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Ryan Montgomery’s road to the Western States Endurance Run (WSER) has been long and winding for a relatively young athlete. But the 29-year-old runner from Park City, Utah, says that every setback has just fueled their fire.
“My journey to WSER has been far from linear. Having been in WSER twice already (and pulling out twice the month prior due to injuries), it has been really disheartening having not run the race yet. WSER 2023 will be my personal victory lap for so many reasons—celebrating health, celebrating Ryan 2.0 as a queer person, and celebrating the LGBTQ+ community who cannot be at the WSER start line with me. And I think that celebration will yield an amazing first-time WSER performance!” says Montgomery.
Last year, Montgomery dropped out of WSER with just weeks until race day after being hit by a vehicle that didn’t yield while cycling through a roundabout in Bend, Oregon. Shoulder surgery followed by weeks of physical therapy and a return to his run program didn’t deter Montgomery’s stoke for getting back to the start line in Olympic Valley.
Despite setbacks, Montgomery is bringing a lot of confidence and a fresh manicure (Montgomery frequently documents their fabulous pre-race nails) to the Western States trail. With 13 100-mile finishes under their belt (before hitting 30!), Montgomery says they feel good about their fitness and plan to race smart,no matter how tempting the energy from the crowd makes it to go out a little too hard.
From Setback to Celebration
Competing at WSER during Pride month is particularly potent for Montgomery, who has used their platform to advocate for LGBTQ issues while training at the elite level. According to ACLU, there are currently 491 anti-LGBTQ bills making their way through state and federal offices in the U.S. From healthcare access to free speech and public accommodations, political attacks on the queer community have increased in recent years. Montgomery has used their expansive platform as a pro athlete (Montgomery is currently part of Altra’s elite team) to call attention to inclusion and belonging in trail and ultra running.
“Right now, a lot of people choose to ignore queer people and the issues facing them, so running WSER is an opportunity for me to hopefully facilitate more of a conversation about the issues facing LGBTQ+ people,” says Montgomery. “There are very, very few LGBTQ+ people who have (and will) run WSER due to current systemic problems in our sport, the qualification process, and more.”
Montgomery, who identifies as non-binary and is set to compete in the men’s award category for Western States, points to non-binary athletes not feeling welcomed at qualifying races, due to lack of clarity around award categories, not accepting runners’ gender at face value when they sign up for races, and race registration platforms not having non-binary as an option at sign up alongside a lack of clear policy for non-binary runners.
In October 2022, Riley Brady became the first known non-binary runner to earn a Golden Ticket with a top-two finish at the Javelina Jundred.
In November 2023, Western States updated its policy, specifying that athletes have the opportunity to select their gender category: male, female, or non-binary, and will also need to choose an awards category.
In February, Montgomery earned their Golden Ticket with a third-place finish at the Tarawera 104K race and spoke out about the lack of a non-binary category and lack of consistent policy between Golden Ticket races.
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“The race was quite magical. Everyone was incredibly supportive,” said Montgomery in an Instagram post. “I highly recommend creating a non-binary category. I had to opt-in to the men’s field at registration because it was the only option. This week I learned a lot of queer people run your race, and a non-binary option would make people feel more included.”
Many non-binary athletes hope that a pinnacle event like WSER having a clear and transparent policy will trickle down to Golden Ticket races, and smaller, grass-roots events so that folks of all genders can feel welcome in the trail community and be empowered to compete.
“If non-binary people don’t feel included/welcomed in the WSER Qualification Races and subsequently don’t run them, how will they ever get the chance to put their name into the WSER lottery, let alone attempt to race for a Golden Ticket that is meant for men or women only?” says Montgomery.
While there remains some heaviness in the face of cultural and political backlash against queer communities, Montgomery says queer joy epitomizes what he’s bringing to race day.
“Queer joy and community is something I channel every day, especially as I head into WSER. The queer running community has really impacted my life for the better the past few years; I’ve learned a lot, became a better person, and I have honed into my true identity as a person,” says Montgomery. “I believe that when you are 100 percent confident in who you are and have 100 percent alignment between your actions and values, you become a better athlete.”
Light and Love
People who know Montgomery describe him as intentional in everything he does, and an unfailing and loyal supporter of other runners who is known for his sense of humor online and in person.
