Pushing Fitness Beyond Mental and Physical Limits

This is the story of Ryan Keay, who at 38, started on a fitness path that eventually led him to race in Spartan obstacle courses, while shedding 50lbs along the way. In this highly inspiring interview, Ryan and I talk about what made him start and what it took to get to where he is today.

Ryan was always a competitive guy, who loved pushing himself not just physically but also mentally. He was interested in fitness and martial arts early in life, starting when he was a teen. Then Life Happened and he found himself physically unfit and 40lbs over his goal weight in his late 30s.

At the height of feeling unfit, Ryan started training at Orange Theory Fitness with little expectations beyond getting a good workout and maybe losing a bit of weight. Instead, after a year of pushing himself, Ryan not only became fitter and stronger but he found his passion – obstacle course racing. Proving to himself and others that our limitations are much more mental than physical and anyone can become their best physical self at any age.

Q. Tell me a little bit about your life through a fitness lens. Have you always been into fitness?

A. I was always into fitness. In earlier grades and even in high school, I wanted to be in better shape. I started Thai Boxing in my late teens, and I continued doing that for about 11 years.

In my late 20s, life happened, and I found myself not doing as many Thai Boxing competitions. The nature of my work shifted as well, so I started to look into the gym routine like most people are used to. I was used to a coach environment, so I initially struggled a bit in the gym environment but eventually got used to it.

After that life happened again and I got engaged to my wife, while starting a job with more responsibilities and a shift schedule. I found that my gym time diminished and I put fitness in the back burner. Back then I didn’t realize what a huge impact my active level had on my mental health.

When I had my kids, that’s when the weight gain started. Over a three year period, I gained about 40lbs from where I wanted to be and I wasn’t happy.

Q. What was the moment when you decided to get back to being fit?

A. After I put on the weight, I felt things changing at home. I didn’t feel as happy as before and I couldn’t run up the stairs with my son without huffing and puffing. I started to think that something was physically wrong with me.

After years of being in great shape, I was in denial that it was my weight that was causing me to be out of breath so easily. I went to doctors to look for other reasons, I thought there was no way it was the weight.

Then my wife wanted to try out Orange Theory fitness. I thought it was not for me, I saw fitness classes on TV and I didn’t think something like that would be good for me. That said, after two weeks, when my wife came back from Orange Theory with this pride from completing these classes, full of new found confidence, I decided to give it a try.

Q. What was it like getting back to exercising again?

A. It was February of 2017 and my weight at that time was 227 lbs, which is close to 50lbs over my ideal weight. I thought I would give Orange Theory a shot just to see what it would be like.

I started my first class, the free class, and I struggled! Here I was, coming with a physically fit background, and 15 mins into the class I felt defeated. I thought “wow, what have I let myself become”.

Then I looked around and there were so many people like me – who were at the beginning of their journey to improve themselves. And I saw that I burnt a 1000 calories from that one class and I thought “if I can do more of those classes, it can have some impact.” At this time I was only focused on that moment in time when I couldn’t walk up the stairs without huffing and puffing. So I decided I wanted to try another class and sign up.

In the beginning I wasn’t able to run as I was so much heavier, so I started out power walking. Fast forward, one year later I’ve lost about 40lbs, I was getting compliments about how I looked and I was winning a lot of the Orange Theory competitions.

Q. How did you get into Spartan obstacle racing?

A. I have always been competitive. When I was younger and doing Thai Boxing, it was a full contact sport with kicking and punching. Even more than the physical part, the mental part of overcoming limitations, always lit a fire inside me.

In the ring, when someone punched me and I failed to block it, I would smile. Because I was excited by the learning and the challenge.

Once I had lost 40lbs and was well into my journey with Orange Theory, I started to think about what more can I do? Is there something else I can do?

That’s when I started looking at challenges and obstacle course racing. I started trying things like Tough Mudder and Mud Hero. In my first obstacle course race with Mud Hero, I ended up with a top 10 spot in my group. That was great, but much more than that, I had the same high I did back in my Thai Boxing days of pushing myself both mentally and physically.

