Ryan lives in America so we talked on Skype. He had a warm and gravelled voice and laughed as he told his story. He spoke with clarity and showed a real love for a sport that he only took up late on in life.
“Your picture just disappeared. You can’t see me? Why can’t you see me? Oh, do I have to turn this on? Where’s the camera… no device found. There’s no device, no camera on this thing? Oh, so I can stick my tongue out!
Do you want to start with questions, or do you want me to just start talking? Ok, I’m 81 years old. At some point in my life, my wife decided that I was out of shape and building up weight. So for a Christmas present, she signed me up to a YMCA fitness class. That’s how I got started.
I am trying to figure out what age I was when I did that. Probably somewhere in my fifties. When I first went in to the fitness programme, they made me take a test to figure out what my percentage body fat was. They told me that my percentage body fat was something like 54%. The nurse said that she must have made a mistake so they did the pinch test all over again and came up with the same number. I said “well, I float real good!”
A year later, after going and running and doing calisthenics three times a week and then running three miles afterwards, I did the test again. I weighed exactly the same but my percentage body fat went down to 25%. Everybody kept telling me all year long: “Wow! You look great, you’ve lost a lot of weight!” But I didn’t lose any weight. I was just turning fat into dense muscles so I looked better. I finally just started saying thank you.
I retired from my original engineering company in 1988 and then worked for myself for a few years. My wife was the backbone of that company. She was the marketing person and the creative person. We had a slide making business and it was all computer based. My job was to take care of the computers. After I retired fully, I said well, I have time to join a running club now. I joined the running club and started running regularly with them but I still didn’t run longer distances. Back then, I thought that a 10km race was a big race. One day, we were standing round talking at the club and everyone asked what races they had run that year. The others kept saying that they ran this marathon, or that half-marathon and then they came to me. I had only run a 10km. It was like I didn’t even exist! So I thought I had better up my game…
After that, I started running half marathons. I remember the first half-marathon I ran. I had a problem because I stepped on a nail the week before the race so I had to limp my way round. I wasn’t able to do my best. I recall a handicapped woman beat me at the finish line. She ran with a funny gait and she beat me! (Ryan pauses to laugh). But at least I had run a half-marathon. Now, maybe I could get in the conversation.
I went from there to running full marathons. I guess I did my first full marathon in Philadelphia in 1998. I think I ran 5:08:00. I did eight marathons but I never ran one under 5 hours. The last marathon I did was in Philadelphia in 2007. In that marathon, I thought that I came in third in my age group but it turned out there was another guy my age who hadn’t put his name in. When he saw my time he told the organisers how old he was and they bumped me down to 4th. They still gave me a plaque though, so that was fun.
If I could take a pill that made me be in as good shape, I would give up running gladly forever. You can call me the reluctant runner. Some races were great. I remember one 5km which was the fastest 5km that I ever did. I ran negative splits. The reason why I did that was at the beginning I couldn’t get free of the pack. I averaged around 8 minutes a mile. That felt very good to have a personal best.
I’m a runner but I don’t think of myself as an athlete. I would guess I started thinking of myself as a runner after I did my first marathon and managed to hold on the whole way. People keep saying, yes you are, you’re an athlete. Maybe I don’t know what the definition of an athlete is but I’ve certainly never been gung-ho about running.
I guess training where I lived in Long island was a pain in the neck. I picked a route without knowing where it was going. Some of the roads were awful, there was so much traffic. I would have to carry water with me. That was a pain in the butt. My last couple of marathons, when we had an apartment in the city was much better. I can now train in New York City. It’s much easier. There’s much less traffic.
Where I live, you have the East River on one side of Manhattan and then it goes around where Battery Park is where you can see the Statue of Liberty and then you have the Hudson River on the other side. I live near the East River so all I have to do is run three blocks and then I hit this road that goes all the way around to Battery Park where you get the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and then I run up the Hudson River. Then I turn around and come back. All along the way there are places to get water; there are bathrooms and there’s no traffic. You’re on the edge of Manhattan and there are no roads going across the path. If I try to run that distance anywhere else, I always come across intersections where I have to stop. Running here makes it much nicer when I do long runs.
I enjoy the social aspect of the running club very much. I would advise everyone to join a running club if they’re going to get serious about running. You get advice about things to do, clothes to buy, what works best. And it’s a lot of fun. We go out every weekend. You’re almost forced to do some running. Now though, I still want to run but all the other guys my age want to walk.