“Ryan is full of light and love,” says Tina Muir, host of the Running For Real Podcast, and a longtime friend of Montgomery. “A beautiful example of humanity, both inside and out. Ryan is thoughtful, loving and kind.”
Muir ran her first-ever ultramarathon in May, with Montgomery as her crew. Not only did Montgomery dedicate a full Saturday to driving to each aid station to cheer on and support Muir, he also paced her for 14 miles, after running 14 miles on the course to meet her, as Muir won the race as the first female, finishing third overall.
“Most elite runners do not run with middle and back of the pack runners. Most elite runners don’t do anything that could affect their own training in any way,” says Muir. When she attended an Out Trails Group Run for queer athletes in Salt Lake City, she noted that Montgomery made time to chat with each runner that joined the group, no matter what pace they were running.
Montgomery and Out Trails, a community of queer athletes and allies, are hosting the second annual Out Trails LGBTQ+ Running Retreat in the North Cascades October 5th-8th. After a successful first year, Montgomery has worked with brands to secure scholarships for 25 queer trail runners to experience community while exploring the trails around Mount St. Helens.
“It is clear Ryan knows how it feels to not belong, and he wants to do everything he can to make running a positive and soul-filling experience for every runner he interacts with. To Ryan, that is more important than anything, and it was abundantly clear on that day just how much of a positive influence Ryan’s loving nature had made on these runners,” says Muir.
Embracing Strength and Cross-Training
While Montgomery hasn’t changed much about their training leading up to Western States, they say a major shift he’s implemented is more strategic strength training. They started working with a strength coach last winter, which they say has been helpful for preventing injury while increasing training load.
“I tested the value of the strength training during Quadrock 50 in May, which resembles The Canyons section of WSER, and I felt really strong and not too sore after the race. I feel really resilient!” says Montgomery.
Last year, Strava, the activity-tracking app selected Montgomery as the “Most Versatile” athlete of 2022. In addition to logging some big weeks on feet, Montgomery also recorded 14 different activity types while building queer communities in the outdoors.
“I’ve augmented a lot of cross-training into my training, including cycling, skiing, hiking, and even paddle boarding. Sometimes running for 15-plus hours a week can get monotonous, so my cross-training allows me to throw in something new for my mind and body. I’ve learned that my body can recover well from running during a long bike ride, and I still get amazing fitness points from it!” says Montgomery.
Ultimately, it’s all about balance for Montgomery, who has learned to respect rest while chasing excellence. They attribute this learning to their coach, elite runner Anna Mae Flynn.
“Oftentimes it is not better to do more in training, even if you have the time. My coach has held me back on several occasions in order to prevent me from doing too much. And because of it, I have had very minimal injuries/niggles while still building great fitness!” says Montgomery.
Muir says Montgomery’s success as an athlete and activist stems from a deep-seated love of the trail and ultra community.
“Ryan didn’t follow the traditional path to running, he didn’t run for his university team then gradually make his way through the distances. He knew early on that ultra running was where his passion lay, and his love of adventure spurred him to be brave and bold in the races he has completed,” says Muir.
“Ryan does so much for the community out of the kindness and love of his own heart. Ryan is always advocating, bringing people to the table, uplifting others, holding people accountable, and finding ways to push brands, organizations, and governing bodies to truly support the LGBTQ+ community, not just performatively pretend to. He doesn’t get paid for those things or get recognition for it, he does it because he wants to be the leader he wished he had when he first entered the space.”
Above all, Montgomery is excited to do what they do best: run hard and fast with a smile, eager to wrap themselves in a pride flag when they complete the final lap around the Placer County High School track.
“I CANNOT wait to feel the energy—the energy of the trail running coming together for such an exciting event.”
Zoë Rom is Editor In Chief of Trail Runner magazine and Managing Editor of Women’s Running.
When she’s not running, she’s writing or reading. You can catch her doing stand-up and improv in the Roaring Fork Valley with Consensual Improv. Southern story-teller turned mountain-dweller, she starts every day with a cup of strong coffee and a good story. Her work has appeared on NPR’s Marketplace, Morning Edition and in REI Co-op Journal, Discover, Rock & Ice, Trail Runner, Backpacker, and Threshold Podcast.