Nothing to Win
Everything to Prove
“For about three years now, I’ve had this goal of running a
sub-five minute mile for 100 days in a row."
When Ryan Widzgowski finally accepted this challenge to himself in 2021, his friend, the photographer and film-maker Carl Maynard, asked if he could document the process. This is the behind-the-scenes story of that commitment to achievement.
Words, photography and film by Carl Maynard
I first met Ryan Widzgowski in the summer of 2020 at a track workout in Northeast Washington D.C. Ryan and I shared a mutual friend who brought him along; within just a few laps, he became the running partner I had no idea I was missing - someone I could look up to, and in many ways, the first running coach I ever had. I don’t think I ever asked him to be, that’s just who he is, and it speaks to his love of the sport.
A few months later, Ryan would be there to pace me during a time trial event where I would run my fastest mile to date. We would go on to share more miles and after I completed my goal of running 1,000 miles in 2020, knowing he was proud of me meant as much as the achievement itself.
When you meet Ryan you can’t help but feel relaxed. He’s the sort of person who commands a room while never demanding anyone’s attention. There’s this photo I took of Ryan at that time trial event and he’s addressing a group of maybe five or six runners. He was giving them tips and advice ahead of their race which might sound commonplace enough, but what stands out is the undivided attention everyone is giving him. You can’t help but listen when Ryan speaks. His running resume speaks for itself (4 x NCAA Division 3 All-American, 4:06 miles PR) but that’s not all Ryan has to offer. That night, Ryan must have run 50 laps around the track pacing different people through their mile. That meant a lot to a lot of people.
By 2020, he would say from time to time that his own “running career” was behind him, but then, as the year came to a close, he mentioned a running goal he still wanted to accomplish. I was intrigued. I think the whole of the DC running community was intrigued. What did he have planned?
At the beginning of 2021, while hanging out at the running studio Ryan worked for, he said, “Carl, do you remember me mentioning that running idea?” He went on to explain that seeing me complete my goal of 1,000 miles really had an impact on him and made him realize he still had things he wanted to accomplish.
“For about three years now, I’ve had this goal of running a sub-five minute mile for 100 days in a row,” he said. Without a second's hesitation I said “so do it!” He laughed and talked about how, for a while, he had fallen out of love with the sport. He had always been a runner but the idea of going after another goal had escaped him. This goal, this streak, was about what Ryan needed to say. We would talk about it a couple more times over the next few weeks until I said, “If you do it, I’ll document it.” As the conversation continued, Ryan would say, “If I’m going to start, I need to start soon.” Then it clicked: If he was going to start, the start needed to happen so he could finish before May 29th, his wedding day.
When I initially thought about how I would tell this story of Ryan attempting his “last running goal,” I thought about how to build suspense. I remember driving back home after his first day of the challenge, playing this story out from a “final product” point of view in my head. And while I thought I knew exactly how this could look, I now realize I had it all wrong from the beginning. The story was not about the distance or the time. The story was not about his “final goal” or even his ability to run for a hundred days in a row. It became clear to me on the final day, Ryan’s 100th consecutive sub-five, when I saw the way he looked at Hannah, his wife-to-be, after crossing the finish line. He came to a stop, turned around and made his way directly to her, embracing her. Ryan’s why was not the story, the final Strava post or even the fact that he finished. His “Why” was a “Who.”
My first question to Ryan when we sat down to discuss this accomplishment was “Why was it important to you?” to which he replied quickly that the goal was not about finishing. “I wanted to start, that was more important for me. I wanted to have the ability to get up every day and have a purpose.” He went on to tell me how a handful of friends holding him accountable helped him. I would ask him “What took so long to start the goal?” and without hesitation he spoke about his environment, about his lack of a support system. “It’s a lonely process being in a streak,” he would tell me. “Knowing people would be there not only at the start but also at the end, made the middle easier.” I asked Ryan if he ever doubted himself along the way. He explained that his goal, while an attempt to run the mile under five minutes was never about the doing but more so about trying. He talked about times throughout his attempt where he worried he might miss the time, how he would respond mentally. Would he be able to get back up the next day and give it a go. “If I had missed that mark, what was I going to do the next day, or later that day? What was my ability, mentally, to get back to pursuing this one hundred day challenge? The challenge is part of the process. Doubt was always there, logistics were always there. Tracks were closed.”
