The Unsung Icon Tom Green after his summer 2014 attempt at repeating the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning.

The Unsung Icon

Tom Green made history in our sport's infancy. He's run in the pack for nearly 30 years since, softly imparting inspiration to those who doubted themselves. Now he faces the most demanding challenge of his life.

Holly and Garett Graubins December 1st, 2015

 

Photos by Geoffrey Baker

On April 11, after 213 other runners had completed the Bull Run Run 50-Miler in Clifton, Virginia—many of whom had already headed home—a 64-year-old runner cut a solitary silhouette as he shuffled across the finish line in the late-afternoon sun. He eased to a stop and quietly received some congratulatory handshakes, before settling onto a nearby picnic bench.

It was another routine finish for Tom Green. After all, when you’ve completed a race 23 times, it becomes as natural as combing your moustache. What happened nine days later, though, was anything but routine—and would change his life forever.

On that day, Green was looking ahead toward another full summer of trail races and time with friends. It was Boston Marathon Monday, always an annual celebration of running, even for ardent trail runners like Green. Green and his close friend, Alan Doss, also an avid trail runner, watched the race on TV at Green’s home in Columbia, Maryland, before preparing to take down some large tree limbs hanging above the garage.

Green has owned Tom Green Home Improvement since 2006 and has years of experience with chainsaws. Says Kay Green, Tom’s wife, “Tom and Alan had just finished discussing a safety strategy for cutting these two large branches.”

Green and Doss quickly removed the smaller first branch. Then, while the larger, 10-inch-diameter branch fell exactly where the two men had predicted, a calf-sized portion broke off, kicked up and struck Green sharply in the back of the head. The thick, splintered limb cut his carotid artery and knocked him unconscious. Blood poured from the gash.

“Tom fell on me and I put direct pressure on his head to slow the bleeding,” says Doss. With Green in his arms, Doss shouted for Kay, who was still in the house and quickly responded.

Kay called 911, all the while reminding Alan to hold Tom’s head with both hands to protect his neck. Paramedics quickly arrived, lifted the unresponsive Green into a helicopter and flew him to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

 

A portrait of runner Tom Green
The unassuming Green has cut a long, wide swath in the trail-running world, but now faces a tough recovery from a horrific tree-cutting accident.

 

Easily Overlooked

Tom Green. The name itself is vanilla and tends to blur into the mass of other runners in the race results. It doesn’t jump off the screen like Dakota, Krar, Krupicka, Kilian, Shelton, Kimball or Piceu.

But Green casts a shadow as long as any of the sport’s anointed legends. His legacy has come with little fanfare, partially because he pioneered the sport before many of today’s stars were born, and before the advent of the Internet.

Consider this: since he began tackling great distances on trails in the mid-1980s, Green has completed 280 ultramarathons, including more than 50 100-milers.

In 1986, when relatively few people were running even 26.2-mile races, Green had the audacity to tackle, in one summer, the four esteemed—really, the only—100-mile races in the world: Virginia’s Old Dominion 100, California’s Western States 100, Colorado’s Leadville Trail 100 and Utah’s Wasatch Front 100.

That year, an estimated total of only 329 runners took part in these four events, according to realendurance.com. Contrast that to 2014, when that number was 9,071 (and would have been higher were it not for limits imposed by race directors or Forest Service event permits).

So low was the demand for these 100-mile races that runners could register for some of them only a few days beforehand—a preposterous concept today, when runners wonder if they may have a chance to try Western, Leadville or Wasatch even once in their lifetime.

Against this backdrop, there was Green, an unassuming 35-year-old man measuring five-foot-ten and weighing 145 pounds, with a “barrel chest, skinny waist and not much for legs,” according to trail legend David Horton of Lynchburg, Virginia, himself a champion of several 100-mile races in the 1980s and 1990s. Green decided in the quiet of his own mind that it wasn’t enough to slay one or two of these 100-mile monsters in one summer. He would attempt to run all four.

