In any other year, a chilly Thursday morning would see a group of D.C. Road Runners gather in the pre-dawn hours at the Yorktown High School track. Paul Ryan would show up clad in his decades-old puffy U.S. Naval Academy warmup suit.
“Everyone else would be wearing tights, but Paul has this almost-plastic coat,” Rich Mendelowitz said. “It works for him, it’s all kind of old school and it fits his personality.”
Ryan, an Arlingtonian who recently turned 70, has been choosing his running partners carefully during the pandemic, waits for the days when he can get together with people to race again, or just hang out.
“I look forward to being with fellow runners again and feeling good about that bond with fellow runners because right now except for running with one or two different people, it’s been a very solitary existence,” he said. “I avoid crowds, I avoid places where other people are, so running has become what I do when I want to get out of the house and go do something.”
He loves to race, almost to a fault, Mendelowitz said, as the lure of a competitive effort often wins out over periodized training.
“He’s tried to do longer weekend runs and stick to a training plan and it usually lasts two weeks,” Mendelowitz said. “He just really loves to race.”
In lieu of in-person races, Ryan has made virtual efforts a staple of his running routine, either associated with races or strava segments in the DMV Distance Derby, where he has recorded 12 marks (check the rankings through Feburary here).
“I’ve always considered myself a miler or a 5k runner,” he said. “I did marathons for a while, but when my kids got to high school and I turned 40, I started to think I could take the energy I put into marathon training and try to run under five minutes for the mile, instead.”
A Yonkers, N.Y. native, Ryan was a rower while at the U.S. Naval Academy, but after submarine duty in California, he started running.
“Submarines have great food and a soft ice cream machine that runs about 20 hours a day,” he said. “I love ice cream, so in three years I put on about 15 pounds.”
He did a few 10ks in Monterey, Calif., before a friend suggested he run a marathon a few months later.
Running became even more of a staple when he lived eight miles from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine and he settled into a routine of driving one way to work every day and running the other.
He ran a few marathons at this point in his life, including a 2:55:56 at Boston in 1981. Eventually the family moved to Virginia, and Ryan took a few shots at the Marine Corps Marathon. He found out, however, that the race coincided with a camping weekend for the Cub Scouts, and his eldest of three sons, Michael, wanted to go. While he found a substitute “dad” to care for Michael one year, he couldn’t dodge the campout twice.
“So we ate Spaghetti-os out of a lukewarm can that we cooked on our smokey fire,” Ryan said. “Went to bed on the ground, it was raining like crazy, and by 2 or 3 a.m., I was still awake and we bailed and went home.”
Despite a full breakfast and a strong 13 miles, the fatigue from the night of campfire songs and ghost stories caught up with him and he eased in to the finish. That was about when he started wondering if all of that time spent training for a marathon could be better applied to short races, and breaking 5:00 for the mile.
He eventually worked his way down to 4:37 at the age of 43, but he noted his times tapered off after he was transferred to Norfolk and Corpus Christi, where conditions were not ideal for training.
That camping trip might not have been what started Michael on a running journey that included All-American honors while at the Naval Academy and the finals of the 1500 meters at the 2000 Olympic Trials. He finished 10th in the finals, following a 3:40.47 PR in the preliminaries.
The elder Ryan considers that the highlight of his life as a runner, watching Michael compete.
He’s also taken to running with his grandkids, and taking them to parkruns, at least when they were conducted in person.
“It’s fun to pass on your joy of running to a new generation,” he said.
As Ryan has progressed as a master, he’s kept himself focused on breaking six minutes for the mile. Without competition during the pandemic, it’s been tough, though he hit a 6:13 solo effort in July 2020 and a 6:05 road mile in December.
“I’m still close,” he said.
He’s eyeing the chance to give back to the racing scene after the pandemic, likely as a race director for the D.C. Road Runners. He’s apprenticed in a few different roles and is ready to make the jump.
He catches a few runs with Michael, who lives in Richmond, when the two are together and what they lack in brisk pace, Michael says they make up in bonding time. His own racing career didn’t last much beyond his 20s, but he has gained a perspective on life through the sport from his father that helps him see running as restorative.
“I was a flash in the pan, he has the longevity,” Michael said. “He tought me to use running as a means to decompress and give yourself the opportunity to mentally and physically refresh.”
Not everything was passed down, though.
“When he was younger, he thought my running shorts were a little too short,” Paul Ryan said.
So he didn’t adopt his father’s sartorial sense.
“I get why he wore them, but I never really got used to the length until I was in college and had to wear short shorts,” Michael said.