Matt Llano

Here, for your free reading enjoyment, is the first chapter of Matt Fitzgerald’s book Running the Dream: One Summer Living, Training, and Racing with a Team of World-Class Runners Half My Age. If you decide you’d like to read the rest of it, please consider purchasing a copy from your local bookstore. Explore other options here.

93 Days to Chicago

Nine sets of (mostly nonmatching) running shorts and tops. A rainbow assortment of running socks. Running tights in two thicknesses and an old pair of half-tights worn down to gossamer in the seat area by unnumbered washings. Running gloves, running arm warmers, and a thermal running hat for cold days and a performance rain jacket for wet ones. A couple of warm-up suits. Three pairs of size 11.5 running shoes. Eight or nine running-themed T-shirts, some of them mementos of past races, others bearing the Hoka One One Northern Arizona Elite professional running team logo. Seven pairs of Runderwear brand athletic boxer briefs.

I stuffed these items into the larger of two well-traveled Samsonite suit- cases when I packed last night, having waited until my afternoon run was out of the way to do laundry. Into the smaller suitcase went an assortment of other essentials: energy gel packets, gel flasks, a canister of powdered sports drink mix, effervescent electrolyte tablets, a handheld drink flask, energy chews, energy bars, a hydration belt, an iPhone armband, wireless sport headphones, sport sunglasses, a roll of kinesiology tape, and a GPS running watch with charging cord.

Lacking both space and need for much else in the Fun Mobile (my wife Nataki’s name for our Mazda crossover), I crammed the gaps around our bags this morning with a few more items I wouldn’t dream of leaving behind, including compression boots for post-run recovery and a vibrating foam roller for the same use. Oh, and our dog, Queenie.

We hit the road at eight o’clock, right on schedule, traveling precisely one block before I realized I’d forgotten my driving shades. Annoyed beyond measure (time waste is a trigger for me), I pulled a violent one-eighty and sped back to the house, stopping hard at the curb instead of pulling into the driveway. I’d just succeeded in fumbling the house key into the front door lock when, hearing my name, I turned around to see Nataki gesturing casually in the direction of the garage, which was blocked from my view by a corner of the house.

“Garage is open,” she said.

Moments later I was back in the driver seat, buckling up with the forgotten eyewear perched on the crown of my head.

“We dodged a bullet there,” I said.

Indeed we had. Nataki and I were leaving home for thirteen weeks, an entire summer, to fulfill a dream—my dream—of living the life of a professional runner. That’s an awful long time to leave your garage door open.

Driving off again, I pressed the Fun Mobile’s voice command button and recited the home address of Matt Llano, a member of NAZ Elite and my teammate for the next three months. A vaguely feminine humanoid voice informed me that the drive from Oakdale, California, to Flagstaff, Arizona, would take ten hours, thirty-one minutes. Matt rents out rooms in his house to athletes visiting Flagstaff for high-altitude training. Most if not all these folks are not middle-age amateurs like me but real pros like Sally Kipyego, an Olympic silver medalist from Kenya, who recently slept in the same bed Nataki and I will share during our stay. It is unlikely that a slower runner than me has ever lain on that particular mattress.

Obeying our android guide, I headed south on Geer Road—a two-lane country highway choked with trucks driven by agricultural workers on their way to an honest day’s labor—to Turlock, where we picked up Route 99 and continued south through the Central California eyesores of Fresno and Visalia and Bakersfield before bending east. The dashboard temperature reading rose steadily as we pressed inland, peaking at an astonishing 122 degrees in the town of Needles on the Arizona border. We then began to climb, reaching 3,000 feet on the approach to Kingman, 4,000 feet near the Yavapai County line, and 5,000 feet as we skirted Seligman, the mercury falling in proportion to the Fun Mobile’s ascension. Between Ash Fork (5,160 feet) and Williams (6,766 feet), our rocky brown surroundings gave way to the lush verdure of the Coconino National Forest, in which Flagstaff nestles like a jewel on a bed of green velvet.

A pale late-afternoon sun was dipping languorously behind us when we hit the city limit. Canceling the navigation, I skipped Matt’s exit, took the next one, and cruised along South Milton Road, Flagstaff’s main drag, until I spied a Chili’s restaurant on the right. Minutes later we were enjoying an early dinner of burgers and fries (and beer, for me)—a sort of last hurrah. For the next ninety-three days, until the Chicago Marathon on October 8, I will do everything the real pros do and make every sacrifice they make in pursuit of the absolute limit of their God-given abilities, dietary sacrifices not excepted. From what I’ve heard, Matt Llano himself eats like a saint and has never tasted alcohol in his entire life. I don’t know if I can match his standard, but I’m going to try.

At six o’clock, our promised arrival time, I rang the doorbell of a newish home in the upscale Ponderosa Trails neighborhood, sucking on a breath mint. The door swung open and Matt appeared at the threshold. If I hadn’t known he was a world-class runner, I would have guessed it just by looking at him. His twenty-eight-year-old body has an avian economy, a built-for-flight appearance that is only hinted at by the tale of the tape: five-foot-nine, 125 pounds, 6 percent body fat.

“You made it!” he said, exposing a set of almost luminously white chompers. “Come on in.”

“We brought pluots!” I blurted in reply, handing Matt two large cloth bags filled with the ripe fruit Nataki and I had pulled off a tree in our backyard yesterday. Taken aback by the near-industrial volume of produce being foisted on him, Matt stared at the bags for an awkward second before accepting them.

“I love pluots!” he said, recovering. “I’ll do some baking with these.”

