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Leave it to the “Human Crash Test Dummy” to create and tackle one of the world’s toughest triathlons. And one heck of an adventure-filled summer vacation with his family.
Eric Byrnes earned a reputation as a gritty, always-hustling competitor during his 11-year pro baseball career, a player who would almost always finish a game with a dirty uniform. Since hanging up his cleats in 2010, the 42-year-old “retiree” from Half Moon Bay, Calif., has surfed a lot, played plenty of rounds of golf, and hit more beer league softball home runs than he can count. But his real passions are spending time with this family and pushing his limits in endurance sports.
Since leaving baseball, Byrnes has completed numerous Ironman triathlons and ultramarathons. This summer, he’s tackling an epic, self-contrived 3,200-mile triathlon across the U.S. that started in late July and, if all goes well, will conclude in mid-September in New York City.
He started by swimming a grueling 7 miles across San Francisco Bay on July 22. As of this week, he’s pedaling across Nebraska, about halfway through a 2,350-mile bike ride from Oakland to Chicago. Once he gets to the Windy City, he’ll run 850 miles to New York City to complete the journey in about 54 days.
A Long Journey for a Good Cause
Why is he undergoing such a grind this summer? Initially, the triathlon was going to be part of a tour to promote Byrnes’ new book, “The F* It List: Life Lessons from a Crash Test Dummy,” to share his life-changing insights with others. But Byrnes and his wife, Tarah, wanted to spread a bigger message than that, so they launched the Let Them Play Foundation, a non-profit organization aimed at giving more kids opportunities to participate in sports and physical activity on a daily basis.
Dubbed the Let Them Play Triathlon Across America, Byrnes’ ultra-distance multisport journey is raising and distributing money for local organizations committed to developing after-school activity programs and athletic opportunities for kids.
“The bottom line is that youth activity is at an all-time low,” Byrnes said. “And somehow we think it’s OK to cut funding for physical education? No way. This is all about getting kids outside and making sure they’re active on a regular basis instead of having them being inactive in front of a device screen for seven hours a day. This is about the kids, and getting them to realize the benefits of physical education and the benefits of exercise.”
With that inspiration and motivation, Byrnes has battled the choppy, chilly waters of San Francisco Bay and hot sun, cold drain, and driving wind while biking across California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska. He’s been averaging more than 100 miles per day on and occasionally has had triathletes, cyclists, kids, and friends—including triathlon training partner Michael Kowalski and noted tri coach Muddy Waters—join him.
It’s been a wild adventure, he says, but it’s been anything but a smooth trip so far. Aside from battling massive storms, searing heat ranging from 85 to 105 degrees and thick smoke from forest fires, navigation has been the biggest challenge. Although he and his wife planned extensively for months, many of the roads of the intended route have turned out to be gravel roads—including some very rough ones that have been barely rideable.
Byrnes left Oakland riding a road bike and carrying a tri bike in the support van, but he bought a cyclocross bike in Salt Lake City to maneuver the rougher roads. That’s given him the option to change bikes several times during a day’s ride, but he says a mountain bike would have been the best tool for the job on some of the gnarliest routes in Wyoming.
“Smoothly is not the word I’d use to describe how it’s gone so far,” Byrnes said with a chuckle on Aug. 8 after a 124-mile ride through Nebraska. “I knew we were going to experience a lot of things we wouldn’t be able to anticipate in advance, but the route-finding and navigation each day has been a huge challenge. Trying to find the right route, a safe route, has not always been the most natural route. But just as with anything in life, you just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Byrnes says he’s been diligent about covering every mile of the journey on a bike, even when bad weather or navigational challenges have interrupted his path. One day in Nevada, he rode 30 miles out of the way but insisted on reverting to the original course the next morning so as not to miss a single mile. While riding near Laramie, Wyo., last week, he had to jump in the support van and drive ahead to Cheyenne to avoid a tornado. But after the storm passed, he went back to the point where had been riding to complete the original route.
He’s motivated to help bring funding and attention to youth sports programs because of the decline of physical education classes in schools across the country. He says it was only through sports and regular activity that he was able to offset his own battles with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) as a kid.
“Exercising on a regular basis is a big part of the solution,” said Byrnes, who works as a TV analyst for MLB Network. “When I think back to a kid like me, If I wasn’t given the opportunity I would have never achieved anything. If my school didn’t give me a second chance and decided ‘this kid is incorrigible, we gotta get him outta here,’ I wouldn’t be who I am today.”
Byrnes has been connecting his baseball roots as he travels across the country. He started the swim in McCovey Cove on the back side of AT&T Park in San Francisco and will finish his journey at Yankee Stadium. Along the way, he and his family are making stops at baseball stadiums across the country to meet and present checks to youth organizations.
They presented the 12th grant of the trip on Aug. 9 after a charity softball game in Omaha.
“It’s been awesome for us to come out and talk about how exercise creates direction and balance and focus for kids,” Tarah said. “I think it’s a really important message, beyond the exercise message that Eric gives off. We have a message about philanthropy and giving back and making it a family energy. I think we can help change lives, and I think we already have.”
Not Your Typical Summer Vacay
So far, it’s been one heck of a summer trip. Byrnes has witnessed wild mustangs, pronghorn antelope and coyotes running alongside him in rural areas, a large cow crossing the road in front of him while pedaling downhill at 40 mph and massive lightning bolts strike within a quarter mile of him.
While he’s been out hammering the pedals every day, Tarah and their three kids—Chloe, 9, Cali, 8 and Colton, 6—have been following along in the support van. It’s been an educational trip for the kids, and Tarah is having them document their experiences, but they mostly look forward to finding a hotel with a pool or waterslide after seven hours in the van.
“It’s been a wild adventure, that’s for sure,” Byrnes said. “Having three bikes has been helpful because I can swap out when I need to. And being on different bikes allows me to use different muscles and let my body recover a bit. But the biggest thing I’m thankful for is having my family and crew to help make this happen. Without them, it just wouldn’t be possible. Having the ability to stop every 25 or 50 miles to refuel and regroup and have their support has been absolutely crucial.”
Although he raced his first sprint triathlon in 2010 with a surfing wetsuit and a beach cruiser, Byrnes fully immersed himself in triathlon after that and finished Ironman Arizona in 2011 in 10:24. He’s run more than a dozen ultra-distance trail races from 50K to 100 miles since 2014, including a solid sub-23-hour finish at the 2016 Western States 100. So far this year, he’s run the Black Canyon 100K on Feb. 17 in Arizona and the Leadville Trail Marathon on July 7 in Colorado.
“Ever since I did that first triathlon, something just clicked with endurance sports. I found my new place to go hard,” said Byrnes, who has completed every one of his Ironman events in support of the Pat Tillman Foundation and ran the Leadville race for the Warrior’s Ascent veterans support group. “For me, these endurance sports are a lifestyle thing. I don’t care about times or splits but I want to do them well, as well as I can. My mantra for just about everything I do in life is, ‘You get out what you put in. That’s kind of the definition of being a ‘go-hard’ … someone who is always giving all-out effort in whatever they’re doing.”