“I felt that if I could just get the right frame of mind, it should be quite do-able,” says Green, 29 years later, his voice slowed by the horrific tree-cutting injury. “But, to just finish was not my goal. I wanted to finish each one well, and know that I gave a good effort.” Green targeted an average of about 24 hours per race.

Kay didn’t feel as confident about her husband’s quest. “I thought he was crazy,” she says. “I thought one 100-miler was crazy.”

Green wasn’t the only trail-ultra dreamer in early 1986. In fact, 11 others had decided before June that they would also attempt the feat. One of them was Ultrarunning magazine editor Fred Pilon. Pilon took the most public approach to attempting his goal, thanks in part to the visible platform afforded by the magazine. He dubbed this seemingly impossible, quixotic quest “The Grand Slam.”

 

Runner Tom Green displays belt buckles from his 1986 Grand Slam of Ultrarunning
Green displays the buckles from his groundbreaking 1986 Grand Slam of Ultrarunning.

 

A Fight of a Different Kind

After the helicopter ride to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma emergency room, doctors assessed Green’s injuries and put him through X-rays and CAT scans. Kay was allowed to see him after one-and-a-half hours. “Tom was on a backboard, on a stretcher, with a cervical collar around his neck,” she says. “I reassured him that we were there and that he was in the hospital being taken care of. The nurses in the ER asked him if he had pain and he nodded his head yes.”

Initially, there was fear that Green had been paralyzed, as doctors could not confirm any movement on his right side.

Green’s injuries were extensive. To name a few: A cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, a blood clot that prevents blood from draining out of the brain. A slight dissection of the carotid artery, which plays the crucial role of delivering oxygenated blood to the head and brain. Fracture to the temporal bone, described as the most complex bone in the human body, which houses many vital structures. A stroke originating in the cerebral artery, which provides blood to parts of the brain that control voluntary actions.

The injuries—collectively categorized as a TBI, or a traumatic brain injury— were so severe that the internal swelling caused him to go unconscious for some time. To allow his brain further rest and to continue treatment as more issues were identified, doctors brought him in and out of a comatose state for over two weeks, inducing consciousness only occasionally to assess progress. Green was not speaking or comprehending during this time. Once he was conscious again for good, he faced four weeks of recovery and rehabilitation in the hospital before being discharged.

In a May interview with Trail Runner, Green’s speech was slow, halting and slurred. Later, he would not recall any of the conversation.

Lucid or not, Green received many visitors (who commented that he was always wearing a race T-shirt)—and several times that number in notes and well wishes on his Facebook page. (Stephanie Davis wrote: “We talk about you, think about you, pray for you, send good juju to you every single day. You are permanently in our ultra hearts.”)

The region’s trail runners, including members of the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club, rallied in support. At the Promise Land 50K on April 25, in Bedford, Virginia, David Horton led runners in a prayer for Green—a prayer that erupted into chants of “Tom, Tom, Tom!” Many East Coast runners began sporting “Green” rubber bracelets in support.

 

Runner Tom Green moving with assistance of a walker and his wife after the accident.
“I tell him, ‘It’s not “if,” it’s “when” you run again,’” says Kay.

 

Short Battle of Attrition

At Virginia’s Old Dominion 100 in 1986, the first of the Grand Slam races, 12 Slammer hopefuls toed the starting line. With a shout of “Go!” the Grand Slam race was on, a challenge akin to running the four-minute mile before it was thought possible or, in the ultrarunning parlance of the day, akin to landing on the moon.

By the end of the tree-lined, gravelly course, only six of the Slam hopefuls remained. Green came in fifth overall, with an impressive time of 21:03.

Next, he and the five others packed their bags for California’s High Sierras and the Western States 100, just two short weeks later. Green had seen Western States coverage in the form of two videos, Desperate Dreams and Wide World of Sports, and was thrilled for the opportunity to run the already legendary race.

At Western, Green endured the famed heat and reached the finish line in Auburn in a time of 23:39—fast enough for the coveted “100 Miles in 24 Hours” buckle.

