Learning how to run with Matt Flaherty - v.13
Welcome to the thirteenth installment of The Story Goes, a monthly column of stories told by Eric Senseman about someone, somewhere in the sport of running. You can find every installment of the column here.
Every runner knows some other runner who made them a better runner. It’s probably a reflexive relationship, and both runners benefit from knowing each other. Maybe they push each other in workouts, or they talk through training philosophies, or they instill a level of confidence in each other that they might not have developed otherwise. Maybe one of the runners is much better than the other runner and the lesser runner is sick of trying so hard to keep up, and so he becomes a better runner to solve the problem.
Some runners, but probably not every runner, get to know another runner who becomes a friend, and who makes them a better person. Although they might talk a lot about running--they are, after all, runners--they also talk about things besides running. Maybe they debate the moral obligations humans have to the environment, or to each other. Maybe they unpack the foundations of their worldviews, gently critiquing each other’s arguments and raising objections to proposed conclusions. They probably both recognize the fleeting nature of existence, and the importance of living a fulfilled life beyond running.
I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of Matt Flaherty. In terms of pure running ability, his personal best times wouldn’t turn many heads: His 2:21:20 marathon time is practically plebeian by today’s standards, he’s just barely broken fifteen minutes for the 5K, and his college 1500-meter best was 4:02. In ultrarunning, his biggest successes came years ago. He was a national champion in 2013 after running 5:28:11 at the USATF 50 Miler National Championships, and he finished second at both the Ice Age 50 Mile and the JFK 50 Mile in 2013, finishing behind the likes of Max King and Zach Miller, respectively. Plus, he never raced 100 miles, a more prestigious race distance in ultrarunning.
But when I first met Matt eight years ago at the American River 50 Mile, he was among the top American ultrarunners, having been third at the then highly competitive Ultra Race of Champions 100k in 2011, and he’d already run as fast as 5:32:25 for 50 miles. Matt had accomplished things that I wanted to accomplish and I revered him.
I finished second to Matt that day at American River in 2013. We exchanged pleasantries before the race, talked a bit as we ran together in the first third of the race, and got to know each other more thoroughly after the race while sipping red wine. In talking with Matt that day, I quickly realized that he was more than just a runner. Beyond my respect for him as a runner, I would develop a much deeper respect for who he is as a person.
Matt has auburn hair that’s especially noticeable when his hair is long and his mustache is full, both of which were true when I met him. He’s built like a guy who looks like he can run fast. He has a law degree and he was once a practicing lawyer and that education and experience is readily apparent when you meet him. He’s pragmatic and analytical. He speaks carefully and with conviction, clearly presenting his beliefs on a given issue with thoroughly considered evidence. When you talk to Matt, you can tell that he’s listening to what you’re saying while simultaneously thinking through his response. As a result, he nods slowly as you speak, sometimes adds a chuckle or two if you say something funny, and when you look him in the eyes you can tell that he’s not completely present, that part of his mind is recessed, searching, processing.
In the months and years after that race in April of 2013, Matt and I became close friends. We talked a lot on the phone and got to hang out a lot in person. I visited him in Bloomington, Indiana, where he still lives today, for a long weekend in the fall of 2013. We brewed beer and went for runs, and he hosted a last minute porch concert in which he played the guitar and sang music for a few hours. I have this very vivid picture stuck in my head from that weekend, a few hours before the concert started, of Matt wearing socks with sandals, walking around his room while screaming into a pillow--apparently that helps to warm up your vocal cords before singing, much like drills and strides warm you up before a race. I’m not sure why that memory sticks out to me so much but I like that I remember Matt that way. There was something about the fact that he didn’t care what he was wearing and he didn’t care how absurd he looked doing what he was doing, and it also reminds me of something I recognized in Matt that’s an important lesson for anyone: Whatever you decide to do, do it thoroughly and to the best of your ability and don’t give a damn what other people think about you.
Matt was a guy who was just plain better than me at running. After we first met, we managed to get together for short weekend meetups somewhat regularly. Running with Matt, I learned something very valuable, especially for ultrarunning: I learned how to suffer for a long time to keep up. It’s something you can only learn by running with people faster than you, and I still look back on those grueling runs with Matt many years ago as an early unveiling of the potential within me. Those were important early lessons that I took with me when I eventually moved to Flagstaff years later and again found myself running with people just plain better than me. In a real sense, Matt taught me how I can get more out of myself.
