Photo courtesy of Father Chris Ryan

Beyond Mile 21: Jesuit Chris Ryan Runs His Fifth Boston Marathon

Beyond Mile 21 is a miniseries featuring the personal stories behind members of the Boston College community and their journeys to run the Boston Marathon.

Father Chris Ryan remembers where he was on Apr. 15, 2013—the day of the Boston Marathon bombings. He had just completed the race.

“I went back to the Jesuit house in Cambridge where I was staying and it was just after I had settled back down in my room that one of the other Jesuits asked if I had heard about some kind of explosions at the finish line. I said no, what are you talking about? I spent almost as much time replying to everyone and letting them know I was fine as I did running the marathon that day.”

Fr. Ryan was fortunate enough to have completed the marathon before the bombings went off that afternoon.

“I had run a time fast enough to qualify for 2014 and there was no question in my mind that I was going to come back and run it again. As it happened, in 2014 the Marathon fell on Easter Monday and I had this profound sense of running the marathon that day as participating in an act of Resurrection.”

2017 will mark Fr. Ryan’s fifth Boston Marathon, and although he’s run a marathon every spring since 2006, Boston is his last for the foreseeable future. The graduate student is in the fourth and final year of his spiritual formation in the School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College. Come summer, Fr. Ryan will move to his next assignment in Raleigh, NC, where he will engage in a variety of ministries in both Spanish and English at a vibrant Jesuit parish.

Fr. Ryan is a man of many destinations. His previous 11 marathons were spread across four different cities. He ran his first marathon, Sugarloaf, when he was living in Maine in 2006. Fr. Ryan took up his next three in St. Louis while studying in the Midwest, and has spread his last seven between Providence and Boston while living in Worcester and now Brighton.

But although 2017 is Fr. Ryan’s fifth time running Boston— arguably the most difficult marathon for which to qualify—he wasn’t always such a seasoned distance runner.

Fr. Ryan ran cross-country at St. Joseph’s Prep in Philly all four years of high school, but it wasn’t until college that he began to test out long mileage runs.

“When I moved up to Dartmouth for undergrad, the surrounding area—with all these hills and mountains and valleys—was a great place to run increasingly longer distances. I didn’t feel like I was fast enough to hop on the Division I cross-country team, so I developed this habit of just running on my own.”

It was there in New Hampshire that Fr. Ryan ran his first half-marathon, an initial test of long distance competition. He followed up with a 20-miler on snowy Martha’s Vineyard a few years later after training with a running group in Portland, Maine. Upon stretching himself to 20 miles—which Fr. Ryan remarked as being “so much fun"—he asked his friends during the ferry ride back to the mainland: “20 miles is tough but doable… so how much harder can it be to run another six?”

And so the marathon era in his life was born.

While it took Fr. Ryan five more yearsuntil April 2010to “Run Boston,” he reveals that he always had his sights on tackling the oldest and most prestigious marathon—run continuously since 1896in the U.S.

“I always knew about the possibility of qualifying for Boston. Every year I ran in other places, I tried to meet the qualifying time so that maybe one day when living in Boston again, I could run it.”

Compared to other marathons, Fr. Ryan also admits that there’s a special character to Boston—a neighborhood feel in the midst of a grueling race. “People feel like it’s their marathon, their city, and people come out to the same spot year after year.”

But for Fr. Ryan, there are competing “races” this year, as he is also writing an 80-page thesis for his degree program. The hardest part about this year’s training is “having essentially two marathons at the same time and much preferring the one that I run with my feet.”

Fr. Ryan’s 16-week training program begins before the majority of campus wakes up most mornings, as he prefers to be “out the door by 5:30 a.m.,” catching the sunrise over the Charles River, or through Brighton Center, or the Newton Hills. Depending on the week, Fr. Ryan pushes anywhere from 35-50 miles in training when not going to daily Mass, attending class, working on his thesis, knitting, or carrying out his weekly shopping and cooking responsibilities for the Jesuits with whom he lives. For a man in his age group, the qualifying time for Boston is three hours, five minutes, which comes down to about a 7:03 mile pace. Ideally, Fr. Ryan would like to break three hours like he did when he ran Boston his first time in 2010 with a time of two hours, 58 minutes and 42 seconds.

But Fr. Ryan confesses that his graduate student commitments do test his running goals.

During those Saturday morning runs before dawn, Fr. Ryan says, “I’ll be mindful of some of the uncertainty that I feel about my writing, and it’s very hard to keep that from spreading into my confidence about my running.”

That’s where his faith comes in. Before races, Fr. Ryan recites the same prayer that his cross-country team would say before competing. And while he does pray while running (I had to ask), Fr. Ryan reveals that this type of prayer is a bit less formal. Mindful of his schedule this year, Fr. Ryan prays to “let the confidence, and the growing physical readiness for the marathon cycle back into my sense of confidence and readiness for defending and completing my thesis.”

So among the 30,000+ runners competing in Monday’s race, there will be a Jesuit, a Boston College graduate student, and a young man of prayer. He will delight in the miles, ponder the future of his thesis, and high-five friends who line the course to cheer him, all while striving for his very best time across the streets of our beloved Boston.