Former Eastern Michigan runner Erik Reichenbach takes us through his ‘Survivor’ experience
In the last couple weeks, I’ve gone public with my hopes of one day going on the show “Survivor.” I’ve watched maybe 475 of the 504 episodes that have aired and at 23 years old with some relative fitness at the moment, I believe I’m ready. I had the pleasure recently of picking the brain of a former collegiate runner that has lived out one of my dreams twice.
Erik Reichenbach ran for Eastern Michigan from 2006 to 2009 and his bio on the Eagles’ website boasts that he “was a competitor on the reality-television show Survivor: Micronesia-Fans vs. Favorites.” He broke 50 seconds for the 400 in high school and then focused on middle distance in college and set a 1:52.89 personal best for 800 meters in his freshman year. He made his debut in Season 16 of the show and as he mentions in our interview, running after being on an island for 39 days is not easy to come back from.
Reichenbach was voted off in grand fashion. He handed his individual immunity to another person and was blindsided in the vote. He finished fifth overall. He returned 10 seasons later for the second installment of Fans vs. Favorites and made it to the top five again. He was in position to possibly go for the win but fell ill after a tribal council and doctors said his blood pressure was too low. Reichenbach was medically evacuated and finished fifth again.
Good news is that he’s doing great now. Reichenbach draws up cartoons for People Magazine’s recaps written by a fellow Survivor contestant and he’s happily married now. I caught up with him to discuss some of his running ties and also to see if he can maybe help me pull some strings to get on the show.
Chris Chavez: So the first time that you went on “Survivor” was Season 16 and you were still in college. How did you manage to take time away from the team to go on the show?
Erik Reichenbach: When I first applied in 2006, I put in the application and it was pretty quick and painless. I didn’t think anything of it. I really didn’t think that I had a shot. Then, they called me back two or three months later and they said that they finally got around to seeing my video. They were excited but I had to apply for the next season. I went ahead and made another video while I was training over the summer for the upcoming cross country season. It was easy to do since I was back home and away from school. By the time that classes started, I was so far along in the process that I kind of knew I was headed out. I talked to my coach at the time and told him that it was lined up and could be a good opportunity.
I was a junior going into my senior year, I think. I hadn’t accomplished as much as I would’ve liked to in the sport because it’s really competitive at Eastern. It was different to make the record board. I was in my high school record board for a few distances but to make it at Eastern, you had to be Olympic caliber. We’ve had a few Olympians come through and put up some times that were crazy. My career was in a flux at the time and my coach said that if I needed time away for a bit, this could be good PR for the university. I had his blessing and it turned out to workout. It lined up with me getting burnt out and it happened at a good time.
CC: Technically it’s 39 days on the island for the show, if you go the distance. But how long did the shoot take and did you go back to running after show?
ER: There’s a week and half before the show for travel and press stuff. After I came back, my weight was terrible. It’s a combination of things. I was preparing to run really fast and long distances while I was out there. That helped in terms of having great cardio but the islands are so small that there’s not much to run. There’s lots to swim but not to run. Following the show, my legs muscles were kind of destroyed because all I was doing was walking, swimming and sitting. You also have poor nutrition and getting in as much to build muscle. You’re just eating for nourishment. I basically had to start over with my running and actually I gained a lot of weight. Following the re-entry into society, you eat a lot of saturated fats and processed foods. My body was gaining weight fast. The heaviest I’ve ever been was the week after Survivor wrapped up because you’re introduced to all these terrible foods. On top of that, I had no muscle.
CC: That’s why everyone looks chunkier at the reunion show for the finale!
ER: That’s why everyone looks different. The second time was a lot worse than the first time. The second time I went on the show, I was prepared for that. The first time, it was awful. I broke out and had a lot of bad physical reactions with a re-introduction into society.
CC: What’s the extent of your running career ? How far did you want to take it and how much do you do now?
