Every 100-mile race is different.
Some are hot and humid, others are bitterly cold and windy. Maybe it’s raining, and the mud is so thick that it threatens to suck your sneakers right off your feet.
Yet there are constants. There will be daylight and darkness, and a strange club of determined athletes sharing their pain-fueled camaraderie and exhausted giddiness.
Columbia resident Tom Green has run more than 60 such ultra marathon races, and he’s still participating in the grueling sport at age 72, finishing his most recent 100-miler on Sept. 3.
Even more astonishing: He didn’t stop after an April 2015 accident that nearly killed him and severely impaired his balance and vision.
Seven years ago, Green was trimming trees in his yard when a branch fell on him, causing multiple skull fractures, a broken collarbone, and a stroke. He was in the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center at the University of Maryland Medical Center for 28 days.
“I’ve just never seen anyone who was that hurt and kept going,” says David Horton, 72, a longtime friend and fellow distance-running legend, as well as professor of exercise science at Liberty University in Virginia.
“The common thing, the easy thing, the expected thing, would have been for him to say, ‘OK, that’s it. That’s the end of my career.’ But Tom didn’t.”
Back in 1986, when Green was 35 and there were just four 100-mile races a year in the U.S., he was the first person to run them all in a single year.
In subsequent years, he collected four age-group national championships and ran more than 300 ultras, defined as any race longer than the 26.2 miles of a marathon.
Running 100 miles is no harder than running 26.2, he says. It just takes longer and hurts more. The challenge has always been more mental than physical, and that’s more true for him now than ever before.
Post-accident, Green is much slower and far less steady on his feet. Because he struggles to see, especially in the dark or in sunlight dappled with shade, he relies on a jogging stroller to signal the terrain by the way it pulls.
Sometimes he finishes last, and that’s OK. He has a genuine fondness and respect for the participants struggling alongside him at the back of the pack.
Green seems to have a gift for pushing through pain. He got dehydrated and dizzy during his September event, the Hainesport Endurance Run in New Jersey, which he described as a “brutally long suffer fest.” But he kept going, stopping for occasional catnaps and reaching 100 miles in about 42 hours.
“Years ago, I was more interested in getting my best possible time and if things weren’t going well sometimes you’d just drop and try to save yourself for the next time,” he says.
Bespectacled, with a gray mustache and gentle smile, Green’s conspicuous lack of hubris belies the simple fact that he remains an ultra running force.
“I never set out to be anybody’s inspiration,” he says. “But more and more I’m finding that people come up to me saying that they are inspired by my efforts. I never intended or tried to do that, but if helps inspire somebody, all the better.”
A Running Life
Green grew up in Illinois and started running in high school, after his older football-captain brother suggested it would be a good sport for his considerably scrawnier sibling.
He continued middle-distance running at Concord University in West Virginia, but dropped out after a couple of years, partly because he defied team rules by refusing to cut his hair.
He moved back to the Midwest and met Kay while they were both working in a local factory. In 1984, the couple visited Columbia to help Tom’s sister with some construction, and stayed. Tom started a contracting business that he shuttered a few years after his accident.
His first ultra was in 1983, the 50-mile Mountain Masochist Trail Run in Lynchburg, Virginia, founded by Horton in 1979 — a race he would go on to finish 29 times. His first 100-miler, the same year, was the Old Dominion 100 Mile Endurance Run in Fort Valley, Virginia. It didn’t go well.
Green didn’t know how to pace himself, how to get enough fuel, how to keep from getting lost, and how to adjust his mind to the reality of running that far. Horrific heat and humidity didn’t help, nor did 14,000 feet in elevation gain.
“My first 100-miler, I got to 60 miles and I thought I was going to die,” Green says. “It just ate at me. I kept playing it over and over in my mind, thinking about what I could have done differently.”
The following year, 1984, he tried again and completed his first 100-miler. When he came up short in the same race in 1985, he got so annoyed with himself that he set a bigger challenge, running all four 100-mile races in a single year: Old Dominion in June, Western States in California later the same month, Leadville in Colorado that August and Wasatch in Utah in September.
The feat put him in the record books.
Still Setting Records
In the frightening days immediately after the accident, when it wasn’t clear if he would walk again, “his mindset was that he was going to run,” says his wife, Kay.
She has supported her husband’s running from the start, traveling with him to races and making sure he has the food, hydration and clothing he needs to get through the miles. She knew he needed to get back out there. “That’s his life, and what he needed to do,” she says.
Six weeks after the accident, Green reached a milestone of walking 10 steps without assistance. Three months after that, he could walk an unsteady mile, and by that November, he covered 39 miles during the 24-hour Crooked Road 24-Hour Ultra in Rocky Mount, Virginia.
Trainer Dennis Albright has been helping Green build his strength, starting in August 2015.
Albright had surgery in 2009 to remove an acoustic neuroma, a benign tumor between the inner ear and brain that impairs balance. His experience improving his own stability prompted fellow runners to suggest that he could help Green.
Three days a week at five in the morning, Kay drives Green the short distance to Albright’s fitness studio, Performance Private Training, for a half-hour strength and balance session.
At first, Green could barely lift a two-pound weight. Now, the workout includes 10-pound dumbbell lifts, triceps pulls, steps through low hurdles, pushups and squats.
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Albright, 50, was with Green for every step of the Yeti 100-Mile Endurance Run in Virginia in 2019, steadying him when necessary and helping pass the hours with plenty of laughs and conversation.
Green is still setting challenges for himself, though they look a bit different now.
In September 2017, Green returned to 100-milers, running the Yeti 100-Mile Endurance Run in Virginia in 29 hours and 45 minutes with his friend Charlie Romanello, who was running his first ultra marathon at age 63. “I was not going to let my injury defeat me,” he wrote on Facebook.
In March 2021, when he crossed the finish line of the Conquer the Wall Endurance Challenge in West Virginia, some 47 hours after he started, he became one of a few people in the world to run at least one 100-mile race in five consecutive decades of his life, from his thirties to his seventies.
He’s also inching his way toward the top of a longevity list, which measures the years and days from a participant’s first hundred-miler to the last. (He was 28th at the last update.)
Another challenge is to run his age in miles. Last year, he ran 71 miles during the Cape Fear 24 Hour in North Carolina.
In October, he plans to run 72.