It’s a Musical Life

Juliana Nikac and Ryan Chichester

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Keeping up with cross country runner Ryan Ansel is a challenge, even when he takes his running shoes off.

Music and running are woven together in time and place. Rarely do you see a runner hustling down the street without a pair of earbuds providing a harmonious chant to push on to the next block or the next mile. A jogger and his music are as integral a duo as a writer and his pen. Most runners today consider a run around the neighborhood without music to be the most painful of silences. For junior Ryan Ansel, the relationship between song and sprint runs even deeper.

When Ansel isn’t running three hours a day with the Quinnipiac Cross Country team, he is usually seated behind a guitar and a microphone, writing music and fueling a passion that has been with him since he first picked up an acoustic guitar at 10 years old. The guitar was a gift from his parents, who quickly realized they had awakened a natural talent.

“We gave the guitar to him for Christmas,” Ansel’s mother Laura remembered. “He took two lessons and then just self-taught himself. He taught himself to play “Free Fallin” by Tom Petty in no time. He just took off.”

A decade later, Ansel has recorded an album, performed in a band and reviewed music online, all while keeping stride with his cross country demands. Creating and performing music is exhausting and time consuming, but even with the added demands of a student athlete, Ansel can’t imagine getting through the day without strumming on his guitar.

“I think with anything in life, it’s good to have balance,” Ansel said. “Running is definitely a taxing activity. My way to combat that is through other activities. I guess I’m a busy bee. I always have to be involved.”

The yearning for involvement and diversity stretches back to Ansel’s high school days in Danbury, when he was Class President, editor of the school newspaper, captain for the basketball cheer squad and a performer in school plays, all while keeping up with his rock band named “What’s Left.” It’s tough just to list the workload in one breath, but it still wasn’t enough for Ansel. So he kept chugging along to find what was left to experience, when he stumbled upon an activity that fit the mold of his marathon lifestyle.

“My freshman year of high school, I just joined the cross country team for fun,” Ansel recalled. “I started in August going into my freshman year, and by November, I had already qualified for a USA Track and Field National Championship in Myrtle Beach. I felt like it was something in my blood.”

Ansel’s mother still remembers the day of his first practice, when she realized her son’s natural talents spread beyond the intricacies of the guitar.

“It was supposed to be a half hour practice,” Laura Ansel said. “I’m outside waiting to pick him up, and over 45 minutes goes by. I see someone I recognize and ask where Ryan was, because a lot of the team had come back already. He tells me Ryan’s still running with the coaches and captains, and he’ll be back in an hour and a half…. Ryan did his job and did it well.”

Ansel’s impromptu arrival to the world of running evolved with the knowledge that he was clearly a natural at the sport, and was only getting better with the help of his high school coach Rob Murray, who has coached his share of All-Americans and State Champions on his way to Connecticut Cross Country Coach of the Year awards. Murray was impressed with Ansel’s endurance, but was particularly drawn to the intangibles that a runner can’t express with his legs.

“Right from day one, I knew Ryan was a good person,” Murray said. “He was just a petite and small kid, but with a big heart. That’s the most important thing we look for. Those are the guys that are willing to sacrifice and do the work. Ryan’s had probably more of an impact on me than I’ve had on him.”

While Ansel’s running career at Danbury took off and landed him on the campus of Quinnipiac University, his love for music and everything else never left his side. In fact, it continues to help carry him through.

“Being who I am and still doing things that I love outside of running, it definitely helps me,” Ansel said. “When I think about it, my hobbies around running are always changing and evolving, but they’re always about expressing myself.”

Ansel’s taste in music has continued to evolve with his list of hobbies. From Elton John to Drake and Kanye West, Ansel’s musical ear remains as diversified as his lifestyle. The only constant in his life might just be a lack of free time.

“If you want to do anything with Ryan, you have to plan three days in advance, because he has so much going on,” Ansel’s cross country teammate and former roommate Ben Lanza said. “I saw him mainly at nighttime and in the morning, but that’s about it.”

If Ansel doesn’t find time to relax, it’s not from a lack of trying. Like any good runner, slowing down is not in his blood.

“When I think about it, my hobbies around running are always changing and evolving, but they’re always about expressing myself.” – Ryan Ansel

“It’s an effort for me to try and watch Netflix,” Ansel explained. “I will have to consciously tell myself that I need to calm down and watch a movie and be lazy for a minute. I’ll start watching something and remember that I could be writing a song or doing something productive. My brain always gravitates towards productivity, always writing something or making something.”

