Quick Interviews from the Edge of Adventure.
Ultrarunner Matt Flaherty
It was the middle of July 2014 when I first met Matt Flaherty. I was sitting on a porch swing with his roommate (now my girlfriend) when he stepped out onto the porch and began stretching for a run. I don't remember exactly what was said, but I remember it was a normal introduction, and then he went on his way (I was obviously there for different reasons). I didn't know anything about him nor cared why he was headed out for a run, but I do remember joking after he left, saying he had, "Quads on Quads on Quads on Quads!" I later found out about his successes in running and how it takes him all around the world.
I can now say that Matt and I have become friends and run in the same circle these days. Also, I am still just as impressed with Matt today, as I was when I first found out about his adventures in Ultrarunning. Not only with his running, but with his incredible work ethic and discipline, as well as his enthusiasm for life and general lust for learning. And for these reasons, it's not overly surprising that he helped with the formation of this very blog series.
So welcome everyone to Expeditious. My attempt to get more adventure into our day to day lives by telling stories of those that live it day to day. And I am very proud to have the first of many interviews be on my friend and occasional drinking buddy, Matt Flaherty.
Mountain Folk Adventure: It’s been great getting to know you over the last eight months or so, and I’ve learned that Matt Flaherty is always full of surprises. Matt, you’ve done everything from working at Burger King, to practicing law in Chicago, and as long as I’ve known you, (Ultra) Running has been your business. It seems as though you are talented enough to do whatever you set your mind to. So why running?
Matt Flaherty: Running won my heart long before I knew it had. I competed in junior high and high school cross country and track, valuing the comraderie and extrinsic success more than running for the joy of it. At least at first. By the time I graduated high school, however, running had become an inextricable part of my life. I now wanted to run regardless of competition, teammates, or externally defined success (though I still enjoyed all of those things). I had grown to run loving simply for its own sake.
I walked onto the cross country and track teams at the University of Illinois, where I unfortunately had a bit of a lackluster college career. However, that left me hungry for more, and I started pursuing marathons during law school in 2008. I was making slow but steady improvements, when I stumbled upon ultra running in 2010. One race and I was hooked. I still value racing on all surfaces and distances, but the ultrarunning community is an incredible one. The races are immensely challenging, and it affords me opportunities to travel the world and see some incredible scenery.
MFA: Over the past couple of years you’ve have competed and ran in dozens of races, on at least 4 different continents. What places/obstacles stick out to you as being particularly difficult to overcome? And what places/moments stick out to you as being accomplishments you’re most proud of?
MF: Probably the toughest race I’ve ever run was this past fall in France: Les Templiers 73km trail race. It was my first European mountain/trail race, and they do things differently over there. While in the U.S. we tend to have buffed-out trails that climb and descend in switchbacks, European trails tend to go straight up and down. This makes the climbing and descending very tough. Compounding this fact at Les Templiers was the Massif Central—the mountain range in south-central France where the race took place. It is very rocky, making the trails highly technical. I’ve run all over in the U.S., and no trails I’ve been on compare to the difficulty of those I faced in Les Templiers. I was running fairly well for about 2/3 of that race, when the difficulty of the terrain caught up with me. I had a tough grind to the finish. I was proud to make it to the finish line, as I could have just dropped out at one of the aid stations. Dropping, or DNF’ing is becoming more common among high level ultrarunners; while it sometimes makes sense or is necessary to avoid injury, I try my best to finish everything I start. The struggle at Les Templiers made me proud to get just it done; it also reinforced my appreciation for those runners who are out there longer than I am.
MFA: For those long runs, what do you do to stay motivated? What advice do you have for other athletes out there pushing themselves hard, in other dangerous circumstances?
MF: When a race gets particularly tough, or I’m experiencing a low patch, I try to draw strength from the hard work I’ve put in to be there. Visualization can be part of this. In training, I visualize the race, picture myself running strong, gutting it out through a rough patch, simply enduring. Regardless of any finishing time or place, if I try my best and refuse to give up on myself, I can be proud of my effort. When you realize that success is defined internally in this way, it gives you what my college coach called the freedom to fail. Once you are over the fear and anxiety of failure (as defined by others) and committed to giving your best, you can achieve great things.
