BY TERI SAYLOR
Tom Green did not cross the finish line at the Umstead 100-Mile Endurance Run to great fanfare and loud cheers, but while he deserved it, he neither needed nor wanted it.
The 50-mile ultramarathon distance he covered in 14 hours and 45 minutes on April 2 was a triumph in itself, and it was the longest distance Green’s two feet have taken him since a tree-trimming accident nearly ended his running career and his life less than a year ago.
For average fans of distance running, Green’s return to the ultramarathon circuit may seem no less than miraculous, but his friends and fellow runners would rather attribute his comeback to the ingredients that make up Tom Green– a strong spirit, a stubborn streak a mile long and willpower made out of cast iron.
The last thing Green remembers about April 20, 2015 is watching the Boston Marathon with his friend Alan Doss.
He vaguely recalls pulling some branches down from a tree in his yard, but the rest of that day and the three weeks that followed are dark.
“I woke up and my sister was there,” he said on the phone recently. “She told me I hit my head and I was in the hospital. I was incredulous.”
Mention the name “Tom Green” to almost any ultramarathon runner or fan and you’ll get a story about how he inspires beginners and encourages fellow veterans when they struggle.
Tammy Massie is one of them.
A prolific endurance runner who tackles marathons and ultramarathons almost every weekend, Massie had just completed her ninth Umstead 100-mile race and was gearing up to volunteer at the Bull Run Run 50-miler on April 9, another race Green was planning to tackle.
“I met Tom about 10 years ago when I first started volunteering at the Bull Run Run,” she said. “He is such a gentleman and an inspiring runner. From all of the energy he has given us over the years – we are giving it back to him.”
From cross country races to ultrarunning
Green, 65, who started running cross country as a kid, is what sportswriters and pundits might describe as a durable runner. Speed has never been his strong suit, but he always has possessed enough endurance to take him to the finish line of almost any race. His 100-mile PR is 17 hours and 28 minutes at the Vermont-100 in 1992. At age 47, he ran 132 miles in the 24-Hour National Championship.
“I never knew an ultramarathon existed until I read about a 100-mile trail run in a magazine,” he said. “And when I read it, I was suckered in. There were photos of middle-aged men, some on the heavy side, and smiling like they were having the time of their lives.”
So at 32 years old, he entered his first ultra – the Old Dominion 100 – and completed 60 miles.
“I thought I was going to die,” he said.
Green considered that first attempt a failure, but he refused to quit. The second time he tried, he completed all 100 miles. The following year he fell short again. Going one for three wasn’t good enough for him, so he set his mind on completing every single ultramarathon that existed.
It was 1986, and there were just four ultras: Vermont, Wasatch, Leadville and Western States. To run all four in the same year became like the holy grail of running and it was anointed the Grand Slam of Ultramarathons.
Other runners tried and failed, but Green persevered, finishing all four races in a cumulative time of 96 hours, 26 minutes, and 28 seconds, claiming his spot in the history books as ultrarunning’s first Grand Slam Champion, and sealing his status as a bona fide running legend.
If you ask Green, this ultimate achievement is not worth fussing over.
“It seemed like it would make a good adventure and a challenge at the time,” he said. “Back then, people looked at me like I was Superman, but that was the farthest thing from the truth. I was always just an average runner.”
As Massie sees it, Green is a rock star among mere mortals.
“He is super duper famous,” she said. “To me, seeing him at races is like seeing Jon Bon Jovi at a Target.”
Green may not remember much about the accident that nearly killed him, but Alan Doss remembers every frightening moment.
The two men, who have been friends for more than 30 years, are carpenters and although they live 400 miles apart-Green in Maryland and Doss in West Virginia – they often collaborate on projects.
Doss and Green had taken a break after building a split rail fence around Green’s property to watch the Boston Marathon. When the race ended, they went back outside to cut down a couple of limbs hanging over Green’s garage.
“The limbs jutted out from the tree trunk, parallel to the ground,” Doss explained. “We had decided on a plan for safety, and executed it perfectly.”
