Chappaqua's Eric Gelber Builds A Fundraising Niche
The long distance runner has ran hundreds of miles to raise money for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation.
Ultra-marathoner Eric Gelber of Chappaqua has run Badwater—a 135-mile race in California's Death Valley— twice, to benefit the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation. The rare cancer killed a close friend of his.
This past summer, when the heat was intense, Chappaqua resident Eric Gelber was in California’s Death Valley, the lowest, hottest, driest area in North America, running 135 miles.
The race, called Badwater, is so long, it takes 48 hours to complete, with runners only taking short breaks for snacks, power naps, and hydration. The course covers three mountain ranges, and runners climb 14,600 feet in temperatures that hover around 110˚F during the day.
It’s considered the toughest continuous foot race in the world, but that doesn’t faze Gelber. He completed the race once before in 2012. (“That doesn’t make it easier,” he says. “You just set different goals, so this time I’ll try to go faster.”) In 2014, he ran nearly 200 miles over the course of 56 hours in Central Park. And before that, in 2011, he made it 155 miles from his friend’s house in Oneonta, New York, to his parents’ house in Suffern, New York, in 42 hours.
Gelber is addicted to running—or at least its payoff. “If you are 90 miles in, and you feel horrible—you are tired, you are sore, you don’t want to go anymore—you have to figure out a way to take another step and keep it going a little bit at a time,” he says. “You can do amazing things.”
But what excites him even more is how much fundraising he can do through his adventures. Every long run he completes raises six figures for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (MMRF), a nonprofit working to find a cure for multiple myeloma, a rare cancer of plasma cells (a type of white blood cell) that killed one of his close friends. “The fundraising takes the running to a whole other level, because it means more to me,” he says. “It’s more than just a personal achievement.” Since 2007, he’s raised more than $650,000.
At first glance, Gelber seems like a regular guy. At 48, he is an executive vice president at CBRE, a commercial real estate firm in New York City. He and his wife, Tani, have three children—two teenage boys who attend Horace Greeley High School and a 5-year-old daughter who just started kindergarten. He doesn’t even watch what he eats, and he enjoys drinking and eating at spots like Sunset Cove in Tarrytown and Quaker Hill Tavern, his local haunt. “I live a pretty normal life,” he says. “I think that is something people look at and say, ‘How does he do all that?’ I have a family. I have a job.”
Before 2007, he wasn’t even a long-distance runner. He had only run one major race—a marathon in 2001 as a result of a drunken dare. But when his friend was diagnosed with a cancer no one knew how to cure, he wanted to try to help. “She was going through her first stem-cell transplant [in 2007], and when I saw what that was doing to her—it was a pretty brutal process—I wanted to do something to support her,” he recalls. He learned he could run for charity and signed up for a marathon. Without much effort—he simply blasted out an email to friends—he raised $6,000. He did it again the next year and raised $15,000. He decided if he focused a little more, he could do even better.
Inspired by ultra-marathoner Dean Karnazes, whom he follows on social media, Gelber tried an even longer race and was hooked right away. “It was like, ‘I can’t believe I ran 31 miles instead of 26, and what would happen if I did 50?’” he says. Every year, he ran longer distances, and, the longer he ran, the more people donated. He even started organizing races for himself, first in upstate New York and then around Central Park, to attract even more donations from friends, family members, and clients who liked coming out to watch him run. Last year, when he strove for 200 miles in the park (he fell 24 miles short, explaining, “I just couldn’t walk anymore”), he raised $240,000. Some people even came out and did laps with him.
Running such long distances is as hard as it seems. Gelber wakes up at 4 am every morning to train on the North County Trailway, which passes near his home. Sometimes he heads to Rockefeller State Park or Route 100, 133, or 120. For the Death Valley race, he did sauna training, where he sat in 180-degree heat for up to an hour. He’s detailed funny sauna experiences on his blog, Just a mile to go..., such as when a man brought in a loofah and started cleaning himself. Gelber has also started work on a book.
It’s hard on his body, says Alicia O’Neill, director of business development and partnerships for MMRF, who works closely with Gelber to maximize his efforts. “For something like this, you have to have a crew,” she says. “You literally have to check: Is he peeing? Is he stable? Is he going loopy?” She remembers being at the Central Park race last year begging him to stop because she didn’t want his body to break down.
Gelber says he doesn’t know how long he will be able to continue running like this. “That’s a question I ask more each year,” he says. “I love it, and I want to do everything I can to do my part, but it’s a lot.” Ideally, he would love to be one of those 90-year-olds who still gets up every day and goes for a run.
There would certainly be a cost if he stopped. Gelber is a top donor to MMRF, a foundation that is actually changing lives (last year he raised $240,000 out of MMRF's $3.3 million total). The Norwalk, Connecticut-based organization, which was founded in 1998, has successfully put out seven new life-extending drugs in the past 12 years and has three more in the pipeline. They have their own team of scientists and work closely with others at institutions like Dana Farber and Mount Sinai. “We put the money right to work,” says O’Neill. “We are very focused on making things happen fast instead of scientists holding information to get published.” Other oncology foundations are looking to MMRF to learn how they can implement similar data-sharing systems with peer research institutions to find a cure faster.
Then there are the people Gelber is inspiring. He regularly gets emails from runners who want to set up the same type of races to raise money for their cause of choice. And Gelber communicates with hundreds of current cancer patients and their family members. “They come out and watch him, or the family members run with him,” says O’Neill. “It’s so inspiring to them. This guy is putting his body on the line for them. How do you thank a guy like that? What do you do?”
Last year, when Gelber was running a race in Central Park, a stranger came up to him and said he had just been diagnosed with multiple myeloma. He happened to be in town from London and saw the race advertised on television in his hotel room. “He came down just to say thank you,” says Gelber. “That’s pretty powerful.”