Headsweats Ambassador Matt Johnson ran track and cross country at the collegiate level, culminating in a trip to the 2013 NCAA Cross Country National Champtionships. After college, Matt wasn’t ready to give up his competitive running career, and found a new passion for the sport through training and racing in trail races and ultra marathons. Matt’s friend and college teammate Clay Holton interviewed him on what it’s like to transition from being a collegiate athlete to an ultramarathoner and what advice he would give other runners looking to continue their competitive running careers after college.
How long have you been running? What made you start enjoying it?
I have been running competitively for a little over 10 years now. I decided I wanted to try out cross country at the end of my 8th grade year in school (2006). My middle school PE teacher at the time was also the high school cross country coach. He talked to me about joining the cross country team going into my freshmen year of high school after we ran the mile fitness test in PE. I had always played football during the fall up to that point, but for whatever reason I decided to give running a try. Looking back now, I can’t really think of a time when I didn’t enjoy it. I have always loved sports that require a lot personal motivation and hard work to get better. Regardless of my talent level in any given sport, I have always prided myself on being a hard worker. I think that was the initial draw for me towards running. It truly is one of those sports where you only get out of it what you put into it. Outside of that, I have always loved the “team” aspect of the sport. The camaraderie and respect amongst runners is unlike any other sport I have ever been around. My best friendships in life have come through the sport of running.
Did you run in college? What was your favorite distance to run? What were some of your best times?
Yes, I ran at Augusta University (formerly Augusta State University and Georgia Regents University). While I ran both cross country and track at the collegiate level, I would have to say that cross country has always been my favorite. I am a true cross country guy at heart. As far as my favorite race distance goes, it’s pretty simple…the longer the better (an early sign of an ultra-runner to come, haha)! In college that meant the 10k. I have to admit…I was always a little jealous of the NAIA guys though, because NAIA sanctions a marathon national championship every year, haha. I did race a couple half marathons in college and really enjoyed those. As far as time goes, I ran 26:05 for 8k in cross country, 15:59 for 5k, and 33:25 for 10k…nothing crazy fast, but times that I am proud of. Unfortunately, I was plagued with some untimely injuries during my last couple track seasons. I also ran a 1hr 13min (5:35ish pace) half marathon. I had a fifth year of eligibility in track, so I had an entire fall to just train in preparation for the spring. My coach and I decided to play to my strengths and give a half marathon a go. I actually think that my half marathon time is my fastest PR once you start converting it to shorter distances. I definitely think I have still have some PRs in my legs whenever I decide to take a break from the trails.
Do you have a favorite college XC/track racing moment?
I have many great memories from my college running experience, but the best would definitely have to be qualifying as a team for the 2013 NCAA Cross Country National Championships. That was literally my biggest goal in college and had been a team goal for four years. That entire fall was a dream season for us. As seniors, we were able to win our second conference championship and go on to qualify for nationals. Toeing the line at a national championship and ending my career on the biggest stage (at the collegiate level) with all of my brothers (aka teammates) was a dream come true, and a perfect way to close out my cross country career. It is truly something I will remember and cherish for the rest of my life.
What kinds of races are you training up for now? What are some of the highlight races you’ve done since college?
My post-collegiate career thus far has consisted mostly trail racing (with a few road races mixed in). After college I was looking for new ways to challenge myself and get me excited to train, so I decided to turn to the trails. I have always loved running on trails, and I feel like my strengths as a runner suit me well on them. I have raced in several Xterra races, as well as other trail races ranging in distance from 10k to 11.5 miles. I also competed in my first ultra marathon (50k) this past April! Racing a 50k was equally one of the most awesome and hardest things I have done in my entire life. It tested me physically, mentally, and emotionally in ways like nothing else ever has. I found out a lot about myself that day.
Do you have a coach or any specific training partners?
