Meet Chris Lundstrom, Running’s Jack Of All Trades

Chris Lundstrom competes in the Minnesota Voyageur 50 in 2010. Photo: voyageurtrailrun.blogspot.com

The new Dad is an Olympic Trials-level marathoner, top trail runner, successful coach and PhD candidate. 

In the three-month period earlier this year between January and April, Chris Lundstrom competed in his third U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials (he finished 66th in 2:22:03), placed fourth in the American River 50-Mile (6:16) and went rim-to-rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon. In mid-May, he was preparing for the Superior 50K by standing in the middle of a high school track, calmly taking splits, lending encouragement, fielding anxious questions (“Yes, this mile is four laps”) and generally coaching it up for five hours. Questioned about the advisability of all this prerace vertical time, he shrugged, “I don’t get bent out of shape about these things.”

That was a Thursday evening. Two days later, on Saturday morning, he won the Superior 50K trail extravaganza in 3:56.04.

There are a lot of incongruities about this Minneapolis, MN-based, Carhartt-clad coach, PhD candidate and newly minted dad. He’s the mellowest guy to ever survive on a steady stream of coffee, for one (“Espresso before bed makes me more productive in my sleep”). As a coach, he doles out pragmatic, science-backed training plans while his own racing schedule seems ill-advised at best. And he crosses over from roads to trails as easily as he changes shoes.

As a charter member of the distance training group, Team USA Minnesota, Lundstrom was the third American in the 2001 New York City Marathon (which doubled as the U.S. Championship that year), in 2:18. He focused on the marathon, running prescribed races and following a logical training plan.

“We’d be out there with the Garmin, hitting 5:15 pace, doing 800s. It was structured,” he said, with a mix of road races, track, winter treadmill running, and usually one or two over-distance 27+ mile undertakings, which were perhaps a foreshadowing of things to come. Since his first step as an 8th grade harrier, Lundstrom has preferred trails for their leg-loving forgiveness. “And because I don’t like people,” he said, smiling.

After clocking 2:26:59 in the 2004 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, Lundstrom took a break from Team USA Minnesota and moved to the San Francisco area where he’d attended Stanford to be closer to his girlfriend, Taj, who was in medical school. English major notwithstanding, his meteoric rise to head cross country coach at San Francisco State was undoubtedly due to charm and aggressive recruiting. “I literally stood outside the track with some singlets waiting for students, or anyone who looked like a student, to go by,” he recalled.

In typical no-muss, no-fuss fashion, he and Taj were married on a Saturday in Berkeley and she began her residency on Monday morning, in Minneapolis. Lundstrom rejoined his Team USA Minnesota teammates, embarked on a Masters in Education and took on coaching track, cross country and, by default, Nordic skiing at Como Park High School. Seemingly hectic, Lundstrom says it was, in fact, a pretty nice balance of things he truly enjoyed.

Between 2005 and November of 2008, Lundstrom ran eleven marathons, including his PR of 2:17:34. He geared his training toward the 2008 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, where he finished the four loops of Central Park in 2:19:21.

“Marathons had become pretty predictable,” Lundstrom said, which in his book, is unacceptable. So in 2009, he veered from the paved path of track workouts and four-year training plans and toed the line at the Superior 50K trail race in Lutsen, MN. “It was snowing, in May, and everyone was super mellow. That was very different [from road races].” He won, averaging 7:15 per mile on a rugged, single-track track.

“I’ve read Born To Run, and what I got out of it is that we are capable of amazing feats of endurance. It’s who we are as a species. In that spirit, I wanted to test my limits, to see what I could get away with,” he said, sort of gleefully. Thus, he found himself on the starting line of The North Face San Francisco 50-Mile in December 2009.

“Yes, it’s hard. It’s 50 miles — it’s not supposed to be easy,” laughed Lundstrom, revealing a startling discovery. “I was used to road marathons where, if everything’s going well, you can feel decent. In ultras, even the best runners go through really bad patches. Accepting that it is hard and everyone experiences moments of despair helped me focus on just moving forward.” That revelation, and some flat Coke, resulted in a third-place debut in 6:48.

Lundstrom delights in exploring the dark and possibly incontinent fringes of human capability, laughing quietly as if telling a heartwarming story about puppies and kittens. Even the title of his online musings, Struggle Toward the Heights, suggests human foibles, suffering, looming failure and other happy themes.

“After that first 50-miler, I told my brother I would never do that again. In fact, I might never run again,” he said. “Two days later, I was planning my next one. It’s addictive. Also, I think there’s a fair amount of amnesia about just how bad it felt.”

Even by Lundstrom’s standards, 2010 was a year of excess — Boston in April, Twin Cities 1-mile Road Championship in May and two days later, the Superior 50K trail, the U.S. Mountain Running Championships up Mount Washington, then Afton 50K trail race, the next week the rugged Voyageur 25-mile, followed in two weeks by the rugged-squared Voyageur 50-mile, then the World Mountain Running Championships in Slovenia (where Lundstrom was perhaps the only Minnesota-trained athlete ever to represent) and another 50-miler later in the fall. Oh, and he paced a friend through part of Western States 100. This, while pursuing a PhD in Kinesiology, teaching undergrads at the University of Minnesota, coaching high schoolers and a growing number of elite runners in the Twin Cities area.

While he enjoys the picturesque challenges and the easygoing, cooperative vibe of trail running, Lundstrom finds some aspects of the sport unknowable — “If you have to stop and wait for a bear to pass, how much of a race can it be? I’m still trying to make sense of that. It’s hardwired in me to be competitive.”

Variety, and a lot of it, is also written into his code. A new dad, Lundstrom has left his racing schedule open this summer but mentioned that a road 100K “seems doable.” Just to keep things interesting. And by interesting, he meant life-threatening.

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