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Q&A: Ex-MLB Star Eric Byrnes to Take on Western States 100

[Update: Eric Byrnes finished 73rd out of 280 finishers in the 2016 Western States 100 in 22 hours, 50 minutes, 55 seconds.]

Six years after retiring from a professional sport, Eric Byrnes has reached the pinnacle of an amateur sport—the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.

Byrnes, 40, an outfielder who played for five teams in an 11-year major league career that ended in 2010, will be a first-time entrant in the run from Squaw Valley to Auburn, Calif.. The country’s oldest and most prestigious 100-mile event will begin at 5 a.m. Saturday from the base of the Squaw Valley ski resort and advance to the track at Placer High School. Byrnes will be supported by a team that includes former pro cyclist Lance Armstrong, who will pace the final 22 miles of the race with Byrnes.

Although many professional endurance athletes have competed in Western States, Byrnes, who lives in Half Moon Bay, Calif., with his wife and three children, is believed to be the first former professional team sports athlete to participate in the historic trail race that typically has a field of about 365 runners.

Now a broadcaster for MLB Network, Byrnes has completed eight Ironman triathlons in the past five years. He’s also finished six ultras, including the Miwok 100K twice. (He placed 25th out of 288 finishers at this year’s Miwok race in 11:01:48.)

We talked to Byrnes about his transition from baseball and what endurance sports means to him:

You come from baseball where you run onto the field from a dugout and you might hear cheering or booing from 40,000 fans. But in trail running, you might not see anyone or hear anything other than the sounds you hear in nature. What are your thoughts transitioning from one kind of sport to another?

One of the things that drew me to ultrarunning was the community aspect. It was the idea that it felt like a team sport. That’s something obviously you don’t get generally in endurance sports. As much as I love triathlon, you don’t get that there, either. To see how real the people are on the trails is unbelievable.

Can you compare endurance sports to baseball in other ways?

Without trying to stereotype ultrarunners too much, it’s like a bunch of hippies out there running with a real sneaky competitive edge. It’s a community and it seems to be a team sport, but there’s also some fiery people out there who love running and love pushing the limits.

How has your body changed from your days in the major leagues to becoming an endurance athlete?

It changes a lot. The biggest changes came when I did my first couple of Ironman races. I came into this thing at 6-foot-2 and solid 210 pounds. I’d been training anaerobically. I’d never run more than four miles. I’d never swam more than 25 yards and I’d never been on a bike other than a BMX bike or a beach cruiser. It was dramatic. I’m now between 180-190 pounds depending upon if you ask me after a long run or a big meal.

People will ask me, ‘Are you in the best shape of your life?’ I just say it’s a much different sort of shape. I was training to be a thoroughbred horse. Everything was just short, quick burst of energy. This is the exact opposite. I was sitting there with 80-90 percent fast-twitch muscle and now I’ve come full circle. I’m now probably 80-90 percent slow-twitch muscle.

What was your first competitive experience like in endurance sports?

I got into it on a dare from three junior high school friends. They were going down to do the Pacific Grove’s sprint triathlon. Basically, they dared me to show up and do it. I showed up with my surfing wetsuit, my beach cruiser and wearing board shorts. I went out there and completely got my ass kicked by 14-year-old girls. That was a big eye-opener.

You lost your father at a young age, just when you started to get into triathlons, and a few years before that, your friend Pat Tillman (the former NFL player) was killed as a soldier in Afghanistan. You carried Tillman’s jersey across finish line at your first Ironman. What was the reason for doing that?

Training and exercise, that was my therapy. That was my way to cope and get through it, the loss of my father and Pat. Without it, I would have had a lot more difficulty. That was kind of the idea of wanting to do Western States this year. My father achieved an advance martial arts level at age 40. With Pat, it’s an opportunity to teach another generation of kids about Pat Tillman.  If it didn’t happen this year, no big deal. I would have moved on and tried to get in on whatever process it took for next year. But it’s pretty cool. I can’t tell you how excited I am.