Sean and Ryan Leahy love going the miles together. The 25-year-old Alexandria brothers have been running together since high school, but are now upping their mileage out on the trails.
The Leahys both ran at Slippery Rock University, north of Pittsburgh. Sean ran for three years, his main event being the 400-meter hurdles. Ryan ran for only a year and a half, his main events being the 400 and 800.
“After that year and a half, my sister got me into the ultra community in western Pennsylvania,” Ryan said. Intrigued by the longer distances out on the trails, Ryan decided to give it a shot. From there, he put the 400 and 800 behind him.
He ran his first ultra, a 50K, during his sophomore year in college.
“I had no clue what I was getting myself into,” Ryan said. “My sister said, ‘There is this race by my house. It’s a 50K. You should do it.’ I think being naïve helped me out because I had nothing to compare it against. No expectations allowed me to enjoy the experience and get the most of out of it that I could.”
Ryan said the transition from running shorter track distances to ultra-marathons was a bit jarring at first.
“I missed a couple of steps because I went right from track doing the 800 and then went out to do a 50K. Normally there’s a very logical path where you do a 5K, 10K, half and marathon, then do 50K,” Ryan said. “I feel like I missed a couple of steps and now I’m trying to make up for it.”
While Sean continued with the track team for a year and a half more, he saw what his brother was doing and grew interested in trying his hand at trail running. Instead of continuing with the track team in his senior year, Sean followed his brother’s lead and switched to the trails.
“Once you got out there and got into it, it wasn’t that harsh of a transition,” he said.
Though the style of racing was vastly different from what they had done, Sean said they were no strangers to long hours on their feet. “It was sort of an easy jump for us to make. We grew up hiking, so it was a natural blend of we like to hike and we like to run. So it went together.”
Unlike his brother, Sean was not quite as eager to jump into the 50K distance right away. “It took some time to be confident enough to do a 50K. It was a year after stopping track until [I ran my] first 50K.”
He said seeing his brother and sister run the distance was his biggest motivator in finally getting him going.
“I think a lot of people, just hearing the distance, would be intimidated, but once you actually get out and do it, it’s such a different experience than people think.”
“The ultra-running community as a whole is so supportive, so inclusive. Even if you don’t finish the race, everyone is still going to congratulate you and come around you,” Ryan said.
Though they will occasionally run races on their own, Sean and Ryan run most of their races together.
“We run most of these races together until we can’t run together and someone will usually pull off. A couple races we’ve had different goals or are in different shape, so had different goals in mind. For the most part, we stick together and see how far we can go together,” Sean said.
“We’re both really good at going out together and at least having that option that if we want to run together we can, but also being aware that it is our own separate race,” Ryan agrees.
Because they race together, they often have similar training schedules.
“[It’s] nice to work to common goal with each other and have the same sort of schedule because we’re doing the same training … It’s nice to be out there knowing you have someone who will be out there with you,” Sean said.
Sean and Ryan have very similar running times and often show up in results very close to each other. Often the brothers use each other’s times as a reference for their own capability.
“For example, Ryan’s 5K PR is faster than mine, but I use that as a bar to what I can go. I am pretty confident I could because he can,” Sean said. “That definitely helps to get each other going. We are very similar athletes. It’s nice to have someone to run with and know you can be with them at the end and see who’s got what left.”
“It makes it kind of easy sometimes, but it can also lead to some disappointment,” Ryan added.
The Leahy twins grew up in Pennsylvania, but knew they wanted to move to the D.C. area eventually. Their older sister lived in Alexandria for the last 10 years and the two brothers were eager to join her.
“We’re from a very small town in western Pennsylvania. This seemed like a good transition. [D.C.] isn’t super hectic like New York or Los Angeles. [It] seems laid back and chill,” Ryan said.
When the first job opportunity came to bring Ryan to this area, he jumped at the chance. He now works as an IT consultant.
Sean lived in Pittsburgh after college, working at LL Bean, but he was also eager to join his brother and sister in the D.C. area. Only a few months after Ryan moved to Alexandria, Sean’s opportunity came.
“Ryan found out there was an open position at Pacers in Old Town and got in touch with the manager,” Sean said. “At first we had the idea that I would work there a little bit and get another job, but I’ve been there a year and a half and now I’m assistant manager.”
With several ultras under their belts, the Leahys are starting to look back at the distances they skipped on their way. They have now checked off 5Ks, 10Ks, even half marathons.
“[We’re] going to run our first road marathon in September, so this summer will be a transition into a different type of running,” Sean said. “Personally, I’ve missed going fast.”
“If you talk to anyone who isn’t a runner, they ask, ‘Have you done a marathon?’ That’s the benchmark distance in a lot of people’s eyes that qualifies a runner. So I want to do that to say yes to that question,” Ryan said.
“[We’re] just curious to try any race distance and see what it’s like. We’ve done a lot of the shorter stuff and this seems like the last road distance to do,” Sean said.
Both of them have long-term aspirations to qualify for the Boston marathon and to eventually run the 100 mile distance.