Green didn’t know it until the next day, but no other Grand Slammers had finished. All had dropped. In a matter of two races, the Great Grand Slam Summer of 1986 had pared itself down to a one-horse race. It remained to be seen whether Green’s skinny legs could take him across another 200 mountainous miles and two finish lines.

At the Leadville Trail 100, Green faced arguably his toughest task to date—the mountain passes and extreme altitude of “The Race Across the Sky.” Yet, it was not the course that nearly defeated him. His most monumental obstacle was a one-pound handheld flashlight. “The batteries gave out over Sugarloaf Pass [mile 80],” recalls Green. “I spent 45 minutes trying to find my way in darkness.”

Nevertheless, with enough time in the bank, Green managed to finish Leadville in a strong time just over 25 hours. But, now, three decades later, he still voices disappointment that he didn’t run fast enough to earn the burrito-sized buckle given to those who completed the race in less than 25 hours. “I ended up missing it by 39 seconds,” he says.

That left only one brutal race to complete the inaugural Slam: the revered, demanding Wasatch Front 100, the era’s Hardrock 100. Described on the race website as “100 Miles of Heaven and Hell,” Wasatch tested runners with over 20,000 vertical feet of climbing—the toughest elevation profile in the world in the 1980s.

Like she had for every other Slam race that summer, Kay provided crew support. The race held special significance because it took place on their anniversary. Call it the trail runner’s version of a romantic getaway.

After 26 hours 43 minutes, Green reached the finish, completing the first-ever Grand Slam of Ultrarunning.

Since that September day, with the low shrubs of Utah’s mountains ablaze in early autumn color, the end of the Wasatch Front 100 has been the official finish line of the Grand Slam. The race’s finishing ceremony recognizes the season’s Grand Slammers. Their accomplishment places them among the elite of trail ultrarunning: in the 28 years since Green’s inaugural run, only 302 people—roughly 10 per year—have finished.

Says Gary Knipling, who in 2006 completed the Grand Slam along with his son, Keith, “Just like Gordy [Ainsleigh, the first Western States 100 finisher] proved that a human can run 100 miles in 24 hours, Tom proved you could do it four times in one year.”

 

The Toughest Recovery

Following Green’s accident, the trail-running community prayed for the best and prepared for the worst. But, as Green made his way home, sparks of hope began to emerge. On June 10, Green posted to his Facebook page: “Home from the hospital. Walked .37 mile today with my walker, a new PR! Such is my new reality.”

Although doctors acknowledge that Green’s running fitness has greatly aided his recovery, he still faces a long road. He will require continued physical, occupational and speech therapy for some time, says Kay, as well as surgery. In early August, Green required an operation to address intense pressure caused by fractured middle ear bones. “Cerebrospinal fluid was being pushed out,” explains Kay.

One bonus of the recent surgery was the installation of a bone-attached hearing aid. For the first time in his life, Green, who was born deaf in his left ear, will finally be able to hear on that side.

“I guess that’s one consolation for getting whacked in the head,” he jokes.

There are still days when Green’s spirits sink into desolation. That is when Kay proves to be his source of strength. “I tell him, ‘It’s not “if,” it’s “when” you run again,’” she says. “His body is just a little broke right now, but each day it’s fixing itself.”

An Everyday Angel Among Us

Those who pull off a coup as audacious as the Grand Slam aren’t ordinarily the types who retire to a recliner and stare at their finisher’s buckles until their final breaths. Green is no exception. In the nearly 30 years since completing the first-ever Grand Slam, Green has been a fixture on the trail ultrarunning circuit—albeit in a fly-on-the-wall kind of way.

“Out East, he is an institution,” says the accomplished ultrarunner Andy Jones-Wilkins. When not running a race, he’s still nearby. In fact, in August, just one day after surgery on his ear, Green appeared at the MD Heat Trail Race in Elkridge, Maryland, pulling tags off numbers and putting them on the finisher board.

Out on the trails, countless people have run with Green, most without realizing his legendary status.

