Former major leaguer Eric Byrnes was known for his hustle and speed. Now he has transformed himself into a passionate endurance athlete.
By Henry Howard
Baseball fans who saw Eric Byrnes play recognized his exuberance for the game — chasing after line drives in the outfield, sprinting around the bases and playing with an enthusiastic abandon for the game.
“Authentic is a word that I use a lot when I talk about Eric,” said Tarah Byrnes, describing her husband, now an analyst for Major League Baseball Network. “And it can be an overwhelming concept, if you think about who Eric is. His intensity as a baseball player, his intensity as an athlete, his intensity as a broadcaster — all of those things show it’s true, it’s authentic.”
His authenticity and athleticism are on full display in a 45-minute documentary, Diamond to the Rough, which chronicles his transition to ultra running and completion of the Western States 100.
Embracing the Ultra Lifestyle
Byrnes’ odyssey began a few years ago when he ran into three of his high school friends who dared him to do a triathlon with them. So, of course, he accepted even though he had never swam for more than 25 yards at a time.
“I absolutely got my ass kicked in every sense of the word,” he said of his debut triathlon. “And I loved every minute of it. When I got done, I thanked them and said that is one of the greatest experiences of my life. And it will be the last time that the three of you guys ever beat me.”
Byrnes was hooked and propelled himself into triathlons, finishing eight in the four years after the dare. He then transitioned to the ultra world “where somewhere along the way it turned into a lifestyle.”
He quickly fell in love with the trail. “There’s not a day when I regret a workout. It’s my peace. It’s my mediation.”
The quiet, serene trails are vastly different from the stadiums where Byrnes would run hard and fast in the outfield and on the basepaths in front of tens of thousands of boisterous fans. Long distances were never part of the equation for a baseball player. In fact, Byrnes never ran more than four miles in his life before the triathlon. “Running was something I would enjoy doing but I never really did it for distance,” he said.
Now, Byrnes compares 100-milers to his former profession.
“It’s like a 162-game season all in one day,” he said. “It has all the ups and downs. It’s about staying consistent. And there’s no doubt in baseball and ultra running that the successful people are the most consistent from start to finish.”
In transitioning from baseball runner to endurance athlete, he had to learn a new form of running. Gone was the mad dash from first to third. Now, it’s pumping his arms from start to finish over hours and hours on the trails. “It’s a process and I am continuing to work on becoming a better runner.
“It’s important to shock your body into ways that will make you improve.”
In baseball, teammates can help a player advance on the basepaths. In ultra running, of course, no one can physically help you get from aid station to aid station.
“Whenever you have something greater than yourself — at least for me — one thing I learned from Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run this year was having all those people there, helping me, pacing me, being on my crew — was awesome I couldn’t have done it without them,” he said of his support crew and pacers, including family members and friends — Team Oppo Taco. “It was the support that I felt, the love that I felt. That’s humbling.”
On to Western States
He first heard of Western States (WS100) when Bryan Morrison dropped out yards from the finish line after leading the race for hours. “Ten years ago, I couldn’t imagine running a marathon,” Byrnes said. “I couldn’t imagine running a half marathon. But I learned that with proper training, our bodies are capable of doing incredible things.”
Byrnes started out his ultra racing with Way Too Cool, then qualified for Western States at Miwok 100K and “very luckily got into the (Western States) race my first year. It’s one of the most iconic 100-milers in the world. It has an incredible history with Gordy Ainsleigh. It’s a real special experience.”
In 2016, Byrnes had one ticket in the lottery for WS100. Good fortune smiled on him as he won the opportunity to complete the famous ultra the year he turned 40.
Like many first-time 100-mile runners, Byrnes experienced ups and downs on race day.
- Byrnes reached the second aid station (23.8 miles in 4:44) and had some peanut butter and jelly, salt with watermelon and drink. After setting out again, he felt nauseous. “I took out of there and started running. I felt nauseous. I felt terrible. I was at Mile 25. I have 75 more miles to go and I feel like this? How am I ever going to get through it?”
- Then he hit a series of slight uphills. He couldn’t run them so he walked, eventually reaching the third aid station, Robinson Flat, (29.7 miles in 6:11). The struggles continued.
- In the heat of the canyon, Byrnes saw an orangutan (actually two branches swinging), a mountain lion (his imagination) and a paparazzi photographer (a tree stump).
Byrnes pushed through the hallucinations and reached Mile 60 where help waited in the form of Team Oppo Taco and his pacer, a well-known endurance athlete.
‘A nice push of motivation’
- Lance Armstrong ran as Byrnes’ pacer from mile 60 through 80. “The greatest pep talk he could have given me was to listen to him breathe hard, then turn around and see him sweat,” Byrnes said. “I look behind me — and in my opinion someone I consider to be the greatest endurance athlete of all time, who is in pretty damn good shape — and to see him working is a nice push of motivation.”
- They finally hit the Greengate aid station (79.8 miles in 17:45), where Byrnes picked up Franz Dill as his pacer for the final 20 miles — an extremely technical part of the course. “Either I was getting carried off that course, or I was crossing the finish line,” Byrnes recalled. “Carried off the course to the point that I could not put one foot in front of the other.”
- In the darkness, they hit the Highway 49 aid station (93.5 miles in 21:13). With roughly a 10K to go, things were starting to brighten for Byrnes.
- About 90 minutes later, Byrnes paid tribute as he does at the conclusion at all of his races. As he approaches and crosses the finish line, he carries the No. 40 jersey of Pat Tillman, the Arizona Cardinals football player who left the NFL to become an Army Ranger. Tillman was killed in Afghanistan in 2004.
Byrnes crossed the finish line in 22:50:55 and picked up his daughter in celebration as she smiled and clung to a toy rabbit.
“This race will make you vulnerable, endurance sports in general, will make you vulnerable. You have to be willing to not be the best, you have to be willing to let your guard down and embrace something that is totally new and totally uncomfortable,” he said. “But if you are able to get through that little part, it will be the most rewarding thing you have ever done in your life.”
His passion for running is contagious among those who know him best. Tara plans on running her first 50K, and his daughter recently finished her first 5-mile run. “That’s pretty special.”
A different grand slam
So, what’s next for the former professional baseball player? “The plan is for the grand slam,” he said, referring to Western States, the Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run, the Leadville Trail 100 Mile Run and the Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run all in the same year. “The four 100-mile races. It’s redefining what the human body is capable of.”
Byrnes doesn’t seem himself as special, just someone who goes out and pursues his dreams.
“There’s no substitute for actual work and going out there and doing it,” said Byrnes, who cut more than an hour off his time at Way Too Cool on his second finish. “Push the pace in training and be willing to suffer.”
For those contemplating their own long-distance events, Byrnes advises that “it doesn’t have to be a 100-mile run. But have something — put something on the calendar.”
While Byrnes became the first former professional athlete to finish Western States, he is certain that amateurs can do great things.
“I think anyone can do an ultra,” he stated emphatically. “There’s no doubt in my mind that you can finish a 100-mile ultra, as long as you don’t have any health restrictions. You may not be able to finish in 24 hours, but you will finish. It depends on the amount of work you are willing to put in as well as natural athletic ability. As long as someone is mentally willing and able to endure then there is no doubt in my mind that person can do it.”
Name: Eric Byrnes
Hometown: Half Moon Bay, California
Number of years running: 5
How many miles a week do you typically run: 50
Point of pride: My kids
Favorite race distance: 100 miles
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Oatmeal
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: High Life by Kelley James
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Do something
Where can other runners connect or follow you: @byrnes22 twitter,
@ebyrnes22 Instagram, Eric James Byrnes Page Facebook