Thirty years ago, Tom Green became the first ultrarunner to complete four 100-mile races in one year.
Eleven other runners vowed to do what was being proposed in 1986 as ultra running's Grand Slam, but Green was the only one still standing on his blisters after the first two races. At the time, when ultramarathoners were considered the crazy cousins of the distance-running clan, there were just four 100-mile races in the U.S., and Green conquered them all in the span of about 12 weeks.
First came the Old Dominion 100 in Virginia in mid-June. Six of the declared Grand Slam candidates didn't finish. Then came the fabled Western States 100 in California. That knocked out the other five. Green then completed the rugged Leadville Trail 100 in Colorado's Rocky Mountains, finishing in September with the Wasatch Front 100 in Utah.
Nearly 300 people have done the Grand Slam since Green, but he was the pioneer. His feat holds a special place in ultra lore.
It's been a long, wonderful running career for the 65-year-old carpenter who lives in Columbia, Maryland., Since completing his first ultra in the early 1980s, Green -- a former high school and college middle-distance runner -- has completed nearly 300 runs of 50 kilometers or more, including more than 50 races of 100 miles. Running has been his zeal. He traveled the ultra circuit to see old friends, make new ones, and test himself over and over again.
But now Green is struggling to adapt to a new reality. Almost a year ago, a freak accident nearly killed him. He suffered skull fractures, destruction of his inner ear and hearing loss. He lost blood because of a damaged artery and also lost cerebrospinal fluid. Within days, blood clots triggered strokes that have left him with major balance issues.
Now the legendary ultrarunner must use a baby jogger for balance when he goes out for a walk or jog. He's entered a couple of races, but he knows he's not fast enough to meet the cutoff times.
Every day now, he's taking things step by step.
"Just the very act of getting up starts my world spinning," Green said. "I've had to learn a new definition to the word 'endurance'. Before, 'endurance' when used in terms of 'endurance running' was merely trying to endure a little bit of discomfort in doing something that I love to do. But now it's just all day long, just trying to get myself to get up and do some of the simplest things, and it's just so much harder."
It was Boston Marathon day, April 20, 2015. Green and his longtime friend, fellow ultrarunner and carpenter Alan Doss, had watched the race and then gone out to Green's backyard to cut down a pair of branches hanging above Green's garage.
It was relatively simple work for the two carpenters who'd been working on a split-rail fence in the preceding days.
Green and Doss planned everything with safety in mind, judging correctly where the branches would fall. But they didn't plan for a forearm-sized section of one branch to break off and bounce up, hitting Green behind the left ear.
Green remembers nothing of that moment.
"It smacked Tom in the head, just like a baseball bat," said Doss, who was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him. Doss said Green "fell like a dead weight and blood was gushing out of the back of his head within a second or two."
The carotid artery had been damaged. Doss kept pressure on the wound while Green's wife, Kay, who had just come home, called 911. In less than 10 minutes, Green was airlifted to a hospital, where he remained in an induced coma for more than two weeks.
"It was just one complication after another, and she [Kay] just had to take it day by day," Green said. "I don't have any memory of the first three weeks, but apparently I kept them on their toes."
Then came rehabilitation, hefty medical bills and a return home. Running friends rallied to Green's aid, and a nephew set up an online fundraising campaign to help pay costs not covered by insurance. Trail Runner magazine posted a story about Green's situation and a video of runners at the Promised Land 50K in Virginia in the week following the accident. They wore green ribbons in support and sent him good wishes.
Said one: "Hey, Tom, I don't know you, but you're an inspiration to us."
Said another: "We just want to say that Tom Green is slammer tough."
Green has been touched by it all.
"It's really been kind of humbling to find out just how many people have been behind me and supporting my recovery," he said. "A lot of people I didn't even really know."
Superman? No way
In his heyday, Green wasn't an elite ultrarunner. He was prolific and strong, but he didn't have top speed.
"He wasn't great, but he was always very good," said Doss, who started running with Green before the Grand Slam year. Doss said Green was most often in the top 20 percent of any 50- or 100-miler.
"He was a smart runner, too," said Doss. "He knew how to pace himself and then, when he got to 70 or 80 miles, he knew how to suffer the last little bit to get there."
