Western States Stand-Out Matt Daniels
On Saturday, June 29th, professional ultra runner and Nike elite trail athlete Matt Daniels crossed the finish line of the legendary Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run in fourth place! Not bad for a guy who started 2019 by incurring a concussion in the middle of the Bandera 100k in Texas, forcing him to drop out of his first 100k attempt in January.
In fact, it’s not bad for a guy who never ran more than 34 miles before February of this year! He may not have ever gotten that belt buckle for the Bandera 100k, but six months later, Matt has a Western States 100 belt buckle, so you could say everything more than worked out for this Texas native!
A Place on the Trails
Hailing from Arlington, TX, Matt began running at 11 years old. By high school, he was at the top of state rankings. After graduation, Matt served in the U.S. Navy, spending three years stationed in Japan and out at sea.
When he returned to the U.S., Matt was accepted at the DII running powerhouse, Adams State University. It was there that he ran a ludicrous sub-four-minute mile. Matt also led six National Championship teams and earned 12 All American Honors before graduating.
Matt’s life in Colorado had just begun. Matt had fallen in love with the mountains, and after signing with Hudson Elite, a move to Boulder, CO was in order.
While there, Matt turned his focus to road running and qualified for the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials. Matt was disappointed in his results at the trials, but the process led to a personal discovery: He realized he belonged on the trails.
After a brief stint on Hawai’i Island, where he obtained Strava crowns on several trail segments that no runner has yet to take, Matt shifted his focus and proved his adaptability, competing on the first-ever U.S. men’s gold medal winning team at the 2016 World Mountain Running Championship.
Matt’s premonition about his trail running destiny was spot on, as he then qualified for the USA World Team. In addition to making three consecutive World Teams, Matt went on to obtain a Nike sponsorship.
This week, I was able to chat with the 31-year old about his mind-blowing performance at his first Western States, and what Matt’s learned along the way to that finish line.
From a DNF to a Golden Ticket
In 2017, Matt completed his first 50k, the Flagline 50k Trail Race in Bend, OR, in well under four hours. 16 months after that 50k, Matt was ready to tackle his first 100k.
In all his 19 years of running, Matt had yet to tackle that distance, so he returned to his home state of Texas for the Bandera 100k in January. Matt set out to run further than he ever had, and found himself in the lead and on his way to yet another stand-out performance. But it was not to be.
On a section that involved an out-and-back, he collided with another runner who was heading out as Matt ran back. Matt fell, which is not unheard of in a trail race. But when he did so, he hit his head on a tree, resulting in a concussion that forced him to pull out of the race.
Matt was still in 100k shape, so after recovering from the concussion, he headed to Arizona in February for the Black Canyon 100k Ultra. The race promises athletes a runnable 55-mile stretch on the Black Canyon National Recreation Trail, starting at Arcosanti in Spring Valley, AZ and finishing at the Emery Henderson Trailhead near New River, AZ.
Matt and the other runners of the 2019 event were looking forward to crossing through Black Canyon and the Agua Fria River several times along the way… until a rainstorm hit the Agua Fria watershed just two days before the race. In the aftermath of the heavy rain showers, the river rose to flood levels at certain points, and the Agua Fria was deemed unsafe to cross.
Race officials implemented the High Water Route, which meant that only the first 28 miles of the rerouted course was the same as the original course. The remaining 33 miles involved running an out-and-back on a combination of dirt road, jeep road, paved road, and single-track trail. An out-and-back much like the one that Matt had been on when he collided with a fellow runner only a month prior.
Despite the congested route, Matt was able to win Black Canyon in an unofficial time of 7 hours and 20 minutes. Matt crossed the finish line a colossal 25 minutes before second-place finisher Chris Mocko and earned himself a Golden Ticket into the 2019 Western States 100.
“I’ve run the Black Canyon Trail (BCT) countless times, and I’ve never seen anyone run that fast, for that long, without blowing up,” Black Canyon third-place finisher Eric Senseman said of Matt’s performance that day.
With the title of Black Canyon winner, Matt was ensured automatic entry into the holy grail of ultra running, something he did not intend to earn when he arrived in Arizona for the race.
“Black Canyon was the first 100k that I finished. Until that race, I had never run more than 34 miles!” Matt exclaims. “The whole plan for Black Canyon was to try the 100k distance out, not to earn a Golden Ticket! But after the race, I got excited about the prospect of doing Western States, and I convinced my coach that I could run it!”
Matt Daniels was about to become the first sub-four-minute miler to toe the line at the Western States 100.