Ryan shared that a large part of this process was an attempt to get himself back into a routine. “I was a creature of habit when I was running at my best, and I wanted that feeling again,” he said. “I didn't need to be successful here but I wanted to get back to my roots which was having a routine.” We talked about his love of running or even lack thereof at times. And the theme I gathered from Ryan was routine and accountability. I later asked him what he learned most about himself during the journey. He sort of shrugged off his answer to start with “Hmmm... I wanna say ‘I could achieve all things.’” You could hear in his voice the discomfort he had with the idea of just his ability to achieve being what he learned. “What I learned most, is the ability to take advantage of a single moment. Whatever that may be, give yourself that time to get after whatever it is you want to accomplish. I learned that it can really generate a lot of happiness.” We would continue to talk about the streak, the goal and the mile. He would share with me about his love of the track being his happy place, the mile being the “perfect distance” when it came to running. If you listen to Ryan talk about running, you can hear his love for the sport in his voice but it’s not until you hear him talk about Hannah being in his life, will you ever really hear Ryan talk about love on another level.
“Talk to me about Hannah and what she means to you,” I said. I wasn’t prepared for seeing Ryan, instantly become speechless as tears began to fill his eyes. He shook his head, nodded, smiled, smirked, seemingly saying a million things but his ability to say anything in that moment was impossible. Earlier in our conversation I had asked him how he thought this streak prepared him for the next chapter of his life: marriage. “The streak was never about the mile, it was about who will you be afterwards?” he said. Ryan spoke about how completing this goal gave him the ability to start a new chapter in his life. When the time came for me to ask him directly about her, I saw a side of Ryan I had yet to see. “She’s just the best. The best person I’ve ever met. She is my deepest connection. I feel so lucky that I was able to find her. This goal wouldn’t mean much without her. I couldn’t fathom doing something without her connected to it.”
The day Ryan finished his streak, on May 25th, 2021, I gave this story the title it has today. It felt like the idea of “Prove” was what was driving him. It’s my belief that some part of his past in running was haunting him, something deeper than just the mile. I thought I had it nailed from the beginning. There was no medal, but yet he needed to prove to others he still had something left in the tank. I felt like I had this responsibility to identify just who or what it was that Ryan was trying to prove but I just couldn’t put my finger on it. That was until November 9th, almost six months after giving this story its title, that it hit me. As we approached the East River track in Manhattan it dawned on me this sort of full-circle moment. Us making our way to a track to finalize this story centered around running, in a place much like that of the place where we first met. I remember feeling in that moment I needed to cry. Something came over me as we walked off that track, my interview done and seemingly the story complete. We would end the morning by making our way to my favorite cafe for coffee and breakfast. We’d laugh a little and talk about life and then we said our goodbyes later that morning.
Sitting alone in my apartment after Ryan left I resisted the urge to call him just to say “thank you” because I knew that even if I had, nothing I could have said would have truly expressed how much he and his story taught me. “Nothing to win. Everything to prove.” was never about the act of running. Running is a way of life for Ryan. He does not see life in the accumulation of medals, races run or miles completed. He is not guided by the idea of achievement. He is however determined and driven every single day to be the best version of himself, not only for himself but for his wife, his friends and those who look up to him. But Ryan knows there is no finish line on the journey to prove a damn thing. You see, those one hundred days in a row were just a few of the days of the streak Ryan is still on to this day. A streak that he himself would tell you about is full ups and downs. And most importantly is one that is worth getting up for day in and day out. And that my friends is this streak we call life.