Later in 2013, I served as his crew when he finished second at JFK that year. Then we thought up a few grand adventures for the next summer that mostly turned into misadventures. Over the course of a few trips out West, we spent a bunch of days in the woods, sometimes with far less food than we needed and other times in such harsh conditions that our plans were thwarted.
In the summer of 2014, we had one such misadventure in Glacier National Park. Matt, my now wife, Jacky, and I planned a four-day, three-night backpacking trip of over sixty miles all through the wild backcountry. We started at the northern terminus of the park, just a stone’s throw from the Canadian border. (I’ve still never been to Canada and that’s the closest I’ve yet been.) It wasn’t until that first day at lunch, after a few hours of hiking, that we realized we were wholly unprepared. We calculated that we’d only have about 1,000 calories per day each for the four days. We quickly considered our options and decided that we'd shorten the trip a day and finish at the Glacier Park Lodge in the heart of the park. Now we’d have about 1,300 calories per day each! Severely depleted the morning of day three, we even ran out of gas for our stove and we weren’t able to make the last of our food or even morning coffee. We gutted out the final climb and then ended up running the final five downhill miles to the lodge--with twenty pounds of gear each on our backs. We ate so much that afternoon and evening that I woke up sick in the middle of the night. Then we had to hitchhike back to our car the next day.
On another occasion, in the early summer of 2016, Matt and I thought it a good idea to do a few days of fastpacking on the Colorado Trail. We’d start north of Twin Lakes and finish in Breckenridge. The problem was that it was mid-June and we didn’t know anything about the snow conditions up high, either because we hadn’t cared to look or we didn’t know where to look. On day two, as we were about to crest a ridge above the treeline, we encountered knee deep snow and we couldn’t figure out the exact path of the trail. Then a snowstorm blew in and it was hard to see much of anything. We darted down into the trees and we were then decidedly off trail. We spent thirty minutes or so trying to navigate through the trees until I finally convinced Matt that we needed to go back up to the ridge and retrace our steps from where we first came. He was reluctant, but agreed, and I’m glad he did because for a minute I started to think that things were about to go terribly wrong. We went all the way back to Turquoise Lake and then hitched a ride into Leadville. After a few beers at a local brewery, Jacky picked us up and the trip was over after just one night.
Those misadventures were probably more fun than the adventures we had planned. Those trips taught me, in retrospect, something about Matt and people in general. Despite Matt’s analytical nature, the preparation and execution of those ultimate misadventures were anything but methodical. Matt has a longing for adventure, an interest in exploring new places and trying new things. Sometimes, those interests supersede his innate desire to question and analyze and critique. His usual systematic approach to things also goes out the window when he’s walking around his room screaming into a pillow. Matt reminds me that people are complicated and they can’t, and shouldn’t, be reduced to a single thing or placed neatly into a single category. People are complicated and multifaceted and that’s what makes people, including Matt, interesting and beautiful and human.
Over the last three or four years, Matt hasn’t raced much and his best recent result was probably finishing fifth at the 2018 Way Too Cool 50k. Matt became so interested in sustainability and environmental and public affairs that he went back to school and, more recently, was elected to City Council in Bloomington. (Perhaps it wouldn’t surprise you to know that his City Council bid was part of my inspiration to run for Flagstaff City Council last fall.) His interests beyond running have finally kept him too busy to maintain the daily commitment that’s required to run at a high level. But Matt is still a runner, and the desire to be a good runner doesn’t go away easily.
Eleven years after running his first ultramarathon, Matt is finally lining up for his first 100-mile race at the Leadville 100 on August 21st. He’s returned to more structured and intense training, and perhaps his first 100-mile race will also serve as a comeback of sorts. But, for me, Matt will never be defined by his race results. I’ll always remember him screaming into a pillow, brewing beer in his kitchen, and dashing off the side of a snow-covered ridge amidst a snowstorm, intent on continuing despite the obvious reasons not to.
Matt taught me how to run, but he also taught me that running can only take you so far. He taught me that people might behave a certain way most of the time, but very differently other times, and that there’s nothing contradictory about that. He taught me that you shouldn’t care how you look while screaming into a pillow. These are lessons that will stay with me long after I no longer know how to run. They just might be the keys to happiness.
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