Stepping into the Unknown
Just four months after stepping into the unknown distance of 100k and demolishing the competition at Black Canyon simultaneously, Matt was about to run further into the unknown.
The Western States’ 100-mile trek from Squaw Valley to Auburn, CA is notably rugged. Snow and colder temperatures are not uncommon on the highest pass, while other sections of the course can blast runners with record-high heat. Runners climb a cumulative total of 18,090 feet and descend a total of 22,970 feet on mountain trails before reaching the finish line at Placer High School. And Matt was ready to enjoy every grueling mile between Squaw Valley and that finish line.
“I knew I was really fit, but I didn’t set expectations,” Matt says of his approach to running Western States. “I didn’t have a time goal or intention of finishing in a certain place. I was there to enjoy the process.”
Matt’s first 100k couldn’t be further from enjoyable, however, especially Mile 44 where Matt “enjoyed” another first for 2019. His first bee sting! As Matt had never been stung by a bee before, he was understandably concerned about possible reactions to the sting. Was he allergic? Would a bee be the demise of his first 100 miler?
Although Matt attempted to regain his composure, these questions were enough of a distraction to compromise his focus, and consequently, his footing. Matt fell, got back on his feet, and fell once more, bruising his ribs in the process.
Fortunately, Matt discovered that he is not allergic to bee stings. But this proved a small comfort for someone who still had 56 miles left to run. Matt admits to being so discouraged by the first challenging half of the day that “I almost threw in the towel.”
One does not simply stop running in the middle of a trail though. Matt had to get to an aid station, whether he was dropping out of the race or not. It was there that he was reunited with his crew, which bolstered his spirits. Matt decided to press on and was delighted to soon find himself running a faster section of trail.
Just as the beginning of his year did not set the precedence for the months of breakthrough that followed, neither would the first 50k of Matt’s Western States set the precedence for the miles that followed!
Matt got back in a rhythm and was determined to finish all 100 miles. The last 60k was not without its battles though. Matt was holding steady in fourth place when he had to address a toenail issue at the Foresthill Aid Station. At Mile 78, he faced a river crossing, as well as the fifth place male. Matt survived the river crossing, dug deep to secure his spot in fourth place, and proceeded to crush the last 20 miles of Western States.
“Matt Daniels is one of my closest friends, and he was stepping into the unknown at the Western States 100,” said Matt’s coach David Roche. “He ran with so much grit and toughness, coming in fourth place. An awe-inspiring 100-mile breakthrough!”
Matt’s grit, toughness, and natural talent certainly shone as he stepped into the unknown once more, and ran 40 miles further than he ever had before.
“I had no idea what to expect, so I was surprised with my pace,” Matt explains. Although his pace varied with the terrain and he logged a 12:30 pace one mile, and a 7:15 pace the next, Matt finished his first 100-miler in the incredible time of 15:21:36.
The fact that he accomplished this at his first Western States, and crossed the finish line in fourth place overall just makes his accomplishment even more applause-worthy.
Advice for 100-Mile Hopefuls
For anyone who aspires to run a 100-mile race, Matt will be the first to tell you that the most difficult aspect is being patient.
“I kept reminding myself that I was going to be out there for another eight hours, so I had to practice patience,” Matt points out. “Running 100 miles is not like doing a shorter ultra-distance race. It’s a lot different from a 50k.”
The irony of using the words “shorter” and “ultra” in the same sentence is not lost on Matt. But the fact remains that there is a monumental difference between running a 50 or 100k and running 100 miles, including how to fuel and what the aid stations offer in terms of food. Known for their aid station “buffets,” 100-mile races are stocked with the good stuff, including everything from Oreos to peanut butter and jelly.
“The popsicles were awesome! And the chicken broth was really good. And gummies!” says Matt of his favorites at the aid stations. “There were potato chips and M&Ms too, which is good because I did get to a point where I just couldn’t eat another gel. They made me want to throw up!”
If you’re hoping to successfully run a 100-mile race, be prepared for anything! Many runners report hallucinating, especially those that run through the dark of night. Although Matt was able to finish before the sunset and dodge any hallucinations, he did experience a bad case of vertigo.
“My pacer was with me then, and we were running on a ridge. I turned my head to look at something and everything started spinning,” Matt recalls. He pushed through and eventually the vertigo subsided.
And for anyone who has their hopes set on a certain ultra that ends in Auburn, CA, Matt suggests a training plan that focuses on downhill running.