At times, Green put it all together. He counts his two greatest feats as running 132 miles at age 47 in the 24-Hour National Championship and finishing the Vermont 100-mile in 17 hours, 28 minutes in 1992. He's also finished the Western States race 10 times (the last in 2014) and the Vermont and Wasatch races fives times each. He's completed the Mountain Masochist 50-miler 15 times and the JFK 50 Mile 17 times.
The Grand Slam is what he's known for, but he downplays it.
"It really wasn't that difficult for me, and from that point on more and more people got behind me and encouraged me," said Green, who was 35 at the time. One of the reasons he set out to run the four 100-milers was because he was only able to finish one of his first three 100-milers. He hoped the quest would raise his game. It did.
"Once I started with the Grand Slam, I found myself trying to live up to other [people's] expectations of me," he said. "They talked like I must be some kind of superman or something, and it couldn't have been further from the truth. But because they thought I was, I forced myself even more."
He says the first leg of the slam, Old Dominion, "was just a very easy run." He was fifth in just over 21 hours. One of his goals was "to not cause any damage" for the other three races.
His next goal was to finish Western States in less than 24 hours, and he came in at 23:39. Next up was Leadville, which didn't go well. His flashlight went out, and he spent about 40 minutes groping along the trail until he could fix the problem. He hoped to finish under 24-25 hours, but he finished at 25:39.
At Wasatch, race organizers arranged with some runners to show Green the course before race day. Wasatch organizers had put up a trophy for anyone able to finish all four 100-milers that year, and he recalls them rooting for him to do it. He finished in 26:43 minutes to secure the trophy and his spot in ultra history.
He said he possessed no special qualities as a runner. He believes it was more his mental makeup that allowed him to complete the slam and other challenges.
"It was just something that I seemed to take to," he says.
Getting a second chance
Doss says Green has made "an amazing comeback."
Doss has traveled many times from his home in West Virginia to see his friend. Though Green -- who owns his own home-improvement business -- isn't back to work, he's done a few small projects with Doss. In late fall, he recalled Green being unable to grip a hammer (the strokes impacted his right side) and losing his balance often while they remodeled a bathroom.
But after a recent visit, he said Green's stamina and overall strength are better.
"He can do almost anything, albeit slower," Doss says.
Green gets around his house without using any kind of a walking aid, but he uses that baby jogger or hiking poles when out walking or jogging. Recently, the two friends went out for a run on a paved path around a lake near Green's home, and Green was going at about a 13:34 pace per mile.
Green has come to accept his life will never be as it was. Doctors have told him his condition will improve, but he won't "get back to normal."
His days of completing 50- and 100-milers are over, but he said he's decided he can't give up running. He loves getting together with friends for casual runs and has entered some races just to get the feel of them. If he's slow, he's slow.
"I've been a runner for, gosh, 50 years, and if I can't get out running, I'm more prone to just stay on the couch," said Green. "It gives me a reason to get up and get out and see some friends."
He said accepting his new reality was important. Otherwise, "it just makes it impossible to move forward with any kind of meaningful life."
In November, he entered a 24-hour race in Virginia called the Crooked Road 24 Hour Ultra and did 40 miles. He walked a little over 30 miles, took a nap, got up and did the rest.
"It was 90 miles short of my personal best, but who's splitting hairs?" he said, laughing.
He did the Hat Run 50K on March 19, his first attempt at a trail run without his baby jogger, hiking poles or a protective helmet. He was averaging 16 minutes per mile, but at the 13-mile mark, he fell and hit his head. He did four more miles before stopping.
He's entered in the Bull Run 50-miler on April 9. It was the last ultra he did before his accident, and it's a race he's done all 23 years of its existence. He said race management offered to pair him with an assistance runner to help get him, but Green declined.
"I didn't want anybody to hold my hand," he said. "I just wanted to be part of the group and run it as an equal, even if it means getting timed out. I just want to be part of the group."
No matter what, he's going to run.
"I guess he feels like he's been given a second chance, and he's going to make the most of it, come hell or high water," said Doss. "He's going to get out there and do it."