ER: Now, I run on my own for pleasure or to calm my nerves if I’m stressed out. In college, I was a mid-distance guy. We had a couple guys who were running 100 miles a week consistently and I thought that was a bit much. I was lighter on the mileage. The most I ever ran in one training run, I did a 22-miler once. Bare minimum, I was running at least five miles a day.
CC: Maybe like 70-80 miles a week?
ER: That’s probably right. They wanted me higher but that’s accurate.
CC: How does Survivor even out the playing field between athletes and non-athletes. Some people go into it with the illusion that someone like Brad Culpepper, who was a former defensive tackle in the NFL, is going to dominate physically in challenges. Then you have someone like Cirie, who is a self-proclaimed couch potato, and she could beat him at challenges. What is it about the game?
ER: It’s pretty strange and it’s something you notice when you come from a background in sports. Something that I noticed right away was that in sports, you’re used to a process of exerting energy, recovering and refueling. With Survivor, you don’t have that recovery and refueling period, which really takes a toll on people. You work hard. You play hard. You rest and regain that. A lot of times, people with a lot of muscle mass end up hurting themselves because they have to feed all those muscles and over time that can get tiring. Some of the bigger guys develop, what I call “angry dad syndrome.” That’s when you’re about three days in without food and you get really grumpy. Your social game takes a dive because you’re so malnourished and your brain isn’t processing things as it should. People don’t think about that. That’s where people like Cirie benefit.
CC: How much attention did you pay to the pro and Olympic scene in track?
ER: When I was in college, the Olympics were pretty close in our circle. We had Boaz Cheboiywo and he had just finished up at Eastern when I got there. He was working with coach John Goodridge. It was very real that we had to have an Olympian from our group because of Eastern’s legacy and what we have there. A lot of people don’t realize that from Eastern because we’re in the shadow of Michigan, which is just down the street in Ann Arbor. We recently had Eric Alejandro hurdle for Puerto Rico in the Rio Olympics. They always talk about tradition. They have this past and there’s a lot of literature about it. Going to Eastern, I thought about one day maybe running in the Olympics and how I’d like to do that. There’s a big difference between wishing to do it and actually doing it.
CC: So were you ever one of the guys who would hop on LetsRun and obsess over the sport?
ER: I was turned off from LetsRun from what I saw from some of my teammates on it. It just seemed like there was a lot of trolling and frustration. It was funny to hear their stories and what would be on there. For a long time in college, I actually didn’t do anything online. I didn’t have social media. I didn’t have a smartphone until about two or theee years ago. I was really off-line for most of my life.
CC: But now there’s a ton of information out there and an easier way to connect with the audience through social media. Back when it was Survivor All-Stars, there were no message boards or online communities, Without the internet, we would have never known that Rupert from Survivor: All-Stars once ran for Indiana governor against our current vice president Mike Pence. I see you’re doing some online work weekly with comic recaps of episodes.
ER: I’ve talked to Stephen Fisbach (Survivor: Tocantins and Survivor: Cambodia) because he’s got a blog for People. I knew him from different Survivor charity events that different cast members go to. I went out to New York once and he lives in Rhode Island. He does the blog for fun. I do comics. It made sense to team up with him. It’s interesting how powerful the Survivor community is and have been able to keep it alive for so long. Every year, you hear people that don’t watch the show say ‘This is still on TV? I can’t believe it.’ and then there’s a camp that says ‘Of course this is on TV! This is a really great show!’ There’s a fanbase that says, “This is like an American sport because it involves social interaction, sportsmanship and other factors. It’s got fantasy leagues tied into it as well.’
CC: Could an Ashton Eaton or Nick Symmonds do fairly well on Survivor?
ER: I think any runner is in a position to do really well. That’s from the cardio and physical aspect. It takes a lot of gauging your time. Everyone who goes into survivor thinking that it’s a sprint is out before the merge. They get anxious or nervous and break down. Someone with the mindset of a long distance runner has a much better shot.
