Running For a Cause
Al Barbarino Oct. 1, 2013, 10 a.m.
Last Monday, CBRE’s Eric Gelber showed up for work weighing 10 pounds lighter. After the physical feat he completed over the weekend, it was a wonder he even made it through the door.
“They all looked at me like, ‘Are you crazy?’” he said of his CBRE colleagues.
Mr. Gelber, 46, captured the collective mind of the real estate, running and cancer research communities, in the heart of the city, when he embarked on an epic 48-hour, 33-lap run around Central Park, beginning at 8 a.m. on Sept. 20 and ending at roughly the same time on Sept. 22.
Dehydration, blisters and severe nausea didn’t stop the married father of three from completing the 164-mile ordeal, which raked in more than $104,000, and counting, for multiple myeloma research through the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation.
“I knew New York would come through, and they did it in a big way,” Mr. Gelber, a senior vice president with CBRE’s tristate retail group, said in an interview with The Commercial Observer on Wednesday. “I am still overwhelmed with the amount we raised, and we’re still getting donations every day.”
The race took almost five months of preparation, working out six days per week, with frequent, back-to-back 30-mile Saturday and Sunday runs, Mr. Gelber said. A mostly liquid diet of powders and gels diluted in water, about 15,000 calories worth, broken up into 30 and 40 ounces per hour, along with roughly 35 minutes of seated nap time, supplied energy during the race.
Mr. Gelber parsed no words regarding the excruciating nature of the challenge. It was at times frustrating, exhausting and taxing on the body. A stubborn, recurring nausea culminated in a bout of vomiting at 3 a.m. on Saturday.
“I was feeling nauseous well before that, and I was never able to kick that feeling,” Mr. Gelber said. “It can get pretty frustrating when it gets to that point. I’m pretty exhausted, sore, and everything hurts. The feet are the worst thing. But you know what you’re there for. And you keep pushing, one step at a time.”
While the nausea was unrelenting, so was the support from friends, colleagues and random passersby, who, along with the calorie-rich liquid diet and the resolve of the cancer research community, gave Mr. Gelber the motivation to plow through.
A crew of 10 people, including his wife, Tani, other family members and CBRE colleagues, held down camp at the start line. Dozens of people who pledged to run and donate ran alongside him throughout the run. Others dropped in randomly, while a little help from Metallica and Adele went a long way to fill in the gaps.
“I was laughing during one of the nights, because I have a whole variety of things on my playlist, and at one point it went from Master of Puppets to Adele back to back,” Mr. Gelber said.
Mr. Gelber started the first loop of the race with multiple myeloma patient Sally Kalksma, from Pine Beach, N.J., who has taken on the Empire State Building Run-Up, which benefits the MMRF, the last two years.
“I am so touched that he literally puts his body on the line again and again to help fund critical research that is helping myeloma patients like me,” Ms. Kalksma said before the race.
Two other multiple myeloma patients, Jean Dreyer and Carmen Phaneuf, joined him during the final six-mile loop around the park.
“We had a pretty emotional hug,” Mr. Gelber said. “They were thanking me for what I did, and I was thanking them for inspiring me to do it. We’re all fighting for the same thing. I can’t imagine being sick. I can’t imagine being in the position they are in. I mean, they came out to run. That’s just amazing.
“They don’t have a choice. They can’t stop. And I choose to keep going for them.”
Mr. Gelber had at least two people running alongside him during the race, through rain, cold and the thick of the night, from family members to the dozens of CBRE colleagues to the random construction workers and others who jumped in, donating food, umbrellas and money.
“People showed up at all hours of the day and night,” he said. “These were people I’d never met before.”
“The hard part was, when people would come and jump in, I wanted to talk to them and learn about them and answer questions, but it becomes exhausting,” he added. “If you’re laughing and running, it wears you out. So I would let them know I needed to focus on what I was doing, and they understood completely.”
Mr. Gelber, a 1990 graduate of Syracuse University, has more than two decades of experience in retail, most of which played out at CBRE, where he has been responsible for executing leasing and sales transactions valued at more than $4 billion.
A recipient of the Real Estate Board of New York’s Retail Deal of the Year and Most Creative Deal of the Year, he has advised retailers such as Barilla and CIT Bank and spearheaded projects at the New York Marriott Marquis, the MetLife building at 200 Park Avenue, the Chrysler Center and the Empire State Building.
Mr. Gelber ran his first marathon in 2001 and wouldn’t run in an official race again until 2007, but he has since participated in 20 official races and several solo runs. He attributes his relatively late entry into running as one of the reasons his body is able to withstand the punishment of his now yearly ultra-runs.
Two years ago, he ran 155 miles through the Catskill Mountains to his parents’ home in Suffern, N.Y., which took 45 hours. Last year, he took on the 135-mile Badwater ultra-marathon, billed as “the world’s toughest foot race,” which begins at Badwater Basin in Death Valley and over the course of 42.5 hours took Mr. Gelber across Mt. Whitney.
Mr. Gelber was made aware of multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer, after a family friend, Anita, was diagnosed 2003, later undergoing multiple stem-cell transplants. It was Anita, who passed away in 2012, who directed Mr. Gelber to the MMRF.
“I know she’d be proud—that’s for sure,” Mr. Gelber said, “And she’d probably ask me how my feet were.”
The MMRF funnels 90 percent of every dollar raised directly to cancer research, according the foundation, which said it is leading the charge in multiple myeloma research, culminating in the release of six new drugs over the last 10 years.
“We are really pushing other cancer organizations to accelerate their processes, just like Eric is pushing everybody else,” said Alicia O’Neill, director of endurance and race programs with MMRF, noting that Mr. Gelber has raised somewhere in the neighborhood of $225,000 through his races with the organization. “That’s definitely the highest of all time in terms of any one individual.”
Ms. O’Neill was particularly taken aback by the $25,000 donation made by T-Mobile CEO Jon Legere.
“It was about 11 o’clock, and it starts pouring rain, and Eric’s out there running with a poncho on, and I get this text from this guy that says, “Hey, how’s your guy going, is he still out there?’” she recalled.
“When does he finish the next loop? I want to tell him something,” Mr. Legere texted again.
Mr. Legere, who had made a previous $5,000 donation, arrived at the last midnight of the race on a pedi-cab to pledge that he would cover any remaining balance under $100,000, which amounted to an additional $20,000, becoming the top donation and meeting Mr. Gelber’s six-figure goal.
Asked what went through his mind as he crossed the finish line, Mr. Gelber said, “I felt very lucky to have had such support and lucky to do it with such an amazing organization, in such an amazing city, with so many amazing people. I felt like a very lucky man.”
Toward the end of last week, Mr. Gelber was still nursing some residual soreness and blisters. Still, one had to ask: When is the next big race?
“People keep asking me what my next goal is, and right now I’m just trying to walk without a limp,” he quipped. “It’s going to be tough to top this. But we will definitely be back next year—hopefully bigger and better.”