The First Grand Slammer: Tom Green

Grand Slam of Ultrarunning - Neal Gorman and Tom GreenPart of the fun at the Bull Run Run 50 (BRR) each April is a “North vs. South” Civil War themed competition among the runners. 150 years ago, Civil War battles took place in the area where the race is located and the friendly competition pays tribute in remembrance. If a runner is from the north, they of course run for the North team and adorn a corresponding team bib number ranging between 1 and 500. If one is from the south, they run for the South team and wear a bib number ranging between 501 and 999. The lowest bib numbers in each group, beginning with a 1 or a 501, are set aside for runners in each team with the most BRR finishes.

In the photo above, at a picnic table in Hemlock Overlook Regional Park in Clifton, Virginia, home of BRR, I sit with Tom Green, who proudly sports bib number “502.” The photo was taken moments after Tom finished the race in its 20th anniversary year. Tom informed me and a few others in a conversation that he hadn’t logged a single run over five miles in the preceding three months and that a doctor had only cleared him to run a week prior. (Something about a knee injury.) Under trained and undeterred, Tom toed the line at BRR, ran his race and along with Frank Probst (“501”) and Tim Stanley (“503”), finished his 20th consecutive BRR. That is 1,000 miles apiece at BRR; a large number by any comparison. Big congrats to Tom, Frank and Tim.

Many know Tom as the original Grand Slammer. A long, long time ago, back in 1986, there were only four 100 mile trail race events in the United States: Old Dominion (held each June) Western States (also held in June), Leadville (August) and Wasatch (September). In the years prior to 1986, Tom suffered poor performances at Old Dominion finishing only once in three attempts. Originally designed as a one-day endurance run, Old Dominion’s then cut-off time was 24 hours, a finish time that for years would elude even the fittest runners seeking to finish the race and be awarded the coveted oval shaped Old Dominion cast silver buckle, with its signature enlarged running figure overlaying a raised Virginia map. In 1985, fed up with his Old Dominion results, Tom decided that the following year he would not only finish Old Dominion, but also run each of the three other US 100 mile trail races – a feat that had yet to be accomplished, much less attempted. Tom kept this to himself. At the same time, Fred Pilon, then editor at Ultrarunning magazine testified publicly in an article that he would attempt running each US 100 mile trail race the following summer, billing the series as “The Grand Slam.” A public discourse ensued of the ‘craziness’ of such a goal and so – naturally – 10 other runners from across the land signed on to attempt The Grand Slam as well.

On Saturday June 7th, 1986, among the runners toeing the line at Old Dominion, a group of 12 including Tom, began the race with the expressed goal of running The Grand Slam. Eventually, only six of these runners finished Old Dominion. Five others DNF’d at Western States three weeks later, and, thereafter, only Tom remained in the hunt for an elusive Grand Slam completion. As the weeks counted down to Saturday, August 16th, and the start of Leadville, a buzz centered on Tom’s effort: could he go on and actually finish all four 100-mile races? Tom did the job at Leadville, finishing in an impressive time of 25:00:09.

Finally, only Wasatch remained. The first grand daddy of big climbing, suffer-fest mountain trail 100 milers in the US. “One hundred miles of heaven and hell,” proclaimed the event organizers. By the time Tom arrived in Utah to run Wasatch on Saturday, the race organizers planned something special for him, should his effort prove sufficient and he actually finish the race. Finish he did; Tom nailed it, finishing seventh overall in a time of 26:43:16. Tom received a special recognition and trophy at the post-race ceremony and officially became known as the first “Grand Slammer.”

As Tom and I chatted at the picnic table, he told me with a smile and a gaze that appeared to look back in time – to 1986 – that his Grand Slam summer was one of the “best experiences” of his life. He was 35 years old then; my age now. It’s easy to feel the enthusiasm when listening to such a story from an individual one looks up to and with whom one feels a connection. I feel the same way as Tom about my Grand Slam summer two years ago. I already and will forever know that when I am old and look back on my life, my Grand Slam summer of 2010 and the indelible memories it etched on to my soul, will be one of the stand outs. I imagine every other Grand Slam finisher feels something similar. It is simply an irresistible, unshakable feeling. Each Grand Slam alum has Tom to thank for paving the way and creating such a high standard in what has become – in my opinion – the most difficult, unique and classic ultra running race series anywhere. And for giving us the opportunity to create such lasting memories for ourselves.

Tom went on to speak about finishing BRR. It was evident how pleased he was to finish the race, feeling good and on little training. “Imagine what I could do with more training,” said the 61 year old. Indeed, the ultra running results of the legendary Tom Green continue to impress.

[Editor’s note: The author, Neal Gorman, set a new Grand Slam of Ultrarunning record in 2010. He ran the Western States (June – 18:14:00), Vermont (July – 16:33:11), Leadville (August – 18:47:54), and Wasatch (September – 21:19:11) 100 milers in a grand total of 74:54:16.]