Eric Byrnes has followed a protocol familiar to many participants in the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. He’s adapted to the rigors of extreme exercise with long hours of running, cycling and swimming.
But of the more than 13,000 entrants in the event’s 42 editions only Byrnes has embraced ultra marathons following success in another sporting extreme – hitting a major league fastball.
Six years after the former outfielder exchanged his cleats and glove for water bottles and running shoes, Brynes will participate Saturday in the annual mountainous trek from Squaw Valley to Auburn. He’s the first former mainstream professional athlete to compete in the event.
“People ask if I am in the best shape of my life,” said Byrnes, 40, whose 11-season major-league career ended in 2010 after a short, early-season stint with the Seattle Mariners. “This is a different kind of shape. It’s been dramatic. I was training to be a thoroughbred horse; everything was short, quick bursts of energy.
“This is the exact opposite. It’s the whole thing between fast twitch and slow twitch (muscle fiber). I was sitting there with 80-90 percent fast twitch and now the transition. It’s gone full circle. It’s probably 80-90 percent slow twitch now, and for me it was perfect. It was something I needed. It’s something I’m grateful for.”
Diving catches to 50-mile training runs
A few former professional cyclists and triathletes have completed the Western States 100. More rare are ultra-marathon runners whose backgrounds include stick-and-ball pursuits.
George Kingston, who played ice hockey at the University of Alberta in Toronto, completed the Western States 100 in 1986. Five years later, Kingston became the first head coach of the then expansion San Jose Sharks. Ray Scannell of Pollock Pines, who played ice hockey at Boston College, won several ultras and finished second at Western States in 1992.
Byrnes, now a broadcaster for the MLB Network, began competing in endurance sports in 2010, a few months after he retired from baseball at 34. He carried 210 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame, about 25 pounds more than his current weight, and he never had run farther than four miles, nor completed more than a 25-yard swim. His cycling was limited to BMX and cruiser bicycles.
But Byrnes finished his debut, a short-distance triathlon in Pacific Grove, using a beach bike and wearing board shorts. He also took his share of teasing from three childhood friends who had dared him to show up and then watched him get passed by skilled teen-agers.
Slightly more than a year later in Tempe, Ariz., Brynes completed the first of his eight Ironman triathlons, the continuous 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run. His training was therapy following the unexpected death of his father a few months earlier. Several years before, his friend Pat Tillman, the former Arizona Cardinals’ safety and Army specialist, died while on combat duty in Afghanistan.
Honoring a friend at the Western States 100 finish
In his Ironman debut, Byrnes wore a visor with Tillman’s name handwritten in bold letters across the brim. He carried the No. 40 jersey of his friend in his outstretched arms above his head as he crossed the finish line. He plans to do when he finishes the Western States 100 at Placer High School early Sunday morning.
During his baseball career, Byrnes played for five major-league teams, including six seasons with the Oakland A’s and a stint with the Triple A Sacramento River Cats. He sometimes was called “Crash Test Dummy” or “Pigpen,” nicknames that defined his enthusiastic, aggressive playing style intertwined with a serious, zany temperament. When Brynes played winter league baseball in the Dominican Republic, teammates called him “Loco.”
“Eric is a very good runner, as evidenced by his finishing times at races like Way Too Cool and Miwok 100K,” said John Trent, a 10-time Western States 100 finisher and an event board member. “He seems to have a good handle on all the knowledge and advice one needs to go the distance, and he has an authentic, buoyant quality.”
Participation in endurance sports doesn’t often necessitate headfirst slides or diving catches, but Byrnes has retained his high-energy enthusiasm. Stadiums, scoreboards and raucous fans are gone, but he seizes whatever controlled abandon endurance sports offer.
“Without trying to stereotype ultra running too much, it’s a bunch of free-loving people out there running with a real sneaky competitive edge,” he said. “I mean, it’s a community and it seems to be a team sport. But there are also some fiery people out there who love running and who love pushing the limits.”
Byrnes also fits well into his own description.
During a training adventure while on assignment in Florida, Brynes late one afternoon decided to travel on foot 48 miles from one major league spring training camp in Lakeland to another in Kissimmee.
Late nights and alligators in Florida
“It was the only time I questioned, ‘What am I doing? Why am I doing this?’ ” he said. “It was on roads that were terribly difficult to navigate, with very small shoulders and a lot of the running was done in swamplands. It was crazy. I mean alligators; I’m talking some back-country stuff I saw that was downright scary.
“I ended up making the 48 miles and I ended up there like at two in morning. But from there, I was knocking out interviews by 7 a.m.”
Byrnes lives with his wife and three children in Half Moon Bay, and the family also has a home in Truckee. Last year, he spent 122 days on broadcasting assignments.
Byrnes knows well the hilly trails in the Sierra Nevada and on the Central Coast. But while working at MLB Network headquartered in New Jersey, workouts are improvised. He’ll run shorter, fast intervals around Central Park or even have with a 52-minute telephone conversation with a reporter while negotiating 2,700 feet of incline in an 80-minute treadmill trek at a Manhattan hotel.
Western States 100 entrants are encouraged to have pacers for the final 38 miles beginning at Foresthill. It’s often done in two segments, one joining the runner for 16 miles through the river crossing at Ruck a Chuck, the second the final 22 miles.
After Byrnes is paced by Franz Dill, who has finished Western States several times and is a neighbor in Half Moon Bay, he will be joined for the final stretch to Placer High School by former professional cyclist Lance Armstrong. The duo have been friends since December when they met and played 18 holes of golf together.
“One of the things that drew me to ultra running was the community aspect,” Byrnes said. “To see how real people are on the trails is unbelievable. It’s the No. 1 reason I fell in love with the sport. I think it can be different. It can be challenging at times. When I think about my first Miwok (a 62-mile trail event in Stinson Beach), I was out there and I had my headphones in. I figured sometime during the race when I had a lull, I would crank up the music.
“But when I finished the race, I had my headphones in, but I hadn’t turned them on once. It was one of those things. It was an eye-opening experience. Talk about being in the moment. I just embraced the beauty of the trails and the camaraderie out on the trails with the other people. It’s pretty cool.”
(Originally published in the Sacramento Bee on June 23, 2016.)