Cigarettes. Drug addiction. Obesity.
As a kid, O’Ryan played football and wrestled. When he was 14, he suffered stress fractures in his L1 and L2 vertebrae. That’s when things took a drastic turn.
“I started smoking weed and drinking,” O’Ryan says. “As I got older my drug use got more and more serious. I got clean when I was 19. I was still pretty unhealthy for a while. I smoked cigarettes and ate pretty terribly. After about two years clean I stopped smoking and started trying to get healthier.”
Ultra Runner Brendan O’Ryan Conquers Drugs, Obesity
Brendan ran a little but found a passion for mountain biking. Then, in 2004, he had a setback when he broke his wrist during a mountain bike ride. Five years later, he broke his collarbone riding.
“That crushed me,” he recalls. “I was at a peak in my riding when I got hurt. I got pretty depressed. I was a bigger guy before that, but that’s when I really gained a lot of weight. I was also in grad school. I had two kids at that point. I really let my health go. I ended up starting to smoke again. I was a mess.”
Wake Up Call
A couple of years later, O’Ryan suffered a personal tragedy. As painful as it was, it would spur him to much-needed action.
“At the very end of 2012 a good friend of mine died,” he says. “This was a big wake up call for me. He had a son close to the same age as my kids. I realized that I wanted to do whatever I could to prevent the same thing from happening to my family.”
It was about at this time that O’Ryan weighed 319 pounds. He now weights 185 pounds.
Still grieving in early 2013, O’Ryan once again chose physical fitness to help escape a dark place. “I started by using My Fitness Pal to track what I was eating and to monitor my calorie intake,” he says. “At 319, the weight came off fairly quickly with relatively minor changes. I was seeing some success, so this was really motivating. As I lost more weight I started going to the gym again.”
He would mix in strength training with cardio on a bike or an elliptical machine. Then he worked up to “a walk/jog thing on the treadmill, and I worked up to doing some short runs.”
Running and Weight Loss
At first, O’Ryan enjoyed running as a way to burn calories. But soon discovered that he liked it.
“I really liked being able to challenge myself to go further or faster than my last run. Through running, strength training, and monitoring my food intake I was able to lose about 135 pounds in approximately a year. I have kept the weight off the same way. I still have a fear that I will get big again, but the longer I keep the weight off the more confident I am that I can maintain this. I have been trying to focus more on my health rather than my weight here lately. No surprise that if I focus on my health then my weight seems to stay in a good range.”
O’Ryan ran a little in his 20s but now something was different.
“I did a few races that started to change the way I looked at running,” he says. “In November of 2013 I did a 15K and far exceeded my expectations of what I could do. This was also the first time I trained for a specific distance. I learned that if I was willing to put the effort into training then there was a lot that I could accomplish.”
A few months later, he did his first trail race and “absolutely fell in love with trail running.” Then, in April 2014, he trained for and finished his first marathon, thanks to family and friends.
Country Music Marathon
“I had family members who lived in Nashville, and they invited me to stay with them to run the Nashville Rock and Roll Country Music Marathon,” he says. “I was still on the fence about doing a marathon though. Then I found out that this marathon was a fundraiser for St. Jude’s. My youngest son is a cancer survivor, so this is a cause that is very important to me.
Right about this time my friend, Dave, invited me to join him in a marathon training group. When I asked him how much the training group cost he told me that he had already paid for me! Throughout my growth I’ve had people encouraging me. I think that’s the part that stands out the most to me. It’s amazing the support I’ve gotten from my friends and family. I have also made so many new friends through running, especially the trail running community.”
Following the marathon, he overtrained and had to take off a couple weeks from running due to an IT Band issue.
“I did a lot of cross training to get through the injury,” says O’Ryan, who feared gaining weight during the time he couldn’t run. “I went back to doing more cycling. I tried to have fun with it, but honestly, I was relieved when I could run again.”
And run he did.
He has finished a couple of other 50Ks, before completing his first 50-miler in February. It was a 10-mile loop course, and many of his friends from a local running group were there to compete at various distances and to cheer him on. When he finished the fourth lap, his friends attended to him at the main aid station at the start-finish line.
“I was fed and refueled and back on the course before I even knew what happened,” he says. “When I started that last lap I actually got pretty emotional. I got emotional for two reasons. The first was because I knew I was going to be able to finish strong. The second reason was because of how awesome my friends were. I was probably a little sappy run drunk too. I got pretty excited when I started the fourth lap too because I knew that I was running further than I ever had before.”
Given that this was February in Ohio, conditions were less than ideal.
“Again, I far exceeded my expectations. My only goal was to finish,” he recalls. “I thought it would be cool to do it in under 12 hours. I ended up finishing in about 11 hours 40 minutes. This was in terrible conditions. The trail was a mix of mud and ice. I can’t wait to do another 50-miler in decent conditions to see how I can do.”
O’Ryan knows that every finish line he crosses is due to not only his efforts, but the support he receives from family and friends.
“I started this journey by changing what I eat,” he reflects back.
“My Fitness Pal helped me learn about what kinds of foods are higher and lower in calories. I leaned about balancing my food intake. I worked on controlling portion sizes. I also noticed that there are foods that trigger me to eat more. Eating healthier motivated me to try running.
Getting more and more into running has inspired me to focus more on eating healthier. I try to eat foods that are going to fuel my activities. I’ve learned more and more about the importance of hydration and the role it plays on a day-to-day basis. I wouldn’t say that I have a strict diet, but I do still follow the My Fitness Pal plan. I also just try to listen to my body. Typically I know when I need more protein or vegetables, and sometimes I just need a cheat day.”
His wife and two sons, ages 9 and 4, have noticed the amazing transformation.
“My 9-year-old says that I am less stressed now. My wife and older son think that the ultras are a little crazy. My 9-year-old has also done some running with me, and he wants to do a 5K or an obstacle course race this summer. The 4-year-old has been a big support although I don’t think he realizes it. He loves to go to the gym with me because he likes playing with the other kids. That has been great. It makes it so much easier to get a work out in.”
O’Ryan has come a long way from the 14-year-old kid who stumbled into drugs.
“Through running I have learned that there is no limit to what I can accomplish as long as I am willing to put the time and effort into training.”
Name: Brendan O’Ryan
Hometown: Dayton, Ohio
Number of years running: I’ve really only been running for maybe two years.
How many miles a week do you typically run: 30-40 miles
Point of pride: I just recently finished my first 50-mile trail race. I finished 4th. Only 11 of about 20 people actually finished the race.
Favorite race distance: So far I would have to say that 50K is my favorite distance. I really liked the 50-miler, but I’ve only done one of those, so I don’t have anything to compare it to. The 50-miler has been my favorite race so far.
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: I have kind of a weird breakfast ritual before races. I take two blueberry nutrigrain Eggo waffles and toast them. Then I put crunchy peanut butter on them, a half a banana on each, and top it with some honey.
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Oh my gosh! I love music. It’s so had to pick one song. I listen to a really wide variety too. I love really, REALLY heavy stuff especially. There is a band called Have Heart, and their song called Watch Me Rise gets me really pumped!
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: I tell myself all kinds of stuff when I’m out there. I frequently say “come on B, you got this”. During my last race I knew I was in the top 10 and had less than one mile to go. I caught myself yelling out “Yeah (expletive)! Let’s do this!”
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
Brendan O’Ryan on Facebook. I have an athlete page on Facebook called Running for my Life