At the 2012 Burning River 100, held in northeast Ohio, Beni Hawkins was struggling mightily, just trying to reach her pacer, hoping for a boost and praying for a trail miracle. A man ran beside her for many miles, offering encouragement in what was her first 100-miler attempt. Says her pacer, Toni Aurilio, who is also co-race director of the Bull Run Run 50, “Beni did not realize it was Tom Green until much later when they arrived at an aid station. He’s a big deal and doesn’t even know it. He’s truly a trail angel.” With such divine intervention, Hawkins made it to the finish for an accomplishment of a lifetime.

“During races, sooner or later, Tom will come up behind you quietly and utter a couple of kind comments—‘Hang in there’ or something inspiring,” says Aurilio’s Bull Run Run counterpart, Bob Gaylord. “It’s not the words, it’s just the kind way he says things.”

Through the 1990s and 2000s, Green continued his metronomic consistency, ticking off trail races and ultras. For him, it was not a matter of collecting finishes. It was more like an endless series of family visits. Green and his wife, who do not have children (but claim their dogs as furry, four-legged kids), have found family-like bonds and love in the ultrarunning community.

Says Knipling, “I overheard Tom once say that his running friends are his family.”

“Running has been such a main part of my life,” says Green. “All my friends are associated with running. To me, it’s about friendships and being part of (running) groups. Runners are some of the finest people I have met.”

 

Slam Redux

In 2013—14 years after completing his own 1999 Grand Slam—Stan Jensen, the creator of run100s.com, spotted Green, then 62, at the Western States 100. “Tom told me that he was considering another Grand Slam attempt,” he says. When he heard in January that Green applied (registering for the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning involves completing a form and sending in an $80 payment), Jensen felt energized. “I was rooting for him with all my heart.”

“I always wanted to do it one more time before I retired from the sport,” says Green.

Whereas Green wielded quiet confidence heading into his 1986 attempt, he seriously questioned his chances 28 years later. Since his first run, only six runners over the age of 63 had completed this fearsome foursome of races.

The improbable nature of Green’s 2014 Grand Slam drew a following as the summer unfolded. Like passionate followers of Forrest Gump, ultramarathoners tracked Green’s results and speculated about his likelihood of success. This would be the equivalent of Neil Armstrong returning to the moon in 1997 in a rundown 1960s spaceship.

This time around, Western States kicked things off. As early as mile 43, Green was lagging behind the cutoff times.  In fact, he could not even stop at aid stations; he would check in and out of them (because cutoff times mandate that you leave by a certain time) before tending to his needs.

With minutes to spare before the race cutoff, Green’s feet landed on the track at Placer High School, where runners need to cover about 300 meters in what is often a celebratory lap.

Green shuffled across as the final finisher in 29:57, a hairsbreadth under the 30-hour cutoff. The thin margin was of little matter, though. A finish was a finish, and his Grand Slam dream was still alive.

Compared to the drama of Western States, Green clicked off the Vermont 100 in a business-like 28:38. (The Vermont 100, held in July, was added as an alternative to Old Dominion in 1989.)

At Leadville, Green labored once again. He made it with nearly no time to spare, in 29:55, under another 30-hour cutoff, setting the stage for a Wasatch Front 100 race to remember. If Green could put one foot in front of the other and finish in under 36 hours, he would shatter the record for greatest gap between Grand Slam completions, set by Nick Bassett (1989 and 2009), and ensure a handsome exclamation point to a storied career.

But, within the race’s first 15 miles, up the 4,200-foot climb over Chinscraper and through the Francis Peak maintenance sheds, Green began to experience back pain. He dropped at Swallow Rocks, mile 35, and his epic attempt ended. X-rays after the run revealed a stress fracture to his sacrum.

“I was extremely disappointed, but I’ve run enough to know that there was nothing I could do,” says Green.  “I was to the point where I could barely even walk.”

 

Humble Grit

Ultrarunners across the board use one word to describe Green: humble. Says Knipling, “If people ask Tom about the Grand Slam, he hardly wants to talk about it. He’s actually shy about it.”

