From the depths of an alcoholic to the highs of Western States
Ryan Norton hit his lowest point July 24, 2011. That Sunday morning he woke up still drunk from the night before, which was not unusual.
But what was unusual is that he sensed it was time to change his life. Perhaps it was the arrest for drunken driving, his third Operating While Intoxicated citation.
Norton’s affair with alcohol began when he moved to the Manitowoc, Wis., area.
“I had always preferred pot to alcohol but being in a new place it was harder to come by,” he recalls. “Meeting friends at the bar after work just seemed like the norm. And no matter the occasion, it was always a reason to drink.”
As his drinking increased so did his depression. And his depression caused him to drink more.
“I found if I drank enough I would find that happy place,” he says. “In my mind that was an easy fix. It brought me to the point of being suicidal on and off for years. Basically, my life was unraveling, and I blamed the world. I was financially a mess. My credit was shot. And my family life was awful.”
‘My life sucked’
Norton exhibited classic behavior of an alcoholic. He lied to his parents to borrow money so he could drink. He didn’t experience hangovers because he was constantly drunk. He tried to quit but his addiction held firm.
“With the drinking came other drugs,” he says. “If you had it and wanted to share, I was game. For years I had made it a point to not be sober at all. My life sucked, and secretly I hoped that I would just not wake up most mornings.”
He tried quitting drinking after his first two OWIs.
“After a short time that addiction grabbed me and pulled me back in,” Norton says. “The third OWI didn't phase me much. It was just another financial burden I would have to deal with. Before I started with the court process for that one, I quit for good. I still don't quite understand why, other than a higher power helping me.”
Suicide by running
That was July 24, 2011.
Still drunk, Norton woke up and stumbled outside in the sun and started to cry — “something I hadn't done in years. I knew, at that exact moment, it was time to quit and I was going to be OK.”
Norton says the first two days were easy. But on the third day, the shaking started. It became violent. His vision blurred. He experienced hallucinations and crazy thoughts. He was scared — but sober — and for some inexplicable reason turned to running on July 27.
“Not knowing what to do, I put on a pair of shoes and ran a mile,” says Norton, who played hockey, soccer and golf growing up. “Within steps I was convinced that this was my way out. My heart would surely explode in the July heat and no one would suspect a thing. I ran a 9-minute mile, collapsed in my front yard, heart pounding faster than it ever had, covered in sweat and having a full on asthma attack. And I waited.”
Fixing his life, a stride at a time
To his surprise, Norton didn’t die on the grass in his pool of sweat.
In fact, after 15 minutes, he felt a change. “I felt better than I had in a long time. The next day I did the same thing, hoping it would kill me and all it did was leave me feeling better than the day before.”
Norton kept his running routine. Within three weeks, he could run five miles.
“My running journey did start as a feeble suicide attempt, but looking back I think it was one of the best decisions I have ever made,” he explains. “Since then I have fixed my financial issues, corrected my relationship with my parents, started my own business and found a true happiness in life.”
And soon enough, he would find trail and ultra running.
“I run for me, for my happiness, for the simple joy of running, to see what I am capable of, for the freedom, the quiet, it’s my time to sort out anything that is bothering me, and to discover who I truly am.”
Norton focuses on races in his home state of Wisconsin — Kettle Moraine and the Ice Age Trail among the most well-known events. He won the Titletown Ultra Series 15.5-hour event in both 2014 and 2015. Soon enough he would cast his eyes on perhaps the most coveted prize for ultra runners, the Western States 100-miler.
Destination: Squaw Valley
In June 2015, Norton finished his first 100-miler at Kettle Moraine and was able to enter his first Western States drawing that fall. He continued to plug away, finishing qualifying races, entering the lottery and missing the cut.
At the end of last year, things changed. One of his eight tickets was picked. He would be heading to Squaw.
“When they called my name I yelled out in disbelief and may have had a tear in my eye,” Norton says. “Being selected in the lottery was a dream come true. After my first 100-miler I set my sites on this race. After four years of qualifying, I made it, which I am thankful for. Training never really ends when you are running 50- and 100-milers. I think of all of those subzero-degree long runs and the runs in the pouring rain or brutal heat. That's why we do it.”
We also do it for the ultra running community that we cherish. Norton paced a friend at Western in 2016; that friend is crewing Norton this year. Other friends are joining Norton as crew and pacers.
“We are going for a week, and regardless of how the race goes it will be a great experience with great friends,” he says. “Goals have been set and I plan to put everything I have into achieving them!”
Bigger Than The Trail
While Norton’s story serves as inspiration to others facing their own demons, he finds strength in various places. Among those: The God Led Athletes speech.
“It’s such a powerful thing,” he says. “For me, it’s about never giving up, never settling, always knowing i can give more of myself be it running or everyday life. It stays on my playlist for every race and long training run. If you haven't heard it you really should give it a listen.”
Norton extends his support and encouragement to others through Bigger Than The Trail, led by Tommy Byrne.
“Bigger Than The Trail is an amazing group opening people’s eyes toward mental health,” Norton says. “I met Tommy through running, and when I found out he was doing an ambassador program I wanted in.”
For Norton, he knows the struggle with addition like few others.
“We all have or know someone who has dealt with mental health issues, and most people won't discuss it,” ‘he says. “We are trying to show people it's OK to talk about. It’s OK to ask for help. You don't need to battle those demons on your own. I have lived through some pretty awful depression. As I grow, I am discussing it more in the hopes that at least one person hears it and realizes that there is help to be found.”
Name: Ryan Norton
Hometown: Manitowoc, Wis.
Number of years running: 7+ years.
How many miles a week do you typically run: About 60 miles a week.
Point of pride: That’s a hard one ... my first 100 mile finish was a huge one, another big one was getting my friend Shawn in for a five-minute PR in a 5K.
Favorite race distance: Definitely 100 miles
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Pre-race meal is fried fish and french fries; training drink is Tailwind.
Favorite piece of gear: a good hat and short shorts, lol.
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Inspirational song is a speech from Eric Thomas called God Led Athletes.
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: "Pain is temporary."
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Facebook: @RyanNorton
• Instagram: @Runsober_Ryan