Connor Ryan shares how he connects with his culture while ultrarunning and advocates for more Native involvement in the sport.
“It was the hardest I’ve ever projectile-vomited in my life,” Connor Ryan says of his first ultramarathon, the Leadville Silver Rush 50 miler in July. “I got super fueled up at the previous aid station, maybe a little too much.” Pushing the pace a few miles later, Connor was caught off guard by intense gastrointestinal distress. Thankfully, his record setting vomit session proved to reset his system. “As soon as I stood up I was like, this is the best I’ve felt all day!”
Connor – a member of the Húŋkpapȟa Lakȟóta – is a professional skier, filmmaker, and Indigenous activist moonlighting as a trail runner during his off-season. The Silver Rush 50 was the first time he had run longer than a marathon distance. Crewed by friends and fellow professional skiers Drew Peterson and Emma Patterson, Connor ended up finishing strong, placing 32nd.
His entry was a last-minute switch after his plans to do the Leadville Trail Marathon earlier in the summer were derailed by COVID. “I hadn’t been able to run as much as I wanted to [leading up to the race],” says Connor. “I kind of just looked at it as like ‘okay well I don’t know how this is going to go, this actual ultramarathon thing, but I get to have a day where for eight or 10 hours or however long this is going to take me, all I have to do is run all day’ and that kind of sounded really nice. When do you get to have an opportunity to run the whole day?”
Trail racing is a relatively new part of Connor’s athletic career. “I got into trail running on a dare,” he says. In addition to skiing, he devotes some of his time to working for NativesOutdoors, an organization whose mission is to empower Indigenous communities. Back in 2019, Connor’s boss, Dr. Len Necefer, talked him into doing the Kachina Peak marathon in Taos, New Mexico. “Len knew how gnarly the course was and I didn’t,” says Connor. “I went out there with the intention just to finish.”
Connor ended up placing in the top 10. “It kind of showed me that maybe I should take the running thing more seriously,” he says, chuckling.
Since that first trail race at Kachina Peak, Connor has started running more in his off season. This includes working as a mentor at Footprints Running camps, which aim to empower leaders in climate action. Founded by accomplished ultrarunner Dakota Jones, Footprints brings together runners who have ideas for projects designed to help specific communities combat climate change. The camp combines running with project development, drawing on the knowledge and experience of the camp’s mentors, including Connor. “No matter who you are and where you’re at, it really helps to just have that sense of community and the optimism that comes from that,” Connor says.
Through all of his work and athletic endeavors, Connor brings his identity as a member of the Húŋkpapȟa Lakȟóta to the fore. “My grandfather was taken by the boarding schools [so wasn’t able to pass on our culture] and I grew up in the suburbs in Colorado and didn’t have strong cultural ties,” he says. It wasn’t until Connor was 21 that he had the opportunity to go to the Black Hills in South Dakota and reconnect. “[After that] I grew into being in that community over the course of a few years.”
Today, Connor is an outspoken activist for Indigenous rights and inclusion, including in the ultrarunning space.
“As we broadly talk about trail running and the FKTs and the who ran this first and fastest, it’s this conversation that leaves out thousands of years of human presence,” says Connor. “The first ultrarunners would have been Indigenous people just living life and moving through these very same spaces that we’re moving through now.”
This year, Connor worked with the Leadville Race Series to create more discussion around native acknowledgement and Indigenous inclusion at these trail races. “It’s important for us as Native ultrarunners to be the ones who come into that space and inform everybody on what we’re participating in,” says Connor. “And it’s maybe not necessarily about who’s the fastest or who’s the best at this, but about the collective community we build by moving through these spaces together.”
As the discipline of ultrarunning grows, more races have lottery systems and restrictions for entry. Connor highlights how this can be a barrier to Indigenous inclusion: “there’s not really a way that [race entry systems] account for if a Ute person or someone who’s Cheyenne or Arapahoe or any of the [local] tribes want to come and race.” Considering that the race may be on their Indigenous lands, this raises interesting questions about access and inclusion.
Connor hopes that the future of ultrarunning can include entries set aside for Indigenous runners and that race series can start incorporating land acknowledgements to honor the traditional inhabitants of the land that trail races cover.
“It’s important to establish a precedent,” says Connor. “We’re not just the past of these places, we’re the present and the future of these places and so there have to be systems put in place that allow for us to continue to be the future of the places that we’re so deeply connected to as Indigenous people.”
While skiing is still Connor’s main athletic focus, he’s excited to pursue ultrarunning during his off-season and committed to continuing his advocacy for Indigenous inclusion in the sport. “I had that whole [Silver Rush] 50-mile race to stand out there and think about [all of this],” says Connor. “I’m probably not the best native trail runner out there. I’d like to take the platform and visibility I have at least to find folks who belong in this space even more than I do.”