Matt Flaherty has been tearing up ultras for the past two years and he finally slowed up for long enough for us to interview him before the inaugural Cayuga Trails 50 in Ithaca, New York. In the following interview, Matt talks about leaving law practice to focus on running full time, how his running is going in 2013, how racing 50 miles helps equalize fast marathoners and longer ultra-focused folks, and much more.
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Matt Flaherty Pre-2013 Cayuga Trails 50 Interview Transcript
iRunFar: This is Meghan of iRunFar, and I’m outside of Ithaca, New York, with Chicago, Illinois’s, Matt Flaherty. Good morning.
Matt Flaherty: Good morning.
iRF: It’s a jolly good morning here. I think it’s still before 8 a.m. It’s a rainy morning under the greenscape of Ithaca, New York. We’re here for the Cayuga Trails 50 Mile in which Matt will be participating tomorrow morning. How are you doing?
Flaherty: I’m doing well, thanks.
iRF: Did you have an okay sleep in the camp under the rain last night?
Flaherty: I did. It was great. I don’t know when the last time I camped was unfortunately. It was kind of like camping with that great white noise of the raindrops and some forest sounds with the birds… it was nice.
iRF: You said you live just outside of the Loop in Chicago, so you’re probably not used to the birds chirping and the squirrels squawking at each other.
Flaherty: Not too much, no. I’m more in a neighborhood now than I used to be. I used to be where it was just sirens all night long. Not too much flora or fauna in the city, no.
iRF: I learned last night that you are one of these recovering trail running lawyers. You now turned to a multitude of careers. Tell us a little bit about that part of you.
Flaherty: It’s true. As far as the law background, I graduated from law school in 2010 and ended up practicing law for about two years in Chicago. I was in patent litigation at a firm called Winston and Strawn—it’s a pretty big patent law firm. I got some good experience there and enjoyed my time, but it was just getting busier and busier and my trail running and running in general was starting to go pretty well. I saw what I could do in the sport slipping out of my hands. It was kind of choosing which path I wanted to go down. I could continue down the path I was on, but if I did that I knew the running ambitions were kind of over. I took a leap and quit my job. That was right after I’d joined Salomon.
That was early last year and I was kind of planning on going at things full bore last year. I was hit with an Achilles injury two weeks after I quit my job, so I ended up injured pretty much all of last year. It was nine or 10 months that I was out. I’ve been running consistently since right at the end of last year—December. So I’m about 6 months into it now and things are going fairly well. I still don’t feel great all the time in my training, but I’ve been racing at a decent level and I’m feeling more competitive every month. So that’s good.
As far as what I’m doing now—I do work part time at a running store called Fleet Feet in Chicago. I also do some personal coaching with a handful of clients one-on-one and Internet and phone-based. Some of my clients are in Chicago, and so we see each face-to-face as well. I’ve done a small amount of writing and I want to do some more of that as well. Running journalism is interesting and there is a cool space for it especially with the multimedia aspect. Obviously, there is still print journalism going on but that’s changing and evolving, as well. Interesting stuff, though, and I definitely want to get in it.
iRF: You mentioned the injury. That seems to be what happens to runners when they quit their full-time job and decide to be a “runner.” It’s one of the first things they experience—an injury or overtraining. You aren’t different in that way. Was it just totally happenstance or did you quit your job and run 130 miles?
Flaherty: Oh, it was happenstance. It may have been different in the way it happened. I tend to be very durable. It’s quite an advantage, as you know, in distance running. I haven’t had an overuse injury since I was 14 years old, actually. This Achilles issue happened from a cycling accident while I was commuting in Chicago. I was coming back from the grocery store when I hit a bad pothole. My foot got wrenched. I put my foot down to keep from falling and the pedal jammed straight into the back of my achilles. It was blunt trauma to the Achilles. I ended up having a bit of degenerative tissue there and some chronic inflammation underneath the Achilles, which took quite awhile to get resolved. I would say I’m 99.9% now. It hurts when I dig into it like a massage, but otherwise, I’m good to go. My training isn’t impaired at all. Good to go.
iRF: You touched on another interesting thing that I hear runners or running-focused athletes talk about is that if your job is your running, then you become totally dependent on this creature that can fail you at any minute even with a random curb in Chicago.
Flaherty: Yeah, it was very unfortunate timing and a very rude awakening, a picture of how it might be when you get injured. My thought on all of it with my coaching and my desire to do some writing is that I think it’s all synergistic and usually reinforcing in terms of a career aspect in the sport. I love all of those things, too. Even if I wasn’t running at a high level, I’d want to be coaching. I have been coaching for five or six years. It’s something I really dig. I think of it all as sort of part of the same equation.
