The teen years can be weird for everyone involved. They include a mix of learning to drive, entering the dating scene and figuring out what happens after high school. Ryan Montgomery gave his family a few noteworthy moments as a mid-teen. While living in Alaska, he ran his first marathon at 15. The following year when he was 16, he flew to Bolivia - alone, to meet with people he’d never met before, to run more than a marathon distance each day for five consecutive days. “It was a bit crazy, and I don’t always recommend that to everybody, but it was a good learning experience,” he said.
Today, 12 years after his trip to Bolivia, Ryan is a professional ultra trail runner. He’s run some of the most prestigious ultra trail races in the U.S. and abroad. In 2018, he was the youngest runner at the Badwater 135, in 2019 he came in second at the Tahoe 200, in 2020 he set the unsupported Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the Wonderland Trail and in 2021 he came in second at the Javelina Jundra 100, which earned him a Golden Ticket for the 2022 Western States® 100-Mile Endurance Run.
All on their own, these accomplishments look incredible. But deeper than a list of races and podium finishes, Ryan is out to change the landscape of ultra running. As one of the few openly queer ultra runners dominating races, Ryan cares deeply for making the outdoor spaces he enjoys inclusive to all.
“I’ve always been so inspired by what the body is capable of doing and seeing what I’m capable of,” he said. “I think a lot of this stems from growing up as a closeted, queer, gay boy. I think a lot of queer people are seeking validation because they’re not recognized in their environments. That’s probably why I was very keen on running long distances, because it seemed like validation for me.”
The trip to Bolivia is what solidified Ryan’s affinity for running distance. At a young age, running a marathon distance each day taught Ryan that the body can do incredible things when adapting to stress and endurance. Since then, Ryan’s been testing what he’s capable of and realized early on that most of it is mental.
“It’s 90 percent mental, for sure,” he said. “Fitness is fitness, but if you don't believe in yourself, it's going to be really hard to even start and to enjoy the process. I'm a big promoter of the lifestyle of running and the joy of running, rather than running to execute to win, because I don't feel like that's very sustainable and you're not going to enjoy the process.”
From his home in Park City, Utah, Ryan trains with a quest for movement, enjoying the outdoors, and pushing his possible. He’s a smiling example of what it looks like to weather the storm. Pouring rain on a day you’re supposed to get in a long run? Ryan’s out there with a rain shell, more or less dodging puddles. On a great bike ride when you get a flat tire? Just call an Uber and log that ride as slightly shorter. Snowing in the middle of May? It’s just another opportunity to put the cross country skis on before they get stashed away for the season.
Not only is this exemplary of how the outdoors bring him joy, it’s telling of how Ryan views every race he enters.
“I love having fun. Honestly, I view racing as a celebration of me and what I’ve been able to put into my fitness,” he said. “That I get to go celebrate that [progress] with all my friends is so cool. Just to be able to have a body and to have the headspace and the privilege to be in those moments is so special.”
In the beginning of Ryan’s ultra trail running days, he was focused on running unique races that challenged him - like a 100 mile race in Alaska in the winter and the Badwater 135 that starts in Death Valley in mid-July, and has earned the nickname “the world’s toughest foot race.” But with those under his belt, Ryan’s focus is shifting. “I'm focusing on races like the Western States and the UTMB - the opportunities to race on a bigger stage because I feel like I'm at the point in my career where I can perform and I want to show the world that I'm here to compete with the best of the best. If I can tell the story that I'm a queer person at the same time, I think that's really valuable for visibility.”
Now in the elite field of ultra runners, Ryan’s recognized there’s a large category of LGBTQ runners who don’t feel like they have a community. Ryan hopes to change that by creating group runs, aligning with sponsors that support all types of athletes, and by simply showing up as himself–nail polish and all.
On a run at a Western States training camp, a fellow runner negatively commented on Ryan’s painted nails as Ryan passed by him. “I'm in a very good space with my identification, so it doesn't affect me, but imagine if that was a LGBTQ+ person's first time on a trail and they don't feel safe - that moment would have destroyed that person's experience and relationship to the outdoors forever,” he said. “When I think about making the outdoors inclusive and accessible for all people, it is so critical that you should be able to show up no matter who you are.”
Ryan’s one of the founding members of The Outdoorist Oath, which aims to educate and unite the outdoor community as we navigate the future of the planet, inclusion and adventure. Ryan said that while many people are allies, it can be difficult to know what that looks like in our everyday lives. The Oath aims to bridge that gap.
“I've gained so much from being in outdoor places,” Ryan said. “I am so privileged to have access to the outdoors and these experiences. I know how much of that has filled my cup as a gay, queer person, and I know how much that would feel up other people's cups.”
We’re thrilled to welcome Ryan to the Gnarly team as he continues to crush races, exude joy despite crappy weather, and change the narrative of who belongs in the outdoors.
Up next for Ryan is the Western States at the end of June and then it’s over the Atlantic Ocean to Chamoix, France, for the UTMB at the end of August.
Follow along with Ryan’s journey on his Instagram.
All photos courtesy of @pattiegonia