They start walking and I start walking with them, but eventually I’ll start running. I might circle round to meet up with them later. Besides I don’t like walking with guys. Men always talk about sports. I can never talk about sports the way these guys do. They talk about this baseball guy and that football guy. I’m not into that stuff so… either I do the sport or I don’t talk about it. I’ve always enjoyed being more around women than men. They have a lot more varied things to talk about than just sports. Some of my friends, if they’re with me they don’t talk about sports. They talk about politics or what’s going on, or how they wish they were fifty again! But anyways…
When my wife died, running was very therapeutic. Even by myself, I would just run and let the thoughts come rushing in and out. I ran the Anchorage Marathon in that period of mourning. I dedicated the run to my wife, and also my sister who died at the same time. It was a sad marathon, but fun. In Anchorage, they promised that you would see a moose along the trail. And they were right. There was a guy dressed up in a moose costume on the side of the route. That was very funny.
By that time I had discovered a trick to marathons. I always used to get cramps in a marathon. After my wife died, she had a lot of problems. She had Lyme’s disease. I’m not sure. Do you get that in Europe? She went to a Chinese doctor. Now a lot of Chinese people are allergic to milk, so they need to get these pills that help you break down lactose. Anti-something pills. When I was cleaning out the medicine cabinet, I came across these pills and the label said that they might help with cramping. After a marathon, if my legs were hurting I took one of those pills and the cramps would go away. I think it’s lactic acid that causes it. If you train enough your body gets used to it. If you don’t train enough it gives you cramps. If you take these anti-lactate pills you don’t need to train!
After my wife died, I signed up for four marathons. I only did three of them. One of them got knocked out for prostate cancer but I still ran another marathon that year afterwards. One week I was diagnosed with cancer and the next week I had my prostate taken out. Running after all that wasn’t even a question. It really makes me enjoy life.
Nobody can believe that I’m eighty years old. I attribute that to running and eating a decent diet. A steady diet of exercise is absolutely great. Running is the easiest way to do it. You can run anywhere. Take a pair of sneakers with you and some shorts and you can go running.
The only marathon that I’ve done in the same place is Philadelphia. But that’s because my brother is there. Apart from that, I said that I would never do the same marathon twice. There are so many around that you don’t need to.
Some time ago, a friend of mine organised a Patagonia adventure in the Andes. We ran 140-miles over ten days. We ran around a place called Torres del Paine. I didn’t call it that, I called it the Towers of Pain but I had a good time. If you’re just in a car in Patagonia, you’ll see vast plains and in the distance you’ll see mountains. But if you’re running and stop for a moment, you can see these tiny little orchids. It’s beautiful if you look close. Then you look up and see the mountains. There was nothing in between.
Running lets you travel at a human pace. Bicycles are almost too fast. Cars are definitely too fast. You just whizz by. Walking you don’t get anywhere. Running is right in the comfort zone for me to see a place, to understand it and to talk about it.
I like talking to people when I’m running. In a club like ours you find like-minded people. In the old days we’d run five or ten miles. One guy, who we called Captain Chris, would go out early in the morning and put jugs of water on the route. So we never had to carry a lot of water with us. That made it nice. Everyone would be up and talking. The fast guys would have a lot of time to rest. Us slow guys would always get there and have one gulp of water and then have to start running again. It wasn’t fair!
My happiest running memory? Pretty much the end of any marathon! The first cup of coffee or glass of beer. There’s really nothing better. It’s always with friends except they’re usually there before I am. Mostly I like the relief when it’s all over.
I have done the majority of my running in the USA. But when I was in Naples, Italy I ran the half-marathon there. I remember starting the race and getting half way through it and it started to rain. When I saw my wife I thought, great! Thank God I can stop. So I never completed that one.
We also hiked up Vesuvius. We said that most of the Italians walked up and we wanted to do that too. We started too late so we couldn’t make it all the way up but we made it to the halfway point. The buses kept passing us and asking if we wanted a lift, but we said no. We wanted to walk. Finally we got to a restaurant and we were hungry so we stopped in and walked down. The next time we rented a car and drove up to the restaurant, and then hiked up to the top. So we hiked up the mountain but it took two days. You see a lot when you’re walking. We saw lava flows. I don’t know how I got onto that but then I don’t really know how I get into anything any more!
Ambitions? Yes. To keep running and enjoying life until I’m 120. If any of those things go away, who cares?! If both of them go away, God can take me right then. Quick!”
© Copyright Arthur Knaggs 2019