Experience Eric Byrnes's "triathlon across America" on the big screen with an exclusive screening of his documentary, "Let The Play" on Thursday, Aug. 8 in Cleveland, Ohio. The USA Triathlon Foundation is partnering with Byrnes and the Let Them Play Foundation to help create awareness and provide kids with the opportunity to lead a healthy and active life.
In summer 2018, Byrnes swam 7 miles across San Francisco Bay, rode his bike over 2,400 miles from Oakland to Chicago and then ran from Chicago to New York City – 905 miles — to give awareness to his cause. His journey was documented by acclaimed film producer Erich Cochran.
For those athletes and families visiting Cleveland for the 2019 Toyota USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships or those local to the area who are passionate about endurance sports and healthy kids, check out this film — and meet Byrnes — Thursday at 7 p.m. at Capitol Theatre. A donation of $12 to the USA Triathlon Foundation reserves your seat for the exclusive screening of "Let Them Play."
Click here for tickets.
And check out the movie trailer here.
The following story originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of USA Triathlon Magazine.
Eric Byrnes played many road games during his 11 seasons in the Major Leagues, but nobody ever asked the A’s and Diamondbacks outfielder to swim seven miles across the San Francisco Bay from the Giants’ home field to Oakland, or to bike more than 100 miles a day (for 24 days) from Oakland to Wrigley Field, or to run more than a marathon a day (for a month) from Chicago to Yankee Stadium.
But that’s exactly what the 42-year-old retiree did this summer, from July 22 to September 15.
And why not? Byrnes had been a triathlete since September 2010 – four months after his last Major League game. His wife, Tarah, vividly remembers his debut. “He was totally undertrained, unequipped, and got his butt whupped. There’s no other way to put it,” she said.
In a sprint-distance race in Pacific Grove, California, Eric swam breaststroke through thick kelp beds, biked a on a beach cruiser and, on one of the loops, Tarah recalls, “there was a young lady, probably 15 or 16, with long blonde pigtails who just BLEW by him. I could see the look on his face saying, ‘No. No. Nope, this isn’t going to keep happening.’ So I went, ‘Uh oh, here we go. I thought retirement was going to be quiet!’”
After a few more races, including a 3-hour, 37-minute marathon debut, Tarah said, “I could see the wheels turning and I could tell this isn’t going to be the end; he’s going to find something else.” Sure enough, she said, “The first thing he put on his plate was the IRONMAN – which is pretty Eric.”
His ex-teammates laughed, but Byrnes’ father, Jim, was all in.
“He was the one guy that was super-excited for me, as far as finding something beyond baseball,” Eric said. So when Jim died unexpectedly in early spring 2011, Byrnes’ IRONMAN training became his therapy. “Long meditative sessions in the water, on a long bike, on a long run, were incredibly helpful,” Eric said.
Finally, on November 20, 2011, after sweating for 10 hours and 45 minutes in Tempe, Arizona, Byrnes could call himself an IRONMAN.
Since then, he has completed 10 more IRONMANS, 20 ultramarathons (including the 2016 Western States 100-mile run), last year’s 70.3 World Championships (in 5:01:48), and qualified for the 2019 Boston Marathon (by running a 3:09:19 marathon in January).
This cross-country triathlon, however, was like no other task. For one thing, every day offered unparalleled adventure.
After diving off a bridge near AT&T Park, Byrnes battled freakish tides for three-and-a-half hours only to pass directly over a great white shark with 500 yards to go.
“The whole time I’m looking at green,” he said, “Then, all of a sudden, it gets black underneath me. I was like: it’s either a shadow or a really big fish. I chilled because I didn’t know.” Later, drone footage revealed it to be a juvenile Jaws.