Aurilio agrees: “He’s the opposite of narcissistic.”

Gaylord admires Green’s unassuming style. “We all think of him as a badass of the sport, but he’s not a hot dog,” says Gaylord. “I like the example he sets … ‘I’m an ordinary guy running these ultras.’ He holds everyone on the same level.  Whatever place you come in, Tom thinks you rock.”

But, when taking on the planet’s most challenging athletic events, it’s sometimes not enough to humbly respect the distance. Behind Green’s trademark bushy moustache—a cross between Wyatt Earp’s and Steve Prefontaine’s—is exceptional grittiness and an ability to persevere through the depths of despair that are inherent in all long trail races.

It is a contradiction that the kind, soft-spoken Green can possess the never-quit attitude of a wolverine, a tenacity that would bring a smile to the face of Vince Lombardi. While everybody talks about Green’s Grand Slam runs, David Horton recalls a story from the 1984 Old Dominion 100.

“That year, a thermometer in the shade read 100 degrees,” Horton says. “And 100 in Virginia feels like 120 elsewhere. You could hear moisture sizzling off the trees.”

Horton was driving along a road section of the course, cheering for runners, when he came across Green lying in a ditch, covered in gnats, trying to muster the strength to move on. “He was just cooked,” Horton says.

“I was at rock bottom,” says Green. After a leg rub and some encouragement from Horton, Green got moving and finished—one of only 13 finishers. It was his first-ever 100-miler finish and “the start of an ultrarunning legend,” says Horton.

A few years later at the Massanutten 50 (predecessor to the now-infamous Massanutten 100), ultrarunner Bob Boeder, who later authored the book Beyond the Marathon: The Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, passed a runner hobbling with an apparent bad ankle sprain. It was Green.

Boeder, who was also running the race, says, “It was a difficult race because of bad footing with nasty rocks everywhere. I was sure he would drop at the next aid station.”

Green went on to finish the race, despite the ankle injury. Says Boeder, “He’s a guy who doesn’t quit.”

 

Runner Tom Green at home with his wife after an accident.
Green recovering at home after the accident with his wife, Kay.

 

Perseverence and Reality Collide

Imagine for a moment that what is most important to you is suddenly, with the snap of a tree branch, taken away. For many, that would be family. For others, that might be running and, along with it, a sense of wellness and purpose. For Green, running and family are the same, and he now faces a daunting uphill climb.

“I’ve been running for 50 years, since I was in high school,” he says. “Nearly all the friends that I have I know through running. I can’t imagine my life without it.”

Green’s optimism for a full recovery is on the rise. He is now able to walk slowly with the help of hiking sticks. He has been getting more involved with the local running community, too.

And, in September, finishers of the Wasatch Front 100—including Grand Slammers—will see Green at the finish line. “It will be bittersweet,” he says.

As his motor skills improve, Green is beginning to wonder if he has any ultra-distance runs left. A big test awaits in late November in Rocky Mountain, Virginia, where Green is taking on the Crooked Road 24-hour Ultra.

“I know that I cannot run like I used to,” says Green, who cautions that this is a flat, non-trail race. “It’s the type of race where nobody gets pulled no matter how slow they go. So, it’s not about being fast, it’s about being with friends, and giving a good effort.”

And, if all goes well, could his skinny legs ever take him through another Grand Slam attempt? Green first cracks a joke, “One of my wife’s friends once said that I have pretty good legs … for a woman.” Then, later, he reconsiders the possibility. “I try to make the best with what I got. Maybe some day if I can get out to running 100s again, I can get out there and try it again.”

Still, his injuries have taught him lessons that won’t fade into the past. “For whatever reason, I have been granted a second chance at life,” he says. “A second chance, that, I promise, I will not take for granted.”

 

Holly and Garett Graubins have never run the Grand Slam, but they have eaten Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast the morning after completing a few ultramarathons. This article originally appeared in our December 2015 issue.

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