoners who’ve qualified for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. The top three will represent the red, white and blue this August in Rio.
Loeffler, who recently moved to the Twin Cities after calling Fargo home for about a decade, brings an impressive resume into the race. Twice he’s qualified for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, in 2012 and 2016, and ran a personal best of 2 hours, 16 minutes, 48 seconds at Grandma’s Marathon last year.
The impressive Grandma’s finish culminated a trio of terrific performances in 2015, including a Trials qualifying 1:04:48 finish at the U.S. Half Marathon Championships in Houston. In May, he ran 1:05:36 on a cool, breezy day to win the Fargo half marathon, which he also won in 2013.
At the 2012 Trials, he finished in 2:25:05, good for 77th place among the best distance runners in the country. At the time, the Trials were six weeks after his qualifying race at California International Marathon. Two months prior to that, Loeffler ran the Chicago Marathon, where he fell just short of the qualifying mark.
This time around, the path is different, but perhaps no easier. He’s shaved more than two minutes off his half marathon times from a few years ago — an amazing feat for a runner Loeffler’s caliber — but an injury after last year’s Grandma’s Marathon served as a temporary setback to Loeffler’s buildup to the Trials.
Come Sunday, the day following the Trials, when more than 20,000 runners are plodding along the regular LA Marathon course, Loeffler will be recovering and relaxing on a California beach.
Like most highly competitive runners, Loeffler is reluctant to talk specifics about his goals and strategy for the Trials, but he did take time to answer several questions for Addicted to Running.
Question: Reflect a little about your running career. You grew up running high school cross country in Fergus Falls, Minn., and later competed at North Dakota State University. And at what point did you decide you wanted to pursue the marathon?
Loeffler: I think I knew early on that I would run a marathon at some point, but it was a few years after graduating from NDSU that I ran my first one. A few training partners at that time were aiming to hit a qualifying mark for the Olympic Marathon Trials. It seemed like a good idea, so that was the plan for my first one. Perhaps a tad ambitious! About the only thing I managed to do that day was to finish. I struggled with racing the marathon distance early on, but you learn from each one. Ultimately, it wasn’t until about 2008 that I decided to put a greater focus on the marathon. Eight years later, I am still warming up to the marathon! As any marathoner knows, it can be a love/hate relationship.
Q: You ran a blazing time — and a personal best at age 38 — at Grandma’s Marathon last June. Did you take some time to rest, or did your training continue?
Loeffler: Grandmas Marathon last June was the race I felt like I had in me for the past couple years, but hadn’t quite put all the pieces together on race day. That said, I still don’t feel like that was a perfect race. I believe I took about a week of downtime after Grandmas, and then started easing back into training, although that turned out to be short-lived.
Q: What did your buildup to the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trails look like?
Loeffler: The buildup to the Trials has been a little shaky. I suffered an injury in July last summer that ultimately forced me to take about a month off in the early fall. From there, training was up and down most of the fall. It wasn’t until about mid-December that I finally started feeling like I had my legs under me again and things started clicking again.
Q: How do you feel about the training that you’ve done for the Trials?
Loeffler: Like I said, the buildup didn’t go exactly as planned, but I feel pretty good about my fitness entering the Olympic Trials. The last 7-8 weeks since I made the move to the Twin Cities have gone fairly well. There is a certain level of uncertainty given the Trials will be my first race of any distance since Grandmas Marathon last June, but I feel good about how my race-specific training has gone the past couple months.
Q: Can you share what that training has looked like the past couple of months?
Loeffler: My mileage typically ranges between 80-90 miles a week. Not incredibly high for a marathoner at this level, but I’ve found that is what works best for me. Since I had an up and down fall, I wanted to prioritize some workouts over others to make sure I fit in more marathon-specific training in the last couple months. Workouts over that time have largely focused on longer tempo efforts at or near marathon pace, with a few track sessions sprinkled in as well. The most significant of these was a 15-mile run at marathon goal pace. I’ve found this workout serves as a good dress rehearsal of sorts for the marathon. Always a relief when it’s done!
Q: Any race/course specific principles you’ve incorporated into your training?
Loeffler: I have not typically focused much on incorporating course specifics into training. My view on it is you’re either fit or you’re not. Of course, part of the reason for that view comes from living in Fargo the past 10 years where it is extremely flat and, therefore, difficult to incorporate course specifics into training. I do, however, carefully study course maps and elevation charts prior to the race. Not to mention checking the weather forecast every half hour in the days before!
Q: Very few people qualify to run in the Olympic Marathon Trails. You did it for 2012 and 2016. When did that become a goal for you?
Loeffler: Like I mentioned earlier, I initially made it a goal for my first marathon long ago. After struggling to run well in my first several attempts at the marathon, I dismissed that goal until several years later. After a decent race at the 2010 New York City Marathon, I decided to get more serious about it and began working with a coach (Tom Dooher). He has been great to work with the past several years, and helped me develop a training plan that works. I started having some breakthrough races in the spring of 2011, and the goal of qualifying for the Olympic Trials was back on the table.
Q: Did you always believe you could compete at such a high level?
Loeffler: I developed a love for running pretty early on, which has without question played a hand in getting to this point. I couldn’t do this without that love for the sport. After what I personally felt was a disappointing collegiate career and early post-collegiate career, I wanted to prove to myself that it was there. Still plugging away.
Q: Any similarities or differences from your training for the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials?
Loeffler: I didn’t get to really “train” for the 2012 Olympic Trials. I was too busy trying to qualify. After running both the Chicago and California International Marathons (CIM) in the span of two months (I qualified for the Trials at CIM in 2011), I only had about 5 weeks to prepare for the actual Marathon Trials. The first week of that was recovery from CIM.
Q: How would you describe your experience running in the 2012 U.S. Marathon Trials?
Loeffler: Although a disappointing race for me, the experience of running in the Olympic Trials was incredible! It definitely made me hungry for more, and left no question that I wanted to be on the starting line again in 2016.
Q: Anything you learned about it that helped you preparations for 2016?
Loeffler: I think more than anything, knowing what to expect. The race is different than most others. The quality and depth of the field is unparalleled, and obviously there is a lot at stake for the contenders vying to make the Olympic team. It is the one time every four years that virtually all of the best marathoners and half marathoners in the U.S. line up on the same start line. Nerves are a little higher, the hype is higher, and you never really know how the race could unfold. Experiencing the 2012 Trials as well as several high profile marathons and U.S. Championship races at other distances helps eliminate some of the nerves surrounding the race. I think one of the biggest changes in myself as a runner over the span of my career is learning how to deal with all of the external things surrounding a race from the actual race itself.
Q: What motivates you as a runner?
Loeffler: I don’t know if I have a really good answer for that. I probably couldn’t narrow it down to one or two things. There is the competitive side of the sport that I still love, but it runs deeper than that. It’s hard to imagine where my life might be without discovering this sport. The people I’ve met, the experiences, the places I’ve traveled are all things I owe to running. It’s a part of who I am.
Q: Do you have a strategy for the race?
Loeffler: Working on it!
Q: How do you approach it mentally?
Loeffler: I will spend time before the race coming up with a race plan, or more likely, a couple different scenarios depending on how the race plays out. In 2012, the field went out pretty hard the first several miles. That could happen again, or it could be completely the opposite. Knowing there is some uncertainty in my fitness, it may be feeling things out a bit the first 10k or so. I think it will take a patient and well executed race to be successful in L.A., but I am feeling healthy and ready.