“A lot of people have their legs blow up on these qualifiers. Beat up your legs and quads in training,” he recommends. “It’s happened to me. Two years ago I tried to run a 50-mile race on an up-and-down course, and I didn’t have the legs to finish it. That’s when I learned how important it is to practice hill repeats, both up AND down!”
Matt has also learned that you can’t judge your year or your race based on the first month or miles. Just because you get off to a rough start doesn’t mean your day or your dream is over!
Additionally, Matt suggests that those who do realize their dream of earning an entry into Western States consider hiring a coach if they don’t already work with one.
“Sure, there are people who can get there without a coach. Jim Walmsley, the winner of Western States, is self-coached. But for me, having a coach has made all the difference in sport and in my outlook,” says Matt.
Matt is referring to David Roche, who also lives in Boulder. David has coached Matt for a little over a year now, and also happens to be the coach of Clare Gallagher, who won Western States for the women.
“David has instilled a long-term approach in me. He reminds me of what is happening two to three years from now, and what I need to do to get there without becoming burned out along the way.”
When running a 100-miler, it is essential to have a race strategy, even if your goal is simply to enjoy the experience. David helped Matt craft a race strategy that included taking more time at the aid stations then he normally would. That time was to be spent on making sure that Matt was getting in calories, treating any blisters, and changing socks if necessary.
“Sometimes I sat down at the aid stations and had a hard time getting up again,” recalls Matt. “But as the day went on I realized that I was in a position to come back to Western States in 2020 if I stayed in the top 10. That got me back up. And that made it feel like a race the whole time!”
Anyone who aspires to run a 100-mile race also needs to carefully pick their crew. “Make sure your crew is awesome. That made a world of difference for me!” Matt asserts. “In a 100k you can get away with no crew. I didn’t have one for the Black Canyon 100k.”
But in Western States? “Not a chance! That crew will get you through. This is a team effort!” affirms Matt. “Sure your crew is there to help you with everything from changing your socks to helping you fuel. But what really makes a difference is seeing people you love. You want to get to the next aid station just to see them again!”
Matt also emphasizes the importance of having awesome pacers, especially if they will give you some hard love and tell you what you need to hear mid-race.
“Western States is sacred,” Matt said in an interview before the event. “Until you are there you don’t realize how special this race is.”
In a race that is so special, where so much can happen, runners have to step up to that start line focused and remain focused the entire time. For Matt that meant remaining focused on being patient and on enjoying the day.
“The course has such varying terrain, and it has crowds, heat, and snow,” says Matt of the Western States course. “It can be 35 degrees at the start, and then 90 degrees later in the day. Train yourself to adjust on the fly. And then when you get there, enjoy the experience!”
Matt Daniels’ journey from a sub-four-minute mile to fourth place overall at Western States has been anything but boring. So what’s next for the runner who has bounced back from a concussion, a bee sting, and vertigo?
“I’ll go to Switzerland to race in a month if I’m recovered,” are Matt’s plans. “And then I’ll compete in the North Face Endurance Challenge Championship in San Francisco. That’s in November.”
While Matt admits to being intrigued by other 100-mile races, he has decided to save those ultras for later in his career.
“I want to spend the next five or six years focusing on Western States,” Matt says, explaining how his emphasis right now is on what he can accomplish at the world’s oldest 100-mile trail race. “To do that you have to have a very specialized plan, and it doesn’t include other 100-mile races.”
Matt does not take for granted the opportunity he has to return to the Western States 100 next year. “It means a lot to return to Squaw Valley in 2020. Next year I can come back and race it!”
Looking ahead, Matt plans to incorporate running more volume into his training. When he’s not busy with his own coaching that is!
Matt decided to become a coach after traveling around the world to race on the best trails and mountains out there. On his website, Matt explains that the feeling of being surrounded by positivity and success, while doing something he loved was like nothing imaginable. As a coach, Matt’s goal is to enable every runner to be able to experience a similar feeling.
Matt offers a running and life program officially known as the Matt Daniels Run Club to everyone from elites to people who just want to better themselves. Fortunate enough to train with and learn from so many of running’s greatest coaches, Matt now applies their methods and philosophies to coaching his own athletes.
“There’s only one thing better than the euphoric feeling from running;
The fulfillment and meaningfulness that comes from coaching so many amazing athletes!”
Matt currently resides in Boulder, CO with his wife Lauren. Runners can connect with Matt on Instagram
@mattdaniels480, on Twitter @mattdaniels480, or follow him on www.mattdanielsrunclub.com.
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