After ditching his wetsuit, “wussy hood,” gloves and booties, Byrnes rode through forest fires that ravaged California, protected by a bandana over his nose and mouth. He staved off 100-degree-plus heat every day in Nevada on “The Loneliest Road in America” (Hwy. 50) wearing ice-filled socks around his neck. But Wyoming, he said “was freaking wild. I was doing 40 miles an hour downhill and all of a sudden, here come cows rolling across the street. I’m doing maybe 25 on rolling hills, look to my left, and these pronghorn antelopes are flying by me.” Later, when a dirt road hit a dead end, a detour put him in the middle of a firing range. While he was on that range, the sky blackened, funnel clouds formed, winds hit 70, and when rain speared down like pitchforks, he finally heeded exhortations to get in the car. The next day, he made up for the abbreviated 63-mile day by riding 154 miles so he would finish the bike portion on time in Chicago, where, on August 16, he sounded downright peppy on the phone – just “sore and tight. I kind of expected it,” he said.
But then s*** turned gnarly.
In his first four days on foot, he ran 126 miles, blistered nine toes, chafed his inner thighs to shreds, and inflated his right ankle like a beach ball – and he still had several weeks to go, plodding through Amazonian humidity.
“Plain and simple… I thought I was f*cked,” he wrote in his daily newsletter, but “I signed up for this” and was “well aware of the possible ramifications.”
What pushed him through the agony? Altruism.
It was the primary mission of the trip.
Along the way, Eric, Tarah, and their three children handed out more than a dozen checks to national and local groups committed to engaging youth in activity – funds all generated by individual donations to the Let Them Play Foundation which the Byrnes’ founded in 2018 because they were alarmed by the drastic cuts in daily physical education classes, rising childhood obesity rates, and the innumerable hours kids stare at screens.
“In my opinion, P.E. is a right, not a privilege,” Eric said. “Getting outside, running, and playing stimulates the mind. You need to let kids outside and let kids play.”
P.E. class also meant a lot to Byrnes personally.
“I grew up with full-blown A.D.H.D.,” he said of his youth in Woodside, California. “P.E. was kind of my savior.”
Most of the checks were relatively modest (capped at $2,500, according to Tarah, which they calculated would at least give them enough to distribute from coast to coast during the eight-week trek). Recipients included grassroots organizations like Tennis and Tutoring Utah that offers free tennis and academic instruction to underserved youth, or a Sacramento soccer team that just needed equipment and uniforms.
“The thing that resonates with people,” Eric said, “is that we’re dropping off checks immediately, not taking the money and being like, ‘One day we’re going to do this or that.’”
And while Byrnes covered every mile himself, he was never really alone. In addition to Tarah (an avid runner and the 2002 Miss California) and their three children (ages 9, 8, and 7) following in a support van, Byrnes was also randomly accompanied by long-lost high school friends, training buddies, and strangers of all abilities who trailed him like the Pied Piper along the way.
“Every single day,” Byrnes said, “The generosity of people across the country has been awesome.”
More tangibly, Byrnes also relied on three bikes (road, triathlon, cyclocross) to complete his 2,344-mile ride, as well as one pair of cycling shoes and two sets of cleats. To cover 846 miles on foot, he packed three pairs of running shoes, saying early on, “I don’t know, 300 miles for each shoe?”
And – regardless of the locomotion – he drank two to four beers every night.
“I felt like I got carbohydrates that put me in the right mental state and – in my mind – help me recover,” he said. “Then I [would] re-hydrate, go back to water, get a big meal, and do it all over again the next day.”
Yet it’s too soon to think about an encore.
His 57-day road trip, he said, required being “so incredibly immersed in the moment that I haven’t given it much thought. But one thing I’ve learned through all this is that the only way to pull something like this off is to focus completely on the day. If you look at the grand picture of swimming, biking, and running across the country, it’s intimidating. And I know how difficult it is to make it through a single day. I do not say that lightly. Every day was challenging. Every. Single. Day. So I really [did] everything in my power to just concentrate on, ‘What’s tomorrow?’”
That said, “I would like to do another big event that would bring attention to the Let Them Play foundation. There is no doubt.
“I would love to bring this sort of awareness and potential to raise money for the foundation that would allow us to distribute these grants to these youth activity organizations because to see the direct impact when we drop of these checks? It’s awesome. That’s been the greatest thing about all this, for sure.”