Regarding advice for pushing oneself in the outdoors, first and foremost is safety. There are risks inherent in covering ground in the wilderness, and every athlete needs to be aware of the risks his or her sport poses, and to give them due respect. Beyond that, I would simply remind people to find the joy in what they’re pursuing. Odds are you engage in your sport or activity of choice because you love it. In the toughest circumstances, that can get lost, but a simple reframing of your mindset can work wonders. We work hard to be able to do what others can’t; to push our physical and mental limits and to engage with the outdoors in a unique and special way.
MFA: I was told there was once a run-in with a mountain lion? You’re still around, so you obviously out-gunned it, but I got to know what happened.
MF: My only encounter with a mountain lion came in the early summer of 2007 in Glacier National Park. I was working at Many Glacier Hotel as a cook. It was preseason, before any tourists were staying at the lodge, so the trails were pretty barren. One evening, I headed out for a run on the trail to Cracker Lake, south of Many Glacier. Halfway to Cracker Lake, a major bridge had been washed out (as were many bridges all over the park), due to flooding the previous November. Several hikers told me about this and the river was unpassable. However, when I got to the river, I found a felled tree several hundred yards upstream and I was able to cross there. On the other side, I was running on a trail that had probably seen no human traffick in 6 months.
I was cruising along, in my own headspace, when I came around a corner and encountered a mountain lion standing in the trail about 50 yards in front of me. It was looking right at me (it had probably heard me coming, as I would yell out at blind corners so as not to surprise bears). I stopped, raised my arms to look bigger, and it turned around, seemingly unphased, and scrambled up a scree field and out of sight. I walked for the next mile or two, constantly checking my shoulder to make sure I wasn’t being stalked. Soon however, I forgot all about the lion and made my way happily to Cracker Lake. This lake is a stunning green-blue, sitting in a cirque—a bowl-shaped valley head carved by the park’s namesake glaciers—at the continental divide. There were several mountain goats around, and I sat enjoyed the view for a half hour or so.
On my way back down the trail, a couple hours after my first encounter with the mountain lion, I shockingly came across it again. I assume it was the same cat anyway, as it was near the same stretch of trail as the first encounter. This time, I came around a corner and spotted the lion about 30 yards in front of me and running away from me down the trail. It was surely aware I was coming (again, due to my yelling before corners) and simply moving away to get out of sight, taking the path of least resistance down the trail. However, it didn’t seem to realize that I had actually come into view. There was an incredible 5 or 10 seconds where I was running behind the lion, actually closing in on it, without it knowing I was right there.
Finally, I stopped and yelled, “Hey!...” The lion turned around to acknowledge me, and once again completely unphased, moved down the trail and around a bend. I was completely in awe, and I repeated my precautionary measure of walking for a while, arms up, making noise, shoulder-checking, and generally trying to look like a difficult kill. As I crossed the river with the washed-out bridge, and finally made my way back to Many Glacier, I couldn’t believe the luck and good fortune to have seen such a beautiful creature at such close range. It set the tone for a magical summer in my favorite place in the continental U.S.
MFA: What’s is your favorite piece of gear that you can’t do without when your headed out for a long run?
MF: The beauty of running is that all you really need is a pair of shoes. While we have all sorts of specialized gear in ultrarunning—to carry water and food, to be able to adjust to changing weather conditions, etc.—at its core, even mountain/trail/ultra-running can be distilled to this one basic need of shoes. This minimalism in running is part of what draws me to it; the ability to cover ground quickly, unburdened by anything but the smallest amount of gear. When it comes to shoes, my Salomon Sense Pros are my go-to. They are the perfect blend of lightweight speediness, traction, and protection.
MFA: What piece of gear has been the biggest let down to you and why?
MF: Perhaps energy gels (or even more broadly, the energy-food market), if we can call that “gear.” Very few products are whole-food based, most are chalk full of preservatives, and I simply can’t stomach the vast majority. I do a lot of experimentation with fueling, trying to find the right formula for me. Gels in particular have been disappointing!
MFA: When you get back from a long day on the trail, what is your favorite reward/recovery meal?
MF: If I drove to a trailhead and don’t have immediate access to a kitchen, my go to is a UGo Bar. My friends started the UGo Bars company, which makes delicious, whole food snack bars with no preservatives. Nothing tastes better at the end of a long day on the trails (or if I’m on the trails for hours at a time, even during a long run or hike). A few hours later I’m more apt to partake in a few craft beers and a hearty, vegetable-filled meal.
MFA: Thanks, Matt. I can't wait to see what comes next.