Tom Green is 57 years old - slender, bespectacled, and gray-haired. He doesn't particularly watch what he eats, and he doesn't exercise much.
But about 10 times a year, the Columbia resident laces up his sneakers ("Maybe I ought to buy shoes more often," he says) and competes in ultramarathons - races that are 50 miles or longer, often over steep mountain trails.
This month, Green completed his 25th consecutive running of the Mountain Masochist, an aptly named slog over 50 miles of Blue Ridge Mountain roads and trails, starting and ending in Lynchburg, Va. He finished in 11 hours, 52 minutes and 43 seconds and is believed to be the only person to run the race every year since it started in 1983.
And that's just Green's latest accomplishment in a sport that attracts some accomplished athletes. Even among the most rugged, challenge-hungry athletes, this self-effacing runner stands alone.
Green established his bona fides as an ultrarunning pioneer in 1986 when he won the first Grand Slam of Ultrarunning Award, an honor given to runners who complete four 100-mile runs: Back then, they were the only 100-mile races in the country: the Western State 100-Mile Endurance Run, the Vermont 100-Mile Endurance Run, the Leadville Trail 100-Mile Run and the Wasatch Front 100-Mile Endurance Run.
Green has run well over 100 ultramarathons, including one in Colorado, the Hardrock 100, that took two days and involved up-and-down elevation changes of more than 33,000 feet.
"He's definitely the grand old man of ultrarunning," said Nelson Stritehoff of Columbia, who has run about 75 ultramarathons after Green talked him into taking up the sport.
Though Green prefers running on trails through the woods, he signed up once to run around a track in Ohio for 24 hours.
"I thought it would be terribly boring, but it was actually more enjoyable and easier than I expected," he said. "I covered about 132 miles, which works out to just over five marathons."
Green, who owns a home-improvement business and lives with his wife, Kay Lent-Green, and their two dogs, grew up in Illinois. In high school, he wanted to be a football star, but because he weighed only 90 pounds his brother talked him into going out for the cross-country team. Green was not particular talented.
"I can remember the embarrassment of being last," he said. But he got better over time and also ran while attending Concord College in West Virginia.
When he left Concord, "my running kind of ended," Green said. He did not pick up the sport again until the early 1980s, he said. By 1983, about the time he moved to Maryland, he had completed four marathons.
"I had just broken three hours," he said mildly, describing a speed similar to that just run by Lance Armstrong in the New York City Marathon. Green was ready for his next challenge when he "happened to read an article about a 100-mile trail run in one of the running magazines," he said.
That was the Mountain Masochist, one of the first ultramarathons in the country. Even though Green had a terrible race - he got lost in the woods and wandered for four hours with no food or water - he was hooked. Ultraraces are not as difficult as they sound, said Green, in his typical way. "It's almost like a brisk hike with a little running thrown in."
As for the Mountain Masochist, "it is hilly," Green said. "But I don't know if it's as bad as it sounds. I've run races that are much more difficult, but this one just has a catchy name."
Green hardly trains for the races. He doesn't lift weights, and he rarely runs more than 10 miles at a time.
Green has been a member of the Howard County Striders, the local running club, for years. He sometimes runs with members of the group, but Green said with a laugh that "they tend to shy away because I'm always trying to get them to do more."
Stritehoff, 56, is one of the few runners who accepted Green's challenge and has run about 75 ultras over 10 years, he said.
At first, Stritehoff said, he was attracted to the challenge of finishing.
"Back when we started, I think there were a lot of people about our age who ran marathons. After a while, you realize you're not going to run any faster, so the next thing is, how much further can I run," he said.
Stritehoff came to like the social aspect of seeing the same people at races around the country.
"It's almost like a little cult," he said. "You run into the same people in Virginia, and then three months later in California, and three months after that in Vermont."
Green agrees that friendships are a big attraction.
"I used to run competitively," he said. "Now my runs are entirely social events. I just love getting out there to see old friends and make new ones. For me, it's just a nice, relaxing way to spend the day."
One such friend is Mark Konodi, who lives in Seattle and was visiting Green to help with a home renovation.
Konodi, 51, who used to live in Maryland, typically visits Green every year to run the Mountain Masochist, followed by the JFK 50 a few weeks later. This year, though, he could not run because of an injury, but he visited anyway.
Konodi said he runs four or five ultras a year, often with Green.
"I just enjoy being out and being active," he said. "Some people like to hike. This is just faster."
Green said his wife is "quite tolerant" of his hobby, and often works as "crew," meaning she drives to meet him at certain points in the race to make sure he has the right clothes and enough to eat or drink.
Green said his races rarely go smoothly.
"It seems like if anything can go wrong with a race, I've experienced it," he said. But that's what makes it interesting. "Part of the whole thing about running them is dealing with problems that come up. You're going to have problems in every race."
Still, Green seems to think his racing accomplishments are hardly worth mentioning.
"People might think I'm some kind of iron man, but I'm not," he said. "I'm just an ordinary guy who might be able to do something extraordinary."