It must be the songwriter in Ansel, aching him to keep moving. Rather than sinking into the couch and peering into the creations of others through a TV show or movie, Ansel prefers to leave the creating to himself, which he showcased in his latest musical project.

Prior to his freshman year at Quinnipiac, Ansel invested in some cheap recording equipment from a local guitar store. Armed with a small keyboard and an active mind, Ansel and a guitarist from his high school days began to work on a project called “Happy Tourists.” It was the perfect name to describe a man who finds joy in discovering every crevice of life, even if he is laying eyes upon it for the first time. Unfortunately, with a schedule as demanding as his, the project was put on the backburner for a while, at least until inspiration came and found him.

“My cross country captain in high school passed away in July going into my sophomore year, and that really inspired a lot of things in me,” Ansel said. “It was a point in time where I had all these beats and I had a couple hooks laid out, but I was going to ditch the project. When he passed away, I really just put my head down and got to work. I dedicated the last song of the album to him. The lyrics were what I would have said to him if I was able to see him again.”

The inspiration was tragic and unexpected, but awoke a familiar feeling in Ansel when putting the project together before releasing it on Sound Cloud. With the spirit of a cross country runner inside of him, Ansel found the appreciation in the journey.

“I didn’t think it was the best thing ever, but it was the most reflective thing I’d ever made,” Ansel said. “It brought me that gratification I felt with running, like I had gotten better. I didn’t know how to record music, I just went off instinct and what I loved about music and applied it to my life. It says more about me than I could say in any speech. It was a significant experience in my life.”

Ansel has created plenty of music since his latest release, but feels no rush to put them out on the airwaves. He’s patiently waiting for the next wave of inspiration to crash down.

“I have so many things I have done since then, honestly around 100 songs, but I haven’t organized it in a way that I felt would be effective for me as an artist,” Ansel explained. “I guess I’m just waiting to hop on another wave of inspiration that will come, like that first project.”

In the meantime, Ansel has plenty to keep him busy. His music keeps him in rhythm with his endless adventures, while his running career gives him the endurance to keep up with all of it. Ansel can be considered a singer, songwriter, student, and runner. Did I mention he wants to be a journalist?

Well, he wanted to be a music journalist, and was reviewing albums for a website called “Divide and Conquer.” However, his personal experience as a musician heightened his appreciation for others who create their own music, and didn’t want his own voice to be a barrier between listener and musician.

“I hit a phase in my life where I didn’t want to judge people for the art they made,” Ansel said. “Music should be for everybody. There’s an audience for everything. I don’t want people to be directly affected by my opinion of music, because my opinion doesn’t matter anymore than someone else’s.”

Ansel still uses his journalistic skills as a reporter on Q30 Television’s entertainment show “#That.” Ansel is a journalism major, but doesn’t want to put any limitations on what his bright future may hold.

“I feel like If I knew what I wanted to do right now, it would inevitably change and I wouldn’t be that excited to go through with it,” Ansel explained. “I don’t like knowing what’s ahead… I think I’m just going to move somewhere and try to apply my talents in any way to whatever I do. I don’t know if I have a dream job. I’m just meant to be me.”

When it comes to new hobbies and discoveries, Ansel still has yet to reach the finish line. He writes poetry, meditates regularly, and still looks for the next activity to explore and welcome into his already hectic life. He has more commitments in his day than music records in his collection at home, but you wouldn’t know it from the calm and easygoing demeanor in which he expresses himself. It must be all that meditating, or having a clear sense of who he is, despite all the various words and labels you can use to describe him.

“I guess that’s what I look to at the end of the day,” Ansel said. “Just being my own person.”

With a busy life centered around music and melody, and a killer record collection, Ansel needs a theme song. But what would he choose?

“Man, that’s a tough one,” Ansel said after some careful thought. “’Tiny Dancer’ by Elton John might be my favorite song of all time, but that’s just a song about a girl. I’ll have to get back to you on that.”

The great Elton John has another song that could be considered a theme to Ansel’s life, his 1974 hit “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” With all that Ansel stacks on his packed plate, there just might not be enough hours in the day.

Who knows, maybe Ansel can turn to his own music for a fitting theme. In his song “Things That Fool Me,” Ansel sings, “I’m looking for some time.” Good luck finding that, as the record to his life never stops spinning. But with the absence of time comes the presence of fulfillment, which Ansel experiences every day from the track to the recording studio, and everywhere in between.