Look at a basketball career: you sign a contract, make several million per year, and that’s your source of income. In terms of running, sure there are a few people who are making a salary enough to live on in the sport, but there aren’t many. There’s no real road map there. You’ve got to figure out a way to cobble it together from other areas of the sport or something else altogether whether it’s a part time job somewhere else or whatever.
iRF: I’m still thinking that if you win a little bit of cash this weekend that you should invest in a little bubble wrap from Home Depot that you can cover yourself when you go out and about. Save this body!
Let’s talk about this weekend. We’re here in Ithaca at the Cayuga Trails 50. It’s a brand new 50-mile race that will happen for the first time and is put on by Finger Lakes Running Company and Ian Golden. Do you know anything about Ithaca? Have you been here before?
Flaherty: Never been here. Never really been to New York. I’ve heard good things before. I’ve heard it’s a gorgeous area as you can tell from looking around us here. I’m definitely looking forward to checking out the trails this morning and more extensively tomorrow. I’m also just here for the good competition. That’s what excited me initially when Ian contacted me last year about the race. He was kind of telling me who he had lined up and who he was asking to come. That’s why I race—the good competition. If I was just interested in a day on the trails, I could go do that by myself somewhere. I want to run against the top guys and that’s part of the appeal of being here.
iRF: So you have both speed on the trails and speed on the roads. You just set—let me get this right—you ran a 51:11 10-mile PR which is pretty fast. Then you also won American River 50 mile earlier this year. You’re proving yourself on road speed and the ability to do ups and downs and twists and turns. Is that going to work to your advantage or what’s your plan with what you know your skill set to be tomorrow?
Flaherty: Somebody was asking me yesterday after the panel discussion about what I think about base level fitness, if getting faster in the short stuff would help you in the long stuff. My answer was simply, “Yes.” The fitter you are, the faster everything becomes. For instance at American River, that race starts out on a bike path for 20-some miles. I was running 6:20 pace through there. If I wasn’t fit enough to run 5:30 pace in a marathon, I couldn’t run 6:20 pace in the first half of that race before hitting the trails. I fell apart a little bit at the end of that race, but I think part of that was that I’d only been running three or four months and I didn’t really have my legs under me. The speed aspect, to the extent that I have any speed, does help for sure. Keeping that in mind, when you hit flat stretches and runnable stretches, I’d love to take advantage of that a bit. I don’t think I’m bad technically, but I could certainly use more practice because I don’t get it too often.
iRF: In Chicago, crawling up the stairs…
Flaherty: Sure. I do run off the “trail” on the Lakefront Trail. I just run on the grass off to the side. So I do get some ankle strengthening and that sort of stuff on that and the boulevards near my house, but not really varied terrain and nothing actually technical. I’m going to try to be conservative.
Fifty miles is a long way and if you just try to use your speed and run hard from the start, it will cost you. I’ve been there, too. It’s simply that 50 miles equalizes things a lot between someone who has a faster marathon or 10-mile time than some of the other guys. I’m not thinking I’m a step above. We all have a different skill sets in trail and ultrarunning. Each section of the course and each course play into different strengths. I know some of the guys out here like Ben Nephew, who I’m staying with, know these Northeast trails well. I’m not counting any of the guys out of the race at all.
iRF: Given what you do know about the course and given what you do know about who is going to be out there with you tomorrow, I have one last question. How do you see the race playing out?
Flaherty: It’s hard to say what anyone else will do. Like I said, I need to stay a little bit conservative. If Sage [Canaday] takes off too quickly, I’m not going to chase him. I’ll run what’s comfortable for me and let it go. That goes for about anybody. It would be great if I could run with some people for awhile. That’s always much more fun to spend at least part of your day running with some folks. So Jordan [McDougal] isn’t in yet, but he’s getting in today. Jordan and I got to run together really briefly at The North Face championships one and a half years ago. We talked on the trails and were both having a rough day. I think he’s someone I could see myself running with for quite awhile. I think we’re similarly positioned in terms of our skill sets. But really anybody, any of the guys out there like Yassine [Diboun] or anyone who’s here, I’d love to run with some guys early. I’ll stay conservative and then in the second half of the race I’ll go after it with whatever I have left and try to stay tough and see what I can do.
iRF: So the prize money goes four deep at the finish, but there are also some in-race prems like “for running a section quicker than anyone else” or “going out and building a lead on the eventual winner.” There are some bonuses for doing some kind of funny, strategic things in-race. Are you going to have fun with any of that money or are you going for the cash at the end?
Flaherty: I might. I think there are some that are $500 or a couple hundred and that could cover the cost of a flight, so… I need to review the list today and at least have them in mind to where if I’m positioned somewhere in the race and it’s not going to cost me too much like a chase to the top of the hill to be first, I could see myself going after a few. It definitely adds an interesting element to the race for sure.
iRF: I think it will be really fun to watch and see how those things play out. If somebody doesn’t think they can win the race but can rack up a few dollars extra cash, it should be fun.
iRF: Good luck to you tomorrow. We’ll see you out on the trails.
Flaherty: Thanks, I appreciate it.