During the lockdown, many have found Ian Morgan’s uploads on Instagram irresistible. His transformation from “Santa bod” to “ultrarunner bod” on the cusp of 50 has earned him over 100,000 followers. But it’s the 50k, 60k, and 100k runs in the basement parking lot of his building that keep them tuned in and his triumph from catastrophe to health that earn their respect. His story is a unique, unlikely rise out of a series of setbacks that nearly killed him. But through it all, he insists he's just like you and me.
When Ian Morgan came-to in the middle of the Queensland International Marathon in 2015, a medical worker was standing over him and an ambulance was on the way. “I’ve just got a bug,” he said as he was loaded into the ambulance. “No,” said the EMT, “you’ve had a heart attack.”
Morgan hadn’t felt right since the start. “I thought I had the flu or something,” he remembers along with a sharp pain throbbing in his shoulder. At the 23k mark, he noticed a medical volunteer waving frantically at him. He didn’t know it, but he was weaving and stumbling all over the course. “Are you okay?” asked the volunteer. “Yeah,” said Ian. Then, he collapsed.
An angioplasty fixed two blocked arteries on the left side of his heart. He was only 44 but the prognosis was not good: “you have heart disease and I’m afraid running distance again is out. Doctor’s orders.” It was a crushing blow for the man who had recently rededicated his life with running.
Morgan’s maternal grandfather and grandmother both died in their 50s from heart trouble, and his mother and father each wore a pacemaker. A year after Ian’s surgery, his twin sister would have the same angioplasty. But Morgan was adamant that he was going to run far again or die trying.
He got a second opinion, then a third. Still, the consensus was against running longer than 30 minutes. If Ian insisted, they recommended he carry a phone so he could get help if he had problems. Neither the doctors nor Ian had any idea that running with his phone was about to change his life.
Ian became relentless with his training and within a year returned to the Queensland Marathon, finished it, qualified for Boston, ran his first ultra, and earned a sponsorship from Hoka. After a suggestion by his daughter, Ian uploaded photos of his training runs on Instagram. And people took notice.
However, the ultrarunner’s exploits have gone far beyond just social media. The once 220-pound businessman has become a 165-pound ultrarunner on the Ultra-Trail World Tour and the Spartan Trail World Championship, travelling the globe to run the Snowman in Bhutan and the Ultra World Championship in Slovenia, a 250 km race in Romania in Dracula country. He has transformed himself into exactly who he wants to be, defiant of traditional concepts of age, health, and success. But like many of us, it took more than one jolt from life to wake him up.
It was nine years ago, that Morgan’s world first began to shake. Literally. He felt like he was in a pinball machine. It was February 22nd, 2011 and a 6.3 magnitude earthquake had just struck four miles outside of Christchurch. “I was sitting on my couch and the whole house came down around me,” says Morgan. He tried his best to get out of the house when he noticed considerable daylight between the floor and the wall. The two-story home had lifted off its base, then slammed back down. He grappled his way into the kitchen, where pipes were bursting, and plates were crashing to the floor.
Morgan’s children were in school on the other side of town. To get to them, he’d have to go through the middle of the city. He grabbed his mountain bike. “It was like a war zone,” he remembers. “People were crying and bleeding. One man was trapped in a car, his arm hanging out.” While his family was unharmed, the disaster raised deeper questions for Morgan about who he was and who he wanted to be. And answers didn’t come quickly.
Two years later, Morgan was overweight, unhappy, and knew he had to do something about it. If not, time was going to catch up with him. He’d been a business man all his life – always on the hustle. Like so many, he’d spent years trying to get all the material things people make us believe we need in order to be liked. “I just wasn’t comfortable – I couldn’t sit still with myself,” says Morgan. Watching a TV show he had little interest in, he’d had enough. He put his beer down, and wearing blue jeans, a white polo, and a pair of vans he hit the streets for a run. He made it less than a mile.
Ian Morgan found that like the rest of us, running is hard. He would run a mile, walk a mile, then run another. At first, he couldn’t do more than 10 or 12 miles a week. After three months he was doing 20 miles a week. Then one day by the Avon River, 10 miles into a training run, he got his first runner’s high. “It was like somebody turned on the Nitrous in a race car.” He felt he could run forever. Soon, he would be doing over 100 miles a week.
Morgan fights with motivation (a word he hates) as much as any of us. He doesn’t always feel like running. He takes cold showers to get himself going and sticks to age-old ideas of discipline and consistency. (Words he loves) He doesn’t always want to post on Instagram. But he does. He’s also fought the same nagging injuries all beginners face: shin splints, strained calves, hip pain. Morgan has bad knees, so he doesn’t go for sleek, ultra-thin racers; maximum cushioning is for him. While he’s tried vegan diets and vegetarian diets, he prefers a non-processed smart diet. That’s part of his message. “It really is whatever works for you whether it’s gear, diet, or training.”
After his heart attack, his cardiologist was astounded by Morgan’s numbers. “I wouldn’t have believed it. Whatever you’re doing, Ian – keep doing it.” And, he does… even when he doesn’t want to. Doctor’s orders were that if he insisted on running, he should carry his phone. That way, if he ran into problems, he could get help. Little did either of them know, running with his phone would lead to Instagram to sponsorships and to traveling the world for races. One could get the impression that Ian's heart problem has been the greatest blessing in his life.
Twenty-five ultrarunners were chosen by the King of Bhutan to attempt October’s Snowman 300-kilometer run. With multiple peaks over 18,000 feet and an average elevation over 14,000 feet, the famed Snowman Trek is so difficult, it’s been completed by fewer people than Everest. According to their website, the inaugural race “will span 5 days during which twenty-five of the world’s top extreme runners will attempt one of the most remote and challenging foot races ever initiated.” One of them will be Ian.
Two levels below Morgan’s apartment in Chile, the parking garage is dark and lonely. He sets his watch, hits record on his phone, and starts running. The lockdown has been hard on the Kiwi runner used to wide-open space. Recently haven run 60k in one day inside the parking lot, he’s going for 100 kilometers. He runs back and forth along a 100-meter stretch where the ramps lead up to the next level. He comes up the elevator to go to the bathroom, grabs a bottle of water and back down for more miles.
In these times of chaos and uncertainty, Morgan is a paragon of change, an example that out of great struggle can come wondrous things and that you don’t need to be extraordinary to do extraordinary things. But he insists there’s nothing special about him; he could be any of us. “Wherever you are in your life,” says Morgan. “you can change.”
By: Jared Beasley
Awarded the Kirkus Star for literary merit for "In Search of Al Howie," which was also chosen by Kirkus as one of 2019's best reads.