In Blog, Ironman by Eric ByrnesLeave a Comment

When I originally received my Spring Training work schedule for MLB Network I was faced with a of couple challenges.   I was to going to have to leave home on the 8th of March and not return until the 26th.  My trip took me from San Francisco to NYC to Arizona back to NYC then to Florida before finally returning back to San Francisco.  My immediate 2 thoughts were that it is way too long of a time to be away from my family and how was I possibly going to be able to get in quality training sessions to prepare myself for an upcoming BEAST of a race, the Miwok 100k.  The course entails nearly 12,000 ft of elevation gain over 62 miles of hard core trails.

I quickly scheduled to have the family come out to NYC for a week and began brainstorming about creative ways to accomplish some long runs.   As I was dissecting the schedule I noticed that the first camp I worked in Florida was the Detroit Tigers, located in Lakeland.  The next camp was the Houston Astros, located 48 miles away in Kissimmee.  BOOM!  Why not run the 48 miles?  The solution to my problem just slapped me in the face and kicked me in the balls at the same time.

Immediately I began searching all sorts of route options.  Unfortunately, not one of them seemed appealing.  The best route took me south east from Lakeland on the US 92/17 and eventually north to Kissimmee.  There were various backroads involved as well.  I landed in Tampa on Saturday and right away headed out to scope the course I intended to run the next day.  What I found was essentially what I had seen on Google Maps and what I had expected, roads with no shoulders surrounded by swamp lands and speeding cars.  Was the run possible? Of course.  Was the run ideal? NO, not even close.

At the last minute, possibly because my wife Tarah was becoming overly concerned with the idea of the run, my family decided to accompany me on the trip to Florida.  Once the route was detailed, it confirmed both of our beliefs that the only way to get the run done in any sort of safe manner was to have her drive a support vehicle along the way.  We hit up the convenience store the night before and loaded up.  Smart waters, Gatorades, Muscle Milks, Cliff Bars, Chips, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and 4 Sierra Nevada’s for the finish.  Other prep items for the run included 3 pairs of socks, 3 shirts, 3 shorts, 3 hats, 2 pairs of shoes, a back pack, a mophie and 2 headlamps.

Because of my work schedule which had me arriving at Tigers camp at 7am and not finishing until 4pm, the earliest I was going to be able to take off running from Lakeland was 4:30pm.  That undoubtedly ensured there was no way I was going to finish before midnight.  I obviously realized the elements and logistics of the run were going to be extremely difficult but I never expected to endure each one to such an extreme magnitude.

The day started off with a blocking home plate demo with Detroit Tigers catcher Alex Avila.  Ironically, one of the most epic collisions I had in my career was with Avila in 2010.   I interviewed Brad Ausmus, Joe Nathan, David Price, and capped off the work day with a live talk back with the guys back at the MLB Network studio.  At that point I thought my day was done but I was then instructed to make sure I talked with Miguel Cabrera who had just played in his first spring training game following foot surgery.  I don’t like chasing guys down for interviews but knowing that I needed to get onto the road, I basically turned into a paparazzi reporter as soon as Miggy came off of the field.

The weather was my biggest pre run concern.   In the morning there was actually a ton of fog that did not burn off until game time.  The projected high was in the low 90’s with 90% humidity but because of the overcast morning and the breeze in the afternoon the temperature seemed bearable.  I was hoping the wind would continue until nightfall.  Wishful thinking.  Just about 4pm the breeze stopped and the humidity went through the roof.   I generally don’t do well at all in extremely hot conditions.  In baseball terms I am the Sulton of Sweat.  Losing key salts and electrolytes with my eternal buckets of perspiration make it very difficult to replenish at the same rate I am losing fluids.   The furthest I had ever run in my life was 31 miles.  I was not only going to ask my body to go nearly 19 miles further than it had gone before but I was going to do it on a fuel tank that was on the borderline of empty.

Right after the Cabrera interview I shot out to the “support vehicle” that Tarah was going to drive and Super Man changed into my initial running gear.  I fired out a tweet announcing my intentions of running from Lakeland to Kissimmee, then another one indicating that I was going to donate $100 to the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT’s) for every mile I was able to complete.  I then took a “launch video” right out in front of the Tigers stadium as I began mile 1.

I had sent Tarah the intended route and told her to meet me about 10 miles up the road for my first refuel.  The beginning mile was gorgeous.  I was able to run on quiet side streets by the stadium then along a path that wrapped around a gorgeous lake.  I then hit the highway and essentially had to run on swamp grass to avoid traffic.  Around mile 3, I was enjoying the scenery as the highway wrapped back around toward the lake when something caught my eye in the shallow area of the water.   A big ass alligator was bobbing his head up and down.  It was only the second alligator I had ever seen in my life and I guess you could say this was also my first big WTF moment of the journey.

A couple miles later I was running along what appeared to be old vacated warehouses and fenced in tire yards.  While passing one I heard frantic footsteps from behind me, then WHOOF WHOOF WHOOF!!!  I was so startled that I literally tripped and just about fell on my ass as two dogs jumped up against the fence in full attack mode.  I captured the dogs on video but the video doesn’t do it justice because the dogs had calmed down a ton by the time I was able to pull my phone out of the pack.  The next few miles were spent dodging traffic as if I were playing a real life version of Frogger.  I basically had to pick my poison.  Run on the concrete highway with a solid 8 inches of shoulder or run on the swampy terrain that was right next to what looked like a levy of water that the Incredible Gator could pop out of at any moment.  I watched enough of Steve Irwin, the famous crocodile hunter,  to make me believe I had a much better chance against the gator as opposed to a car, truck or semi rolling at 70mph.