The men cut the smallest limb first. When they tackled the second limb, it fell right where it was supposed to but as if it had a mind of its own, it hit the ground, kicked back up and struck Green behind his left ear, nicking his carotid artery, and causing a fracture of the temporal bone.
“Tom fell like a sack of potatoes almost on top of me,” Doss said. “Blood was squirting out of his head wound, and I put my hand over it to make it stop squirting.”
Green was airlifted to the University of Maryland Trauma center in Baltimore where he lay in a coma for two weeks.
Green’s wife, Kay, who is a radiology technician, credits Doss for his quick actions that may have saved her husband’s life.
“I felt bad for Alan, who witnessed the accident, but he did the right thing by holding Tom’s head still, staunching the blood flow and yelling for someone to call 911,” she said while standing around the Umstead course waiting for Tom to pass by on his journey.
In the hospital’s intensive care unit, Green’s condition was touch and go for days, and no one knew if he would ever be the same. He suffered a cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, and blood clots which caused a stroke, all symptoms of traumatic brain injury that would keep him in a comatose state. When he finally opened his eyes, he still wasn’t really there, Kay Green said.
Then he started responding to stimulation and following commands.
“That’s when we knew he would come back,” Kay said. “When he was able to lift his right leg, we cheered because we knew he would someday be able to run again.”
But Green had to learn how to walk before he could run, and when he returned home after a month of physical therapy, he set out to do just that.
Using a walker at first, he measured his distance, not in miles, but in mailboxes.
“Tom walked to the first mailbox on our street,” Kay said. “Then he was able to make it to the second mailbox.”
Within four weeks, and using his walker, Green could shuffle a mile, which took 40 minutes.
“At this point, we just didn’t know how much Tom could recover,” Doss said.
But while Green kept improving, balance continued to be a problem. He knew if he ever wanted to have a chance to run ultras again, he’d have to find something to hang onto for balance, yet navigate easily.
Jogging strollers are the rage for mom-and-dad runners with new babies. Green reckoned he could run with one too.
Green set his sights on the Crooked Road 24-hour run in Rocky Mountain, Virginia, a November run that would come only seven months after he almost died.
His goal was to finish 50K, but after going 30 miles in 10 hours, he was exhausted.
“So I took a nap,” he said. “And when I woke up, I felt guilty for stopping, so I got up and walked nine more miles.”
Then on March 19, Green decided to try a free run without using the jogger at the Hat Run in Maryland. Along the way, he lost his balance, fell and hit his head again.
With the Umstead 100 just two weeks away, on April 2, Green was determined to follow through despite his set-back. He was determined to get 50 miles.
Set in the rolling hills of the 100-year old William B. Umstead State Park, the endurance run takes place on a picturesque, looping bridle trail, rocky and unforgiving on the feet, but easy for anything with wheels, like mountain bikes and baby joggers.
For Green, the Umstead 100-mile endurance race was as much a lesson in strategy and willpower as it was in strength and endurance. To finish in the 30-hour time limit runners must maintain at least an 18 minute pace, and even though Green was planning on going 50 miles, it was important to him to maintain that minimum pace. Strong and steady, he never wavered and never even rested at the aid stations.
After starting just before daybreak at 6 a.m., Green finished an hour after the sun went down at 8:45 p.m.
A few friends and volunteers who were hanging around the finish line congratulated him with handshakes and hugs, but he did not linger. After a few minutes, with his wife at his side, he grasped two hiking poles and quietly hiked away into the darkness.
While 2016 marks exactly 30 years since Tom Green made running history by becoming the first Ultra Running Grand Slam Champion, coming back strong after his traumatic brain injury may be his biggest feat of endurance yet.
When most people think of a champion runner, they envision a chiseled athlete, out in front, breaking a finish line ribbon with arms raised in glory.
But champions are made in many forms.
At any given trail run, you may see a figure, not running, but striding quickly through the forest pushing an empty baby jogger or heaving a pair of hiking poles. He’s focused, determined, and steady as he pushes toward a finish line in the distance.
That is what a champion looks like.
Editor’s note: This story was written for the May 2016 issue of Running Journal. Contact Teri Saylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @terisaylor