CC: You sign-off on being recorded 24/7 for the show. In those times that you would try and get on runs, did you have someone alongside you at all times?
ER: There’s a camera crew that follows you around and you’re not supposed to interact with them. If you do something memorable, they need to be there. If you really don’t want to deal with them, you can run away from them. They have to haul all this equipment through the forest and there’s nothing they can do about it. I did that a few times. I don’t know if they were ready for that or if they knew what I was doing.
CC: The other thing I notice is that when someone is searching for an immunity idol, shouldn’t they just look at where the cameras are pointing for a cue?
ER: It’s funny because it works both ways. Some people read into it too much. You’ll see veterans of the show look for clues in the cameramen. They’re pretty slick about it sometimes. There’s a lot of non-verbal communication that takes place.
CC: How do you feel about the way your edit came out? With reality TV, you always hear horror stories about the Bachelor or Bachelorette contestants.
ER: I think Survivor is one of the better shows in terms of editing. That’s because they do a better job of characterizing people for who they are.. Editing is something people need to understand happens and can go either way. My first season I was happy with how it came out. I was a little bit of a hero or favorite. The second time I was pretty removed from the show because I didn’t fit the narrative or whatever they had going on. At the time, I was angry about it because I know how much else was left on the cutting room floor. I’ve come to terms with it because I understand they didn’t want to go in a particular route and it’s OK. Some people take it very personally. My advice in general is don’t go on a dating show. Sometimes people’s careers get ruined. They don’t pay good money and they can ruin your reputation.
CC: On “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette”, those rose ceremonies can take forever to film. How long does tribal council take to film?
ER: We had one that was maybe a half hour and then we’ve had other ones that have been two hours. I think that’s the max.
CC: Just sitting there or is (host) Jeff Probst talking and asking questions the entire time?
ER: It’s just a really long conversation and what’s happening is they’re compiling and what they need to edit. If there’s something that the producers need, Jeff will start digging into it and conversation gets going.
CC: What’s it like watching this season? Your face flashes on the screen occasionally when they show Cirie’s game-changing move from Micronesia and she was one of the people that helped vote you off?
ER: Any season with returning players is interesting because they’ve been there before and they know what they’re doing. In my mind, I have less of an opinion about watching favorites but instead I like to see people with egos get smushed. All-star seasons have contestants with very large egos that think ‘This is my chance to show everybody how awesome I am.’ and people just get made into buffoons. I enjoy seeing personalities that are very strong and aggressive kind of get thrown for a loop. In my mind, if you’re cast a second time and you’re winning, what more is there to do? You’ve already done it once before. I’m not looking for ‘Oh I think this person is doing well.’ I’m more for ‘This guy thinks he’s all that but he’s not.’ It’s a little cynical but that’s how I see it.
CC: Last thing, but we could probably go on for hours, personally I’m 23 years old. I feel like I’m in good shape. I think I have a good grip on the game and how it operates. What advice do you have for someone like me trying to on the show?
(Editor’s Note: I’ve redacted his advice and I’m keeping it to myself until I hopefully can land on the show)
ER: Now, aside from Survivor, I would love to see a running reality show across the U.S. – and this is something that I’ve mentioned to my old cross-country buddies about this. I’d love to see a team of maybe 10 runners. They run to different cities in the U.S. and when you get to a new town, you take a break and there’s a run-off who will be added to the team from this town that you’re in. It would be some sort of road-rally from California to Maine. Each time that you get to a new city, there’s a chance of joining the team so others can come in. There’s running and there’s partly challenges as well. It would be pretty physically tough and then they have a run-off to see who joins the team and a situation to join the tea,.
CC: That’s awesome!
ER: My runner friends have been over-the-moon about it. We can call it something like Run for Your Life. I’ve also run the idea by Dathan Ritzenhein. I’d love to see some kind of show like that just grabbing people up across the country.