Racking up more than 40,000 miles since 1980, Dave Eitrheim went for his last run Saturday, or at least a pair of his running shoes did.
Despite the cold and wind, 18 friends divided into two groups, each taking a shoe. Both headed off on foot — one running and the other walking. Eventually, they met up at Evergreen Cemetery in Menomonie, where Eitrheim — and his shoes — would be laid to rest.
The 58-year-old family medicine physician, who cared for patients at Mayo Clinic Health System-Red Cedar in Menomonie for close to 30 years, died Jan. 1 after a battle with cancer.
A memorial service was Saturday, and Eitrheim’s wife, Amy, met the runners and walkers at the cemetery, where she “was giving everyone high-fives when we finished,” said Terry Sullivan, an Eitrheim friend and running buddy. “I think it was something Dave could appreciate.”
During his running career, Eitrheim ran 91 marathons — his first in 1976 — and 36 ultramarathons. Of the latter, 14 were 100-milers.
Sullivan, of Menomonie, and the Rev. Rolf Morck of Mondovi ran some of those races with Eitrheim.
“It was sometimes awful, but a lot of fun,” said Morck, noting it’s still hard to believe Eitrheim is gone.
The Sunday before Christmas, Eitrheim joined some of his running friends for a 3-mile walk.
“We thought we were going to walk to the end of the block,” said Morck, chuckling at the memory.
Despite his diagnosis, “Dave was going to live as much as he could and put the cancer in the background as much as he could,” said Morck, noting his friend still joined in runs but rode a bike or Sullivan’s outdoor elliptical bike. “And he did. That was inspirational.”
Sullivan, of Menomonie, agreed, noting Eitrheim ran six races of a half-marathon or longer since November 2014. “That is something I don’t think the average cancer patient is going to do, but running was his passion,” Sullivan said.
Eitrheim, a Minnesota native, was born in Tyler in 1957 and graduated from Fridley High School in 1975 as valedictorian of his class. He graduated from Augsburg College in Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota Medical School. He trained in Sioux Falls, S.D., and joined what would become Mayo Clinic Health System-Red Cedar in Menomonie in 1987, and he delivered hundreds of babies, cared for others as they died and taught other students and residents. He won the Wisconsin Academy of Physicians’ Family Physician of the Year Award in 2004.
Eitrheim was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue on July 22, 2013, at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Testing revealed the cancer had spread to two lymph nodes. Eitrheim underwent surgery and started chemotherapy and radiation in early September 2013. Eitrheim returned to work in January 2014, but retired four months later because of his illness.
Despite the treatment, a PET scan on May 22, 2014, revealed the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes on the left side of his neck and his chest, and Eitrheim was told his cancer was terminal and given a prognosis of six to nine months.
Convinced he would never run again, Eitrheim retired his lifetime entry into Duluth’s Grandma’s Marathon and gave away his favorite pair of running shoes. He couldn’t eliminate his love for running, and months later he headed out on his first run. Two weeks later he completed a 13-mile training run and decided to enter a marathon. He completed his 90th 26.2-mile race on Nov. 2, 2014, and feeling better, he signed up for a 100-mile ultramarathon on Jan. 24, 2015, in Arizona. Joined by Morck and Sullivan, Eitrheim ran 60 miles.
In May of that year, Eitrheim had another PET scan, and “all of the cancer areas that lit up on the scan last year in my neck, chest and skin have disappeared,” Eitrheim wrote in a May 12, 2015, CaringBridge entry. However, another scan months later showed cancer had returned.
That summer, he and Sullivan attended the Rob Krar Ultra Camp in Arizona. “When you ran together as often as we did, you talked about everything under the sun,” Sullivan said. “I’m a pessimist, and Dave was the positive in my life. We used to joke with people we’d run with that he was the good cop and I was the bad cop.”
In addition to having a sense of humor, Eitrheim was easy to like and easy to talk to, Morck and Sullivan said.
“I think that is what made him such a good doctor and such a good friend,” Sullivan said.
“You can’t replace really good friends like Dave,” Morck said. “I still can’t believe he is gone.”
In addition to his wife, Eitrheim is survived by their two sons, Nathan and Eric.
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