Matt led us upstairs and showed us our room, which we discovered to be about half again the size of our own master suite. I hauled our stuff in from the car while Nataki went to work unpacking and arranging. When this was done, I went downstairs to be sociable. I found Matt sitting at his kitchen breakfast bar eating a salad of kale, broccoli, shaved Brussels sprouts, cabbage, radicchio, avocado, cranberries, roasted pumpkin seeds, and apple cider vinaigrette topped with roasted chicken breast—a fairly typical dinner, he explained. Also present were his full-time housemate, Jason Blair, a local policeman with whom Matt went to high school in Maryland, and Jen Spieldenner, a professional triathlete from Ohio currently occupying a smaller guest bedroom on the first floor.

“What does Ben have you doing the next few days?” Matt asked.

Ben Rosario is the coach of NAZ Elite and a big reason I’m here, having responded with a surprisingly unhesitating “yes” when I emailed him eight months ago to ask if I could spend a summer as an unofficial member of his team and write about the experience.

“Not much,” I grumbled. “No run today, four miles tomorrow, six miles Sunday, and then I start running with the team.”

“That’s good, though,” Jen said. “Seven thousand feet is no joke. You have to ease into training at this elevation. Even if you feel good, it’s important to hold back. I made the mistake of doing too much too soon the first time I came here, and I dug a hole for myself that I never got out of.”

“It’s not just your running that’s affected,” Matt added. “When I moved here in 2011, my appetite went crazy. I would lie awake at night in the fetal position, miserable, too hungry to sleep and too exhausted to go upstairs to the kitchen for food.”

“And if you have any kind of open wound, it will never heal,” Jen piled on. “Last year when I came here, I had a sore on my lip. When I went home after three weeks, I still had it.”

Suddenly sleepy, I said goodnight to my new friends and shuffled off to bed, wondering what the hell I’ve gotten myself into.

The apprehension runners feel before a race and the suffering they experience during a race constitute a sort of crisis state—a special kind of crisis state that is actively chosen by the runner. Like other crisis states, this one tends to bring one’s personal weaknesses to the fore. If a runner’s mind lets him down in some way before or during a race, it is likely because of a specific mental soft spot he carries inside him at all times and affects his life both within and outside of running.

The epigraph of my book How Bad Do You Want It?, taken from Bryce Courtenay’s novel The Power of One, captures this idea of non-separation between human and runner: “The mind is the athlete.”

Because the mind truly is the athlete, the goal of becoming a better runner is highly compatible with the goal of becoming a better person. Addressing the weaknesses that limit your success in running will make you happier and more effectual in other parts of life. Likewise, becoming a stronger person through crises outside of running will pay dividends on the racecourse.

I speak from experience. The key weakness that ruined running for me as a teenager was good old-fashioned cowardice. I was cripplingly afraid of the suffering that is an unavoidable part of racing. When I got back into running as an adult, I made it a high priority to become a braver athlete. As fate would have it, though, life threw a series of personal crises at me that made the suffering of racing seem laughably minor in comparison, and it was the mettle I developed in facing these crises that turned me into a fearless racer. (I know I’m being somewhat cagey here—that’s because the full story is in my latest book, Life Is a Marathon.)

Life is a marathon by Matt Fitzgerald

So, that was my big issue. But other runners find all kinds of other issues coming to the surface when they expose themselves to the crisis of racing. One of the athletes I coach struggles with performance anxiety. She kicks butt in training only to crash on race day because she tightens up under the pressure she feels to fulfill expectations. It’s a frustratingly ironic problem, her fear of failure being the very thing that causes her to fail.

My brother Josh, also a runner, struggles with consistency and follow-through. He has a long history of brief habits in all facets of his life, an issue that he has committed himself to working on through running. Having aborted many “comebacks” as a runner over the years, Josh is now on a patient yet persistent mission to qualify for the Boston Marathon. He’s facing as many setbacks as ever before in pursuit of this goal and has as many excuses as ever to abort yet again, but his attitude is fundamentally different this time.

As a coach, I love seeing my athletes embrace growth in this fashion and am disappointed when they shrink from opportunities to move forward as human beings who happen to be athletes as well. I once coached a runner whose biggest hang-up was low self-esteem. By no means did I judge her for being insecure, but what did make me want to grab her by the shoulders and shake her a bit was her unwillingness to use running to work on this issue. I recall putting a palm to my forehead in dismay when I called her to get a report on the 5K race she’d run the day before and she confessed that she had skipped her pre-race warm-up drills because she was too self-conscious to be seen doing them.

Sometimes personal growth may seem to have to come at the expense of running, but even then it doesn’t. When I lived with professional runner Matt Llano in Flagstaff last summer, he told me during one of our deeper conversations that he was so powerfully driven to achieve his dreams as an athlete that he had a tendency to prioritize training and competition at the expense of his personal life. For a long time, he said, he felt that putting more time and energy into other people could only hurt his running, but his mind changed when he ran a breakthrough 1:01:47 half marathon shortly after he entered into a new romantic relationship and was in love and happy. At the conclusion of our conversation Matt and I agreed that even if all you care about is running, you will run better if you care about more than just running.

Some folks reading this post may object to my use of the words “weakness” and “better person,” but I use them with intent. I believe in the value of being brutally honest with oneself, calling a spade a spade, and holding oneself to high standards. When running is approached as a sport, where—like it or not—there are clear-cut winners and losers, successes and failures, it becomes one of life’s best training grounds for life, which can also be rather unforgiving, if you hadn’t noticed. I encourage every runner to take full advantage of this potential. So, the next time you find yourself buckling under pre-race apprehension or mid-race suffering, ask yourself why and then use the answer to work on a solution. You will be a better runner and, yes, a better person for it.


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