Since retiring from international rugby in 2015 through injury, Ryan has found a new love for endurance sport and the personal benefits pushing his limits brings. From his recent November Beast challenge to running a marathon in his garden, Ryan is now trying to help and inspire others whilst tackling the issues surrounding men's mental health and wellbeing.
During November, I embarked on an accumulative running challenge called the November Beast. Over the 30-days of the month, the challenge was to run 1-mile further each day. So, on day 1, I had to run 1-mile, on day 2, 2-miles, day 3, 3-miles and so on and so forth right up to 30, covering 465-miles in total. However, I actually started on Oct 28th to allow myself to finish on the last Saturday in November, as what my life has taught me over the years, is that no great adventure ever finishes on a Monday...and I wanted to be able to have a few beers at the end!
As you can imagine, the first couple of weeks were ok, however, the mileage soon started to ramp up pretty quickly. I didn't even reach half way until day 20 and in the last week I ended up completing 200-miles.
I don’t compete anymore, so everything I do now is for good causes or to inspire others. I’m a big advocate for men’s mental health and wellbeing and I just want to try and have a positive impact on the world, especially on the stats surround male suicide, which, when you look at them, are frightening.
So, I took on this challenge to try and raise money to help fund a project called Chatty Benches. The idea is to place a number of easily identifiable benches in and around the South Wales area where people can go and sit and take the time to talk to each and, more importantly, listen to each other.
We live in a sudo-macho society and I’m no longer a big believer in that anymore. I want men to talk more and share their feelings. I want men to ask each other if they’re ok and I want them to genuinely care about the answers.
This period of isolation recently has opened my eyes to the fact that life can be pretty lonely. As humans, we thrive on personal interaction, it’s a really important part of society. So, if I can help to provide a networking community of talking, then that’s brilliant.
Secondly, I wanted to prove to people that we’ve all capable of so much more and inspire others to take on their own challenges. We all tend to live by our own self-limiting beliefs, whether we think we don’t have enough time or don’t think we’re physically capable. I wanted to show that even a 40-year-old, 100kg, non-runner, dad of three with a bucket load of injuries can achieve something incredible.
Some days I just didn’t want to run, whether it was because I was tired, busy or the weather was crap. However, I didn’t find it as hard as I thought it would be. It certainly took a toll on my body as I completed the last 70-miles with two stress fractures, one in each tibia. However, overall, I found the running ok.
By day 15/16, I ended up reaching the pinnacle of my stiffness and soreness. So, from that point on it didn’t get any worse and my body actually started to feel more comfortable running than it did sitting or walking. Towards the end I started to see the physiological adaptations in my body and my heart rate starting to lower. That was fascinating and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the changes over time.
I’m intrigued by what the human body can endure and achieve. I’m a big believer that your mind will give up long before your body ever will. To a certain extent I’m a living example of that. I was told by medical professionals to retire from rugby in 2007 after undergoing a number of significant shoulder surgeries but I was very fortunate to go on and enjoy a further 8-years in the game. I don’t tell that story to sound tough, what it showed me was what your body is able to adapt to and overcome.
The hardest step is always the first one but it’s also the most rewarding. Looking at the challenge on paper, it’s intimidating enough to put anyone off before they even get going. I think this is a shared experience of us all. The fear of the unknown and the fear of failure can stop many people before even giving something new or difficult a go. This is the same in a lot of things in life. I joined a gym recently, and even as an ex-international sportsman, I was intimidated to walk through the doors in the first place. But, I’d much prefer to try something and fail than live my life with the ‘what if’ question mark hanging over my head. As my Dad always used to say to me “I’d rather have a memory than a dream”.
When I set off on this challenge I knew there were going to be tough days. I knew things were going to hurt and I knew things were going to be sore. I believe the most mentally resilient people out there are the ones who endure that uncomfort.
I think having a ‘why’ is really important as you do get strength from that purpose. You undoubtedly question why you’re doing these challenges at times, so having a strong purpose always helps.
For me, I find these challenges a journey of self-discovery. Endurance challenges are the furthest type of challenges I could get away from my previous world and I love that.
I also love the community challenges like this bring. I ran with many people over the course of the month, with many having battled their own personal mentally health issues. Challenges like this provide a great opportunity for people, men especially, to actually talk to each other. You spend many hours out on the road running together, and once the niceties are out of the way and you run out of small talk, people often start opening up to you and you end up having real conversations.
After another shoulder injury in 2015, I went to meet the surgeon, who had operated on my previous shoulder injuries, for a consultation. He sat me down and ended up telling me that enough was enough, there was nothing he could really do and now was probably the time to call it a day. It was an emotional conversation as I could see this was the end of my rugby career.
We ended up talking about what was next. Even though I had physically retired from rugby, at that moment, emotionally I wasn’t ready. My desire to challenge myself was still there. It’s an important part of my soul that needs feeding too.
A few of my mates, including Shane Williams, had previously completed an Ironman and I flippantly mentioned that to my surgeon. He reminded me that I have had numerous operations on my knees and plates in my legs, so advised that long-distance running probably wasn’t the best option. He went on further to say that with the operations on my shoulders, he doubted whether I’d be able to swim. However, he said cycling should be ok! I saw this as a challenge and said to him, that’s it then, I’m going to have a go at Ironman. A year later and I had completed my first Ironman in Tenby.
The attraction of endurance challenges is that the only person I’m competing against now is myself. Unless you win one of these events, everyone gets the same medal. At no point in these challenges is the playing field level, everyone’s journey is different. We’ve all got different life constraints, different commitments, different histories and backgrounds, so at the end of the day it is just you versus you and I like that.
Modern life is really comfy and we only ever tap into small parts of our potential through day to day life. Endurance challenges are a great way in which to explore that locked potential. When you’re 20/30 miles into a challenge you gain clarity in lots of different things and understand a lot more things about yourself.
Well, due to COVID, I have two Ironman races that have been rolled over to 2021, one in Spain and the other in Wales. I’ve got to them now, I’ve paid for them!
However, undertaking the November Beast has really sparked my interest in more personal ultra-challenges. I feel something a little less organised and a bit more person offers a more authentic experience. For example, I’d love to run North to South Wales or even around Wales like Welsh ultra-runner Rhys Jenkins. These are all massive challenges but as they say, you’ve got to be naive enough to start and too stubborn to stop.
The hardest bit about doing any of these challenges is committing to it. We like to give ourselves a hundred reasons why we can’t do something but none of them really matter, you’ll be able to overcome them all. You’ve just to commit to it. Whether it’s as small as getting up in the morning to go for a run or completing an Ironman. The only person you’ll be letting down if you don’t do it is you. Don’t quit on yourself!
Someone told me this quote years ago and I’ve found that it has always resonated with me. It never fails to get me motivated.
“The devil whispered in my ear, ‘You’re not strong enough to withstand the storm.’ Today I whispered in the devil’s ear, ‘I am the storm.’”