Runner overcomes obstacles
Bend’s Ryan Ness deals with health disorder while competitive running
By Amanda Miles / The BulletinPublished: November 23. 2010 4:00AM PST
Two just might be Ryan Ness’ lucky number.
Two months ago, Ness moved to Bend for the second time after spending a few years in Portland.
And last month, he won the Columbia Gorge Marathon in his second time running the Hood River-area event (and in the race’s second year, no less).
Or maybe Ness, 35, is just plain lucky. Lucky enough that when he discovered in 2006 he had developed hemochromatosis, the diagnosis was made before the disease — a disorder of iron metabolism — appeared to have caused any lasting damage.
Running is not the only sport in which Ness participates. He also cycles and cross-country skis, and he races in multisport events. Don’t ask him to pick which of the sports he likes best, though, as it tends to vary with the seasons.
“If I had a favorite, I might try to just do that (sport) more,” Ness says. “I just like fitness and keeping in shape and endurance sports, really.”
Growing up in St. Cloud, Minn., Ness was always active. He ran cross-country in high school and also cross-country skied, but he says he did not win many races — he was a middle-of-the-pack type of kid.
But it was more about the lifestyle than the results for Ness. He took to heart the examples of some influential coaches, and of his marathon-running parents.
“I had that ingrained in my head that that’s what I kind of wanted to be like when I grew up,” he says.
So Ness kept training and got better, fitter, faster. He ran marathons, competed in Midwest nordic ski races, did triathlons.
In 2003, he even completed the Ironman Wisconsin triathlon — a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a 26.2-mile (marathon) run. He finished 64th out of about 1,800 participants with a time of 10 hours, 39 minutes, 5 seconds — a respectable mark for a first-time Ironman contestant.
That has been his only Ironman to date, though by his own design.
“It was fantastic,” Ness says. “I had a really good experience, so I kind of think that maybe I’ll just turn that page because if I go back and do another one, it might be horrible because you have that chance of having a horrible Ironman.”
His athletic lifestyle made Ness a natural fit for a place like Central Oregon, where he moved with his wife, Laurie, a nurse, in 2004, telecommuting for his job in computer programming.
Ness continued to compete in endurance events. He even placed in the top 10 in the elite men’s division of Bend’s multisport Pole Pedal Paddle race in both 2006 and 2007.
It was during the year between those two PPP races that Ness was diagnosed with hemochromatosis, a genetic disorder that causes the body to store too much iron, which can lead to health problems later in life such as arthritis, organ damage, or failure of the liver, heart or pancreas.
Hemochromatosis affects roughly five in every 1,000 people in the United States, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse website.
The diagnosis came almost by fluke. Ness’ younger brother, Kelly, had gone to the doctor for an unrelated illness. But when his blood work showed high iron levels, Kelly was diagnosed with hemochromatosis.
Upon learning of his brother’s diagnosis, Ryan decided to undergo testing as well. And those tests revealed that he too had hemochromatosis, though he was not yet manifesting any symptoms.
No one else in Ness’ family has been diagnosed, though he suspects one of his grandfathers — who died in his early 70s after suffering from arthritis and heart disease — might also have borne the disease.
Ness’ treatment was simple. To remove the excess iron from his body, he had to have blood taken until his iron levels fell to an acceptable range.
The hard part was that he had to do so weekly for about 30 weeks in succession.
“It’s not the funnest thing to do every week,” he says. “It got really draining, not only going there again and getting poked. I think I recovered pretty quickly from them — but just week after week after week of getting this blood out of me. I was really tired.”
Not long after his weekly blood draws ended, Ness moved to Portland. He had decided to shift from computer programming to a career in engineering. He and Laurie, who is also from Minnesota, moved in June 2007 so Ryan could attend an Oregon Institute of Technology satellite campus in Portland.
Life in a bigger city proved to be an adjustment for the couple. And something was missing.
“(Portland) wasn’t all bad because it’s not cold in the winter, but we both grew up in snow, and we like to be closer to the snow, so that was hard,” Ness explains.
A job in test engineering with PV Powered gave Ness the opportunity to come back to Central Oregon. He and Laurie returned to Bend this past September.
And the very next month, on a scenic marathon route along the Columbia River, Ness pulled off one of the biggest accomplishments of his athletic career.
He knew going in that he had a shot to win. He had placed third in the marathon’s inaugural edition in 2009, and neither of the men who had beaten him had entered the 2010 race.
He started out conservatively, and about four men passed him early in the race, he recalls.
But Ness had a plan.
“I knew the course because I’d ran it the year before, so I kinda knew the race wasn’t going to be won in the first six miles, so I didn’t start out fast,” he explains.
The course for the Columbia Gorge Marathon begins in the town of Hood River and heads east toward Rowena before eventually looping back on itself and returning to the start. It is challenging and hilly. One climb is especially grueling: From the eight-mile mark to about 14.5 miles, the course climbs roughly 800 feet.
Hence, Ness’ patient start paid big dividends, as he took the lead with about six miles remaining.
Ness had never previously won a marathon because he typically ran in bigger races such as Twin Cities and Portland (where he set his personal best of 2:53:54 in 2004), marathons with massive fields and often won by professional runners.
His first win was in doubt until the very end.
Unbeknown to Ness over the latter stages of the race, another runner he had previously overtaken was hanging tough. With the marathoners blending in with participants in a half-marathon race being staged simultaneously over much of the same course, Ness did not realize until about half a mile from the finish that the runner in second place was only a few seconds behind him.
“I didn’t have a lot left,” Ness says, “so that’s why I was surprised and scared when I saw him, because I knew if he was coming fast, it would have been hard for me to react to a kick at the end. When I saw him, I just kind of went as hard as I could for the rest of the way. And he was kind of probably in the same situation as me, but I didn’t know that at the time.”
What Ness had left turned out to be just enough. He held off Win Goodbody, of Portland, for the victory in 2:57:13.4.
He won by 8.6 seconds.
“I haven’t won very many (races), so it was really cool to win it, and it gives me more confidence for the future,” he says.
Ness is not sure what his immediate future holds regarding his competition schedule, though he plans to do some cross-country ski racing this winter, make his return to the Pole Pedal Paddle next May, and likely go back to Hood River next fall to try to defend his marathon title.
Perhaps more important, he is definitely back to his old self, as fit as he was before his diagnosis. And his treatment these days is much less rigorous: He has to have blood drawn only two to five times per year.
“There’s a lot worse things that could be wrong with people,” Ness says, “so I feel kind of fortunate in that respect.”
Or to put it another way, just a little bit lucky.
Amanda Miles can be reached at 541-383-0393 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.