I currently do not have a coach. I read /research a lot, talk to people, and use knowledge I have gained over the years. That was a decision I came to after college for a couple of different reasons. One, being married now, working full-time, coaching, and having a number of other responsibilities/obligations to take care of throughout the week, my schedule is constantly changing. I have always been a very meticulous when it comes to my training. Now that I am in “the real world”, I have had to learn to be much more flexible with my training. Sometimes that means switching workouts to different days because of the way I feel or a lack of time…others it might mean missing a run completely. Bottom line, life happens and things come up sometimes. I have learned to go with the flow and not get frustrated if my training week doesn’t go exactly as planned. With all that being said, if I have a coach putting in the time and effort to write training plans, I want to make sure I am giving that back by following exactly what he or she has planned for me. I have always maintained the mindset that if I am going to commit to do something, I am going to do it right. As I continue to adjust to “the real world” and my new normal, I will definitely consider going back to having a coach. Right now, I am having fun writing my own workouts and experimenting with new things in ultra training. It keeps things fun, and as corny as it sounds…that is always most important! In regards to training partners, my main one is my wife, Tia! I also run a lot with the high school athletes I coach, as well as a few of my former co-workers. I will always take any opportunity I can to run with people!
What is the next big race you’re training for? Any specific time/place/finish goals?
My next big race will be The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship 50k in San Francisco this December! I would be stoked to come home with a top-ten finish! I have learned that time/pace on the trails isn’t quite as relevant because of the varying terrain/course conditions from race to race. I am just excited for the opportunity for the challenge of competing against some of the best athletes in the sport. Leading up to it I plan to compete in a smaller race or two (both road and trail).
What kinds of workouts are you focusing on? Do you have a favorite workout?
Again, the specific workouts I am focus on really depends on what race I am training for. However, throughout most of the year my training is usually going to incorporate some sort of tempo run, long run, and faster paced intervals or hills, among general mileage/recovery runs. I also do strides throughout the year to help maintain foot speed/overall running economy (even when training for an ultra). More specifically for ultra races, I have learned that it is important to research the course you are going to be racing and do your best to mimic that terrain in training. The further I get into a training cycle for an ultra, the more my workouts become focused on helping me encounter/prepare for what I will see on race day (same applies for practicing nutrition intake as well). As far as my favorite workouts, I have always loved long runs! I also love longer progression runs and fartlek runs….basically any “effort” based workout that is less focused on hitting specific splits, and more focused on “feel” and allowing your body and the workout to progress naturally. Lastly, I enjoy running any sort of hill workout. I have learned that practicing downhill running is just as important as practicing uphill running when it comes to ultras and trail racing. Right now in training I have been working on increasing my overall long run distance, as well as practicing my climbing and descending.
Do you run mostly on roads or trails?
I saw recently that you started being sponsored. What kinds of sponsorships do you have?
Yes, I currently represent four different companies as a brand ambassador in my training and racing: CEP Compression, Nuun hydration, and Headsweats performance headwear. The team I run for, Anchored Elite, is also sponsored by Janji. Janji is an awesome running apparel company that also works to provide clean water for those who need it in countries all around the world! I am very thankful to have the support of these great companies as I continue to pursue competitive trail running! I truly love their products and would highly recommend them to anyone! For any other running gear needs I go to Fleet Feet Atlanta!
Lastly, do you have any advice for runners who want to continue running competitively post-collegiately? Or advice for runners who are seeking to get any sort of sponsorship?
For those that might have a dream to continue running competitively post-collegiately, I encourage you to not give up on that dream. My main motivating factor was not wanting to look back in 10 or 20 years and wonder what I could have done in the sport if I stuck with it. One of my favorite quotes has become “Only those who risk going too far, can possibly find out how far they can go.” It is not always easy considering the majority of post-collegiate runners aren’t supporting themselves by running, but it can be done. Set new goals for yourself after college so you have a sense of direction and purpose with your training and racing. Also, always make sure you maintain a healthy balance in life. I believe too much of one thing can be a bad thing. Now that I am working full-time and married, I have had to learn where running fits into all that. Make running something you do, but not who you are. Adjusting to the “real world” and all of life’s demands can be difficult sometimes, so you have to learn to be flexible. Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a workout or have to cut a run short because “life” happens. Ultimately, you have to find ways to continually make it fun. You have to enjoy the process before you can enjoy the result. As far as gaining sponsorships, don’t be afraid to reach out to companies yourself. Most of the time, unless you are at a world class level, companies aren’t going to come find you. Find products you love and believe in and start there. Put together a “running resume” and start sending it out to companies that you are interested in. Don’t be upset if you don’t hear back right away from companies. Positivity and persistency can get you a long way when it comes to both running and seeking out sponsorships!
*Blog credit goes to Clay Holton. The original blog post can be found here: http://www.holtonphysicaltherapyandperformance.com/matthew-johnson-transition-from-college-xc-to-ultras/