The biggest reward was knowing that I was stronger than I thought, that I was able to push myself hard.

At the beginning of 2018 I found out about Spartan race corporation. I watched videos of amazing athletes competing. I was mesmerized by the best version of an athlete I could imagine – because you had to be good at so many different things to do well at these races. So in 2018, I started racing with intent.

Q. Let’s talk about your Spartan race journey, tell me what that has been like and how they affected you?

A. I competed in over 20 races in 2018. It was intense but I found something that was my niche, that was my passion. I used to see myself as a 40 year old weekend warrior but here I am giving other athletes a run or their money.

Obstacle course racing has a lot of “me”s. People who became athletes in their late 30s, early 40s who found passion for their sport. Training for purpose.

Q. What does training for purpose mean?

A. The racing season is not long, so there is not a lot of opportunity for training in between races. So you have to put a lot of time and energy training off season to do well in the on season. It’s not about just looking good in the summer. Training is about a specific intent and purpose of competing in those races. And that keeps me motivated daily.

Q. You have mentioned age a few times, do you think your age is a factor in your success?

A. I am now 42 years old, and in the best shape of my life. I learned so much about my body, my mental health, my fitness and nutrition in the last few years. Age gets you better at handling certain challenges and helps you push through.

When your legs are burning and you need water, you think about the dark times when life was tough. Maybe those dark times felt a bit different but you know that you can get through this moment, just like you got through the dark times in life.

Q. What were you hoping to get at the start of Racing vs what you ended up getting?

A. Initially, I thought it was something to do. Something fun that I will do once in a blue moon. But I ended up getting so much more.

I have an enormous sense of accomplishment and my fitness bar keeps continually rising. I realized that my limitations are as high as I wanted it to be.

I can be the best version of me each and every time I race. Being at the competition starting line, climbing up a tough hill, I feel “whoa this is going to be a tough one” and I smile.

I also found a shared common interest with others who enjoy racing. The fitness groups that I belong to, ones dedicated to racing and the training, are amazing. This type of racing is not for everyone. Not everyone wants to run up the mountain to burn 2000 calories, and then do it again.

But now I am surrounded by people who push themselves in physical and mental toughness. In this group and in this culture, the bigger the mountain is, the more they want to face the challenge.

Finally I am able to share my passion with my friends and family and maybe inspire them with my enthusiasm. My wife and a handful of my friends, people who never considered themselves athletes, are now training and racing. I see myself as an advocate for each of their personal journey.

It’s amazing to see people be successful when they thought they had limitations and be surprised by what their body can do after making the commitment to go all the way.

Q. I am curious, what type of workouts do you do nomrally?

Prior to Covid, I worked out six days a week. Goal was to run about 10K every day. I used the treadmill at work during lunch and then go to a 60 minute class at Orange Theory. I do this from Monday to Friday. Saturday mornings I go to a 2 hour circuit routine at One Academy. Right now, with Covid, I am doing all of my workouts at home.

Q. Looking back at your life through a fitness lens, what advice would give your 25 year old self?

I think I would tell myself – although I am not sure if I would listen at 25 – that you are stronger than you think and you can accomplish more than you think but it will require effort. I would ask the 25 year old me to explore the physical self and tell him that we are only limited by our minds.

Q. If you could give someone like yourself, who wants to really push themselves, three pieces of advice, what would they be?

  1. There is no easy path to fitness. You have to give it time and you have to be consistent.
  2. Most fad diets don’t provide long term success. Be reasonable with your nutrition.
  3. Don’t set a timeline or a goal like lose 30lbs. Let the process be the process. Consistently go to the gym. Consistently eat well. Be mindful and the rest will happen.

Q. Finally, how do you feel now?

A. I am currently at my lowest weight. I now weigh 176 pounds, down from 227lbs at my heaviest. I feel so energetic, I feel happier and my clothes feel different. I feel great.

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Published by Pvot40

I blog about people who are approaching or living midlife to the fullest.

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