There was so much action going on that by the time I reached Tarah at mile 10 I didn’t even realize how much I was sweating.  My shirt and shorts were both sopping wet and I had no choice but to go for the early change.  The back of the SUV looked like something that belonged in some sort of designers magazine.  My alternate outfits were laid out perfectly.  All of my liquid and food options were very neatly displayed and set up for my easy choosing.  My wife was undoubtedly going for support vehicle of the year.  I quickly changed my shirt and shorts, grabbed a fresh water and gatorade then I was off.   Miles 10-15 in dry clothes made the journey more comfortable but the road conditions continued to deteriorate.  Small shoulders and any sort of sidewalk paths became non existent.  During miles 16-23 the sun began to set and orange groves dominated what I would describe as a gorgeous and somewhat euphoric setting.   At mile 20 there was even a dude hosing down the outside of a produce stand that obliged when I asked him for “a little love.”

Tarah was waiting at a gas station around mile 23.  Shady would be the word I would use to describe the atmosphere but I don’t feel as if it would do it justice.  There was one guy sitting on the bed of his truck looking at my wife as if he just got out of prison and hadn’t seen a female in 15 years.  There was another guy leaning up against the side of the car drinking a 40 of Old English and a third dude sitting on the curb smoking a joint.  I tried my best not to worry, judge or over analyze the situation but it was impossible.   We needed to get out of there in a hurry.

I put a towel around my waist and stripped down my disgustingly wet clothes.  The Prince of Perspiration struck again.  I then fired on my most breathable and shortest pair of shorts.  Ones that would make the old Dolphin shorts proud.   I finally realized I would be much better off and able to stay much cooler without a shirt and backpack strapped to my body.   I shoved my phone into the one small pocket on the backside of the shorts and then held a bottle of water in each hand.  I had lost so much fluid at this point I knew it was going to soon start taking its toll.  Without the pack I had no way to carry my nutrition or pills so I instructed Tarah to meet me every 2-3 miles wherever she could find a safe spot off of the main road.  Then, when I began running again I actually back pedaled the first 100 yards to make sure Tarah made a clean get away from the lions den.

With a fresh pair of shorts, no shirt and no pack you would think I would have been more comfortable at this point.  Unfortunately, that was not the case.  I had lost so much fluid and was so incredibly depleted I was miserable.  I was light headed and basically every step between mile 23 and 30 was a struggle.  Not to mention the towns that I continued to run through were flat out sketchy.   On several different occasions the cat calls seemingly came from every direction… “Boy, you shouldn’t be running through this here neighborhood,”  “Look at this crazy white dude, what’s wrong with you?”  and “Run, Forrest, Run”  were three of my favorites.

After meeting Tarah at mile 27 she could tell I needed something and needed it fast.  When we met again at mile 30 she was waiting with a large pepperoni pizza.  Outside of our wedding day I cannot think of a time I was that excited to see her.  I went to town and mowed the entire pie within minutes.  I grabbed a coke and a water then immediately took off running again.  I was completely rejuvenated.

Once I passed mile 31 I entered unchartered territory.  I have run two 50k’s (31 mi) in my life but never before had I surpassed the 31 mile barrier.  Believe it or not, my easiest miles were actually 31-40.  The pepperoni pizza/coke combo dialed me in.  Just about any endurance athlete will tell you that coca-cola is an absolute savior when the tank is low.  The huge amounts of sugar and caffeine serve as a super turbo fuel source.

The temperature definitely cooled as the time and miles clicked off but the running conditions did not improve one bit.  There was one stretch in which I felt like I was running on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles and then another extended area on the Old Tampa Highway where I actually had to have Tarah drive behind me with her hazard lights on because the only shoulder was a gator infested swamp.  On at least 3 different occasions I shined my light into the swamp and witnessed sets of alligator eyes glowing outside of the water.

Somewhere around mile 40 as I ran past the Gatorade plant, barely noticing, because right beyond the plant there were 3 police cars lighting up the night.  I don’t know exactly what was going on but there was a guy cuffed and stuffed in the back of one of the cars and a 3 other dudes sitting on the curb handcuffed as well.  Seemed appropriate for the theme of the night.

As I was coming down the home stretch I was hurting and could barely look past 10 feet in front of me.  I saw something on the road so I veered to the left a bit then jumped my ass half way across the highway when I saw what it was.  Some sort of snake with some very interesting markings.  As I cautiously approached it I realized it wasn’t moving.  The tail looked like it had a rattle on it but I didn’t think rattle snakes existed in Florida.  The next day my wife sent me a picture of the exact same snake.  The picture was on a caution sign inside a gator farm saying “Beware of Rattle Snakes.”

The final 4 plus miles were run through the streets of downtown Kissimmee then along a path on the side of the highway before rolling up to the gates of the Houston Astros facility.   According to my Garmin the total distance was 48.12 miles.  The total time was 8 hours 15 minutes and 37 seconds.  I got into endurance sports 4 years ago.  Since then I have completed 6 full distance Ironman Triathlons and two ultra marathons.  Of all of the crazy endurance challenges I have done in my life, considering all of the elements, this quite possibly was the most difficult.  The weather, the traffic, the roads, the swamps, the gators, the snake and the backwoods Florida towns made it a wild, wild, wild freaking experience.  Looking forward to next spring and figuring out WHAT’S NEXT?  #WhoNeedsAnRV?