It was 2 a.m. on Feb. 18, and Ryan Montgomery was 64 miles into a 100-mile footrace through the snowy tundra and sub-zero temps of Big Lake, Alaska. He had rolled into a log-cabin aid station just after midnight and sat down to warm up and get in some calories (all the food he was carrying was frozen). After watching a few other runners come in and head back out, he knew he too had to face the dark and -15 degrees and “never-ending whiteness.”
Exhausted, he spent the next few miles running however long his brain and body would allow, then stopping for 30-ish seconds of standing sleep. “I would close my eyes briefly and I would open them, and that would be enough to carry me another 10 minutes until I did it again,” he said. Eventually a fat biker whom Montgomery had befriended at the start line passed him and gave him some encouragement, and then, he said, “I was able to find some more energy somewhere in my body.”
By mid-day, the 23-year-old BYU finance major would be the second male runner to cross the Susitna 100 finish line. It was his fourth 100-mile finish since completing the Wasatch 100 five months earlier — and just one extreme along a spectrum of extremes he still plans to tackle. In July, Montgomery will toe the line at Badwater, hailed as “the world’s toughest footrace”: 135 miles through Death Valley in July’s searing temps.
“Ryan has this ability to start into something hard and just keep moving,” said finance professor and fellow ultrarunner Craig Merrill. “He has amazing tenacity and endurance.”
And he has a self-described “insatiable desire to push myself.” As a 14-year-old high school freshman, he told his cross country coach he wanted to do a marathon. When she told him that kind of effort would be too much for a growing teen, he took it as a personal challenge, ran a marathon and was hooked.
Later in high school he was invited to participate in a Bolivian expedition where participants run 125 mountain miles over the course of a week. “That’s where I realized our bodies are so amazing and can adapt to physical challenges.”
In 2015, he focused briefly on road running to check off a bucket-list item: running the Boston Marathon. He did that in 2015, raising $1,500 for the American Diabetes Association in honor of his dad, who passed away from diabetes the year prior. (As part of his Badwater efforts, he'll be fundraising for a diversity scholarship in BYU's Marriott School.)
His running efforts haven’t been one home run after the next: In his first 100-mile mountain foray (Washington’s Badger Mountain Challenge in March 2017), he dropped out at mile 75 “just because I was tired. I figured I must stop or I’d flop over and die.” But having completed four more challenging 100 milers since, he said, “I’ve realized our minds are much stronger than that.”
Competing in and finishing 100-milers as a college student — and throwing in an honors thesis as one more way to push himself — has been an exercise in exploring his mental capabilities as much as his physical, he said.
“I really am just an ordinary person,” said Montgomery, who has condensed what some believe requires 100-mile training weeks into 40- or 50-mile weeks to leave time for school work and internships. After graduating next week, he’ll move to San Francisco to be a management consultant and continue prepping for Badwater. “We can all accomplish these milestones as long as our mental capacity and our mental will is there.”