I was introduced to Matt by, Fleet Feet Racing teammate, Dave Strubbe at the Daniel Burnham Open, a cross country race that my friend Lee Greenberg and I have produced since the winter of 2009. Matt won in 2012 and 2013 despite the 4000m race being quite a bit shorter than the ultramarathon events that are his focus. Matt is a smart, resourceful runner who competes well across a wide range of distances and disciplines. I've appreciated his insights on many occasions and I think you will as well.
Matt en route to his 2:21 personal best.
Photo Credit: Joshua Niforatos
What is your running background? More specifically, how did you begin running marathons?
I've been running competitively since I was 11 years old, starting with junior high cross country. I competed in both cross country and track through high school (Chatham, IL), and then ran Varsity XC and Track for the University of Illinois for three years. I got into marathons almost immediately after college.
I was always better at the longer stuff, so I knew I would tackle the marathon post-collegiately. As early as 2007 (the year I graduated), I set the Olympic Trials (OT) qualifying standard as a goal. While I have now run faster than what the standard was at that time (2:22:00), the standard itself has been lowered to 2:18:00, and I'm still chasing it!
Can you describe your marathon progression?
My first marathon was the Missoula Marathon in 2007. I was working at Glacier National Park that summer, eating a lot of unhealthy food and probably drinking too much beer. :) I was a bit overweight and I didn't really train for the race, but I hopped in anyway. It was very hot and the race was a bit of a humbling experience. I ran a 2:52 for second place. My first serious attempt at the distance came the following spring, where I ran a 2:26:35 for second place at the Go! St. Louis Marathon.
After St. Louis, I had a few years of bad marathons, where I was too aggressive in my racing. Learning to really race for 26.2 miles can be difficult thing, and I had quite a few blowups/DNFs (Houston 2009, Berlin 2009, Chicago 2010, Dublin 2010). I finally put together a solid race at the 2011 Grandma's Marathon, where I ran 2:22:53. Even in that race, I ran a bit too aggressively for my fitness level. However, I'd make the same choice again, as I was chasing the OT standard (then 2:19:00) and I felt I had to give myself a shot. I went out in 1:09:15 at the half marathon point, before fading a bit over the final miles.
In the end of 2011 I began competing in ultramarathons, and then in 2012, I was injured almost the whole year. I raced one marathon in 2013 (the Napa Valley Marathon, where I took fourth in 2:25:39), as well as three marathons this year, but I haven't trained specifically for any of them. By that I mean I may be in good shape when I race them, but I don't do enough marathon-specific pace work in training or taper enough to really hit my peak. Instead, I have been using marathons as logical building blocks and harder efforts for my ultra marathon training. Despite the lack of focus, I managed to run a new PB at the Boston Marathon this year, a 2:21:20, good for 28th male and 32nd overall. This was very encouraging for me, as I knew I wasn't training optimally for that race. It lets me know that I have potential to go faster right now.
You've whittled down your marathon best while also competing at much longer (and much shorter distances). What role have ultramarathons played in your marathon progression?
While I don't think that all of the ultramarathons I'm racing are optimal preparation for the marathon, there has been an upside. Ultras have taught me to grind through tough patches quite well. I used to blow up in marathons quite often (2 DNFS and 2 blowups in my first 6 attempts), but that never really happens anymore. I raced three marathons this year: Napa Valley (1st place, 2:26:15), Boston (28th place, 2:21:20), and Missoula (4th place, 2:27:49). I didn't feel great at Napa or Missoula as they came early in my preparations for my spring and fall seasons respectively, but I could hang tough and race well despite feeling bad.
High fives as Matt takes the win at Napa Valley earlier this year.
Photo Credit: Beth Rosenbarger
In 2012, you experienced an injury that prevented you from running for quite awhile. Can you talk about returning to racing (marathons) after this lay off?
I had about 10 months where I couldn't train due to an Achilles injury. While it was extremely frustrating at the time, I think I learned a few things from the experience. One thing is that your lifetime base of fitness does not go away, even with 10 months off—the basic aerobic fitness is still there. I realized this when I was able to run a 2:25 marathon (Napa 2013) on about three months of running with very few workouts.
How would you translate this for a less seasoned runner who may be coming off of an injury?
It’s hard to say exactly how things would translate for another runner (say, in terms of percent difference in performance), just because there are so many variables at play. I think the lesson is really that you shouldn't rush an injury comeback or be overly concerned about losing fitness. When I did start doing some workouts in the months following my injury, it was very strength based. A fair amount of uphill repeats or uphill runs on a treadmill (it was winter in Chicago!), and progression runs working through a range of aerobic quality paces.
How has this experience developed your overall running and racing philosophies?
One of the lessons I learned is that some time completely off every now and then is a good thing. Obviously my injury layoff was much longer than I needed, but I would say that taking off a 2-4 week period now and then is great. People often ramp up their training way too quickly after a peak marathon. At least once a year, I think we should all take a few weeks with no running at all. You aren't going to feel great immediately when you start training again, but that's OK. It's the nature of proper periodization. It gives your body a chance to recover (hormonally, muscularly, mentally...) and truly absorb your last training block. When you dive back into mileage, workouts, etc. too quickly, you're likely to stagnate a few months down the line.
It's been a long season, but I think I'm fit and fairly well prepared for the World Championships in Qatar. I'm certainly very excited about putting on the USA singlet for the first time. There are a lot of uncontrollable elements in this race, in particular, the weather. The race starts after sunset (6 p.m.), but the temperature still may be as high as 80-90º Fahrenheit with 80% humidity. It will likely be a race of attrition for this reason. Running conservatively and managing things like nutrition and hydration will be key. I've never raced a flat 100km on the road before, so that could bring some unexpected challenges as well. No matter what happens, it is a unique opportunity and I'm sure I will learn a lot!
After Worlds, I'll be taking my own advice and resting for several weeks before building up for the spring/summer racing season. My focus races will be the Boston Marathon (hoping to run the OTQ of 2:18:00) and the Comrades Marathon in South Africa.
Thanks to Matt Flaherty for taking the time to participate in this interview, and best wishes to him as he represents the USA on Friday, November 21st!
To learn more about his training, racing, and coaching, visit Matt's website! In addition to his own racing and coaching others, Matt is also producing his own content on a regular basis. Some of my favorite recent posts are his photos from his trip to Patagonia, Chile for the Patagonian International Marathon 63k and his own interview series of top trail runners titled "Quick & Dirty."
Thoughts, questions, or comments?
Thanks for reading!
Registration for the 2015 Daniel Burnham Open is open, team up with your friends to participate in Chicago's only free cross country race!