Eric Byrnes is a former professional baseball player who recently turned his athletic focus to endurance sports and ultrarunning. Byrnes was not just any ballplayer; in his 10-year career from 2000 to 2010, he hit over 100 homeruns and stole over 100 bases. In fact, he is one of only 10 major leaguers to ever hit over 20 homers and steal 50 bases in the same season, which puts him in an elite class with many hall-of-famers. Byrnes was also exceptional defensively in the outfield, and played with an all-out abandon that earned him the nickname Crash Test Dummy. His passion for the game at the expense of sartorial polish earned him another nickname: Pigpen.
In his first ultra only two years ago at the Way Too Cool 50K, Byrnes ran a solid 5:12. He followed that up with a 4:28 last year and 4:38 this year in tough weather conditions, where he improved to 83rd versus 89th in 2015.
Byrnes now finds himself on the precipice of one the sport’s biggest challenges: he beat the long odds at the Western States lottery last December and is staring down the barrel of 100 tough trail miles this June.
We caught up with Byrnes when he wasn’t logging miles or reporting on spring training for the MLB network to ask him a few questions.
UR: Which nickname best describes you?
Byrnes: “Pigpen” and “Crash Test Dummy” are not exactly the best options to choose from. I played five winters in the Dominican Republic where my teammates called me “Loco.” I’ll ride with that.
UR: Your speed in baseball was exceptional – reflected not just in the number of stolen bases, but also your 85% success rate. How does that raw speed translate to ultrarunning?
Byrnes: Unless I am in a 90-foot sprint to the finish, there is absolutely no translation.
UR: What drew you to ultrarunning?
Byrnes: When I got done playing baseball I surfed every day, golfed and played beer league softball. I then got into doing Ironman triathlons. I have always loved the trails, so ultras were a very easy transition.
UR: Do you see similarities between baseball and ultrarunning?
Byrnes: The biggest similarity is the physical and mental grind. I have often referred to the baseball season as a 162-game ultramarathon. Lining it up against a 100-mile race might be like this:
(Miles 1-20) The first month of baseball is just like the start of a race. Everybody is best friends, physically fresh and in great spirits. We all might as well been sitting around the campfire singing Kumbaya.
(Miles 20-40) You then begin to settle into the season/race. Conversation dissipates and the focus becomes very self-centered. Numbers and pacing take precedent.
(Miles 40-60) The All-Star break is the halfway point and a very nice refresher. It is also a good time to take inventory on what you need to do to keep the train on the tracks for the second half.
(Miles 60-80) By August the dog days of summer begin to kick in, and you do everything in your power to keep the wheels from completely falling off. A fight with at least one teammate/crew member becomes a very strong possibility.
(Miles 80-100) So long as you don’t go down in a blaze of glory, you become revitalized by the smell of the finish line, a hardware prize and the cold frosty adult beverage that awaits.
The more I talk this out, the two sports are a lot more similar than I could have ever imagined.
UR: How do you respond when other baseball players react to your ultrarunning as if it isn’t even a sport?
Byrnes: I have never dealt with that reaction. For the most part, I don’t think there are a lot of people in the baseball world who comprehend running 10 miles, let alone 100.
UR: Do you consider it a sport?
Byrnes: Yes, and a damn tough one, too.
UR: What is harder – completing an ultra or hitting a major league fastball?
Byrnes: Hitting a baseball is a skill that is developed over years of training, the same way running countless miles on incredibly challenging terrain is not something that can be achieved overnight. That said, it all depends on whose fastball or which ultra?
UR: What has been your lowest/toughest moment in ultrarunning?
Byrnes: Last spring training, after reporting all day for MLB Network, I decided to run 48 miles from Tigers camp to Astros camp. I started in 100-degree Florida heat, encountered wild dogs, snakes, alligators and backcountry human “wildlife.” I finished the run at 2 a.m. and was knocking out interviews with Astros players by 7 a.m.
UR: What has been your best/most gratifying moment in ultrarunning thus far?
Byrnes: Being in attendance when my name was drawn at the Western States Lottery despite the ridiculously long odds.
UR: How do you feel knowing Western States is on the horizon for you?
Byrnes: I am excited about the opportunity to compete in what I consider the most iconic endurance race in the world. I have an incredible amount of respect for the history of the race, the challenging course and the people who have preserved its authenticity.
UR: How do you feel about starting a 100-mile race at the bottom of a ski mountain and ascending 2,500 feet in the first 3 miles?
Byrnes: I have done a significant amount of hill climbing, and every treadmill workout I have done since I have gotten into Western States has started with a 2,500-foot climb. Much like baseball, the only three things I know I can control are my preparation, attitude and effort.
UR: Do you have a strategy yet for Western States?
