Not over the hill – It’s never too late to be great
Grass Valley’s Shawn Ryley didn’t start running seriously until last year, at the age of 38.
This year, he’s looking at the possibility of being National Class at 200 meters, with several chances at track meets shortly after he turns 40 in June.
It all started rather inauspiciously, as Ryley began running with a fellow employee at Record Connection Plus Electronics, Amber Tierney, just to stay in shape.
“We ran a mile last January and liked it, so we decided to continue running,” Ryley recalls. “We thought it was an achievement to run a mile.”
At the end of last March, as a motivating “dare” between the two, Ryley and Tierney decided to train for a 20-kilometer (12.4 miles) race, Envirosports Escape to Land’s End, in San Francisco in May of that same year.
They picked this race thinking it would be low key, and never having raced before, they didn’t know what to expect.
Arriving late to the start by a couple of minutes, Ryley and Tierney ran the first three miles much faster than planned in order to catch up to the other runners. They weren’t worried about their finish times.
“We just wanted the experience, to finish and see how we did,” said Ryley.
They ran the race together, conservatively, with the sole goal of finishing, which was wise considering the race distance was farther than either had ever run. They were averaging up to 20 miles per week at that time, not all that much more than the entire race distance.
“At the halfway point, I realized I could do it, that my training was paying off,” Ryley said. “We ran the whole thing and sprinted at the end, finishing in 1:52.
“We were elated and loved it! At that point, we figured we could finish a marathon. We gained a lot of confidence.”
They next ran the San Francisco Marathon on Aug. 1, taking on another challenge, after upping their mileage to 30 miles per week, with a longest run of 21 miles.
Taking it easy, being very conservative, again with the goal of finishing, they were proud they never walked and ran the 26.2 miles in 5:26.
“I felt like we ran too slow and underachieved,” Ryley said. “We did what we wanted to do, had a fantastic experience and finished , but I’m always looking to improve and I felt like I could run faster.”
Next up for Ryley was the California International Marathon in Sacramento on Dec. 5, where he ran 4:14, cutting more than an hour off his previous marathon time, set just four months earlier.
“I set out at a really good pace, very comfortable at about 8:45 per mile,” Ryley said. “Then I hit 20 miles and felt really big blisters on my feet. My feet were killing me and I really slowed the last 6 miles, but I was determined to finish. I still have two toenails that haven’t grown back yet!”
What makes his running achievements even more impressive is that Ryley tore his ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) five years ago playing basketball. It’s not uncommon for this to be a career-ending injury, yet Ryley – an avid weightlifter and former Nevada Union High School baseball player – found his new sports niche and thrived.
Knowing he had the strength he needed from weightlifting, Ryley turned to Runner’s World magazine and other sources to figure out how to improve his endurance.
“I happened across one of your running articles in The Union, then went into the archives on The Union’s Web site (www.theunion.com) and started reading them all, experiencing what a lot of the Nevada County runners are going through, to see what my peers were doing and to get ideas,” Ryley told me after a recent Sunday morning run. “Your articles gave me a reason to continue running and to improve, helping me to set goals, as that’s what helps me keep trying to better myself the next time out.”
On Feb. 6, Ryley dropped down in distance to run his first 5K race at the Davis Stampede. He went out fast, going through two miles in 13 minutes, before having to ease up in the last mile to favor an Achilles strain that had been bothering him.
But, he still knocked more than a minute and a half off his best 5K ever, cutting the time from 22:53 (run alongside yours truly at the NU track on the aforementioned Sunday morning) to 21:17, which is a very respectable average of 6:53 per mile, good enough for the third place medal in the 35-39 age group, earning Ryley his first award medal.
After that race, Ryley set the goal of getting under 20 minutes in a 5K, although not necessarily this year. He said he would also like to run the famed Boston Marathon.
Beyond that, Ryley would also like to try racing 200 meters, at which distance – while playing around at the track last weekend – he ran in 27 seconds, which would place him among the top half of Regional Class without even training for it … yet.
Ryley’s enthusiasm about running has carried over to his fellow employees, as eight of 13 Record Connection employees are planning on running the St. Patrick’s Day 5K in Sacramento on March 13.
Three children also will be joining the group to walk/run the 5K, including Ryley’s 5-year-old daughter, Cassidy, who has begged to do it.
Given his leg strength from weight training, his natural speed and his endurance from distance training – along with his continual learning about running – there seems to be few distances in which Ryley can’t be competitive, although at a well-muscled 195 pounds, the marathon might be the toughest.
“I want to become a really good 5K and 200-meter runner,” Ryley mused. “I want to become a well-rounded runner.
“I was not a runner when I started, but I can guarantee I’ll be doing this the rest of my life.”
Steve Bond, a competitive runner who lives in Grass Valley, writes columns and feature stories about running for The Union. He may be reached via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Hank Sowell’s introduction to the game of golf came early as a set of clubs was among the gifts he received on his very first birthday.