Byrnes: I am trying to get as much advice as possible and rely on the experience and expertise of people who know a lot more about the endurance world than I do. Franz Dill is my neighbor in Half Moon Bay and has completed Western States four times, as well as the Grand Slam of Ultra Marathons. Franz has helped coach me through the entire process since I first got into it. There is also a buddy of mine named Lance Armstrong who used to race bikes and has really gotten into trail running. He’s been an awesome training partner and sounding board. Both Franz and Lance plan on pacing me during the race, so it will be AWESOME to have them there.
UR: What motivates you to take on such a daunting challenge?
Byrnes: The year my dad turned 40, he earned his fourth-degree black belt in Kempo Karate. When I got done playing baseball and entered the endurance world, many people in my life thought I was crazy. My dad was my number one supporter. Sadly, he unexpectedly passed away right before I completed my first Ironman. I turned 40 this year and I wanted to commemorate the work ethic he instilled in me by accomplishing a feat that, in my opinion, is the black belt of the endurance world.
I also thrive on serving as a role model for my three children. None of them ever really had the chance to watch me play baseball, so for them to see me prepare for and complete different endurance competitions is very rewarding. Most importantly, in an increasingly technological world, it is awesome to watch them also embrace an active lifestyle that seeks adventure in nature.
UR: What person inspired you most in your baseball career, and is there a similar person for you in ultrarunning?
Byrnes: My family has always been my number one inspiration. My great grandfather was one of the first people to swim from San Francisco around Alcatraz Island and back. My great uncle is one of only a handful of people to ever swim 28 miles from the shark-infested Farallon Islands to the Golden Gate Bridge. At one point my dad was the eighth highest ranking black belt in the world and my mom was an avid marathoner. I’m just doing my best to keep up with the fam.
UR: What other baseball player do you admire most? What ultrarunner?
Byrnes: I grew up a huge Will Clark fan. His positive attitude and unmatched intensity resonated deep inside me as a kid. As far as ultrarunners, Gordy Ainsleigh is my guy. His willingness to challenge what was considered humanly not possible was the first step to creating the modern day sport.
UR: Your baseball career was cut short by serious hamstring injuries – how are those hammies holding up to ultrarunning?
Byrnes: Ironically I haven’t had one issue since getting into endurance training. Baseball can be incredibly difficult on the body. There would be times when I would stand around for 9 innings in the outfield then have to run down a ball in the gap at full speed with the game on the line. A lot of starts and stops over the course of three-plus hours and just about all of the running is done at 100%.
UR: Your weight as a ballplayer was about 205 – what is your ultra weight these days? What is your target weight for late June?
Byrnes: I usually went to Spring Training at about 215 then would drop down to around 205 before the season was over. Now I typically weigh in anywhere between 180 and 190. As far as a target weight I don’t have one. I don’t exercise as much as I do to become a slave to the scale. I think the biggest key to nutrition, training and weight is to listen to your body. I have learned through Ironman that your lightest does not always equal your best.
UR: How would you describe the culture of ultrarunning? How does it compare to baseball? To triathlons?
Byrnes: Ultrarunning culture seems to be a bunch of people with an appreciation for nature, an overwhelming positive vibe and a sneaky competitive edge. Baseball players are tough to generalize. They are a very eclectic group of individuals from all different walks of life and from all different parts of the world.
Triathletes can be pretty hardcore. There seems to be more of a “win at all costs” sort of attitude, as opposed to ultrarunning’s supportive ethos, where everyone seems to be competing together instead of against each other.
UR: If you could change one thing about ultrarunning, what would it be?
Byrnes: I would like to see more people be able to experience the races and trails. Every ultra I have ever signed up for involves a lottery process. I understand why they try to limit the number of people on the trails, but Europe seems to be able to manage it just fine. The trails are public land that tax payers own and maintain. I don’t understand the ridiculously low number of racers allowed.
UR: Do you think we will see more athletes transitioning from traditional team sports to ultrarunning?
Byrnes: It is not a natural transition from any mainstream sport to ultrarunning. Athletes need to be willing to be uncomfortable for extended periods of time, and I am not sure there are a lot of traditional athletes willing to pay that price after their main careers are over. That said, ultrarunning is an incredibly fast-growing sport and it’s very addictive. As ultra continues to grow and more athletes discover the trails, I think there inevitably will be more crossover.
UR: What is a typical week of training like for you these days?
Byrnes: No such thing, really. I live in Half Moon Bay, Lake Tahoe and New York City. I do my best to take advantage of whatever time and terrain is available. I generally will try to run 5 days a week, with one quality speed session and a long run. I will also try to mix in a swim, ride and hot yoga session. The only thing consistent in my training has been change.
UR: With your busy work schedule, plus endurance training, how do you fit in time for your family and find balance?
Byrnes: It’s family first with me. We all have busy schedules but I think we manage it very well, and I am also that guy that will bring my kids everywhere. The greatest thing I can give them as a father is life experience. Given my fluctuating work schedule at MLB Network, it is not uncommon to train ridiculously early, late or even in between shows.
UR: Ok, the big question: what is your time goal for Western States?
UR: Nice, we will all be pulling for you.