Catching Up With Matt Daniels

Last weekend, Matt Daniels won the 2021 Smith Rock Ascent 50k in Oregon as a part of his build toward racing the 2021 Western States 100 in June. In this video interview, Matt talks about bouncing back into good training after recent health issues and an injury, if he thinks he can improve from his previous fourth place at the 2019 Western States 100, and what his training looks like this spring.

Catching Up With Matt Daniels Interview Transcript

iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar. I’m with Matt Daniels. It’s a couple days after his win of the 2021 Smith Rock Ascent 50k. Hey Matt, how are you?

Matt Daniels: Hey Meghan, I’m good. How are you?

iRunFar: Good, we’re talking to each other across the state of Colorado. You’re in east-central Colorado and I’m in southwest Colorado.

Daniels: Yeah, I’m over here in Monument. My wife and I just moved down from Boulder about a year ago now. We’re up a little higher in elevation and a little bit more secluded from big population. Yeah, we’re really enjoying it out here.

iRunFar: Awesome. You are just back from Oregon where you ran the Smith Rock Ascent 50k on Saturday. Congratulations on your win and your really fast time on that course.

Daniels: Thank you, I appreciate it. I always enjoy going out to Oregon and racing. Smith Rock definitely didn’t disappoint.

iRunFar: Some races have happened during the pandemic. You’ve done a few, but talk for a second about that feeling of being at a race where there’s competition and we can see each other again.

Daniels: It was great. What made this one truly special was most everybody at the start line was vaccinated. Spirits were high and everybody is excited that there’s a little bit of normalcy now. There are still a lot of protocols still in place with masks at the start line and aid stations, and wave starts, that sort of thing. But it felt a little bit more normal again. Just the overall mood, there was a lot of buzzing going on.

We got to interact with more people this time. One of my favorite things about going to races and a lot of the reason I go to some of these smaller races sometimes is, I love to just interact with people. If I have athletes that I coach who are running, I can hang out with them before and after the race. That was really fun getting to do that at Smith Rock this weekend.

We had nice weather, a little on the warm side, which is good for me for Western States. I also got to convince my wife to go out there and do her first real trail race. It was awesome.

iRunFar: What was it like transitioning back from this really long period of training, to actually trying to sharpen up and race well, and build toward running Western States? Give us a little context on that.

Daniels: It was a little different for me, especially than in times past. I had a few health issues all winter and early spring. Then on top of that I got injured really badly, probably around March, and had to take about three weeks solid off. So this has been a condensed build for Western States. Even though it’s been a condensed build, I was still chomping at the bit to get racing again—to get a harder effort.

Training has been up and down. It hasn’t been a long, extended period of time of just putting in the miles and vertical. I’ve been doing these short blocks, just trying to stay healthy. Then I got to the point to where the injury was so bad that I finally had to take that time off.

Looking back now, it was a blessing in disguise because I was pushing training way too much over the winter and fall. I think having that three weeks off reset me. The last two or three weeks of training have been some of the best of my entire life. So I’m really looking forward to going into Western now and all to come this summer.

iRunFar: That’s really cool to think about these hidden blessings. Yeah, injury sucks, but maybe having forced longer rests after such a deep training is a good thing.

Daniels: I see all the time too, coaching athletes, you get a lot out of consistency, but sometimes the body just needs that full… I don’t know what you call it, maybe cellular reconstruction, where you really regroup. The body rebuilds and when you get back you have these mini-breakthroughs. I feel like that’s where I’m at. Hopefully it comes to fruition in five-and-a-half weeks, but we’ll see.

iRunFar: That’s fun. Talk about another reason to have the anticipation building toward Western States now!

Daniels: Yeah, exactly. There are a lot of things going into Western this year. We had the whole year off with the pandemic. And I’m excited to get back into running healthy again. Realistically, since the 2019 Western States, I’ve been back and forth battling these little injuries or maybe overdoing it in training and, just getting a bit greedy with things. I’m finally at a spot now where it’s, “Alright, this is about where I want to be.” I’m excited to race again. Nothing’s hurting. It’s going to be a fun day.

iRunFar: It’s fun for a person like me to think about the potential of a person like you at this race. Two years ago, it was your debut 100 miler, you ran 15 hours and 20 minutes on a warm day with stacked competition. I think all top-10 men got in under 16 hours. It was a crazy day. And you’re going back with bib M4. Almost [everyone from the men’s top 10 last time] are going back and then there’s more. I can only anticipate that 2021 is going to be like 2019 Western States squared.

Daniels: It’s going to be wild, for sure. We see this all the time, right? With like races like UTMB, and even in Western States in the past, where you get a start line with so many different names on it. There are 20 guys on that start line who can win if they have a good day. Well, if Jim Walmsley’s in the race, they could be second. Usually it ends up being carnage, and sometimes a straight disappointment. I hope it ends up being where we have a lot of guys have fun and it’s a fun show for everybody and we have a good time racing and everybody PRs.

I also have to think, sometimes when you have races like this, you have guys who get excited and go out fast and guys who will go with them. You know, there are just so many different angles of what could go wrong. I think it’s going to be a really important year to play things smart. I’m expecting it to be a lot warmer than 2019. It was warm in 2019 but still pretty good weather. We had a lot of cloud coverage. At Western if it’s hot, it can be a crazy day.

I’m going into it with the outlook of, “Just be patient, but also trust your fitness and don’t be afraid to race and put your nose in it.”

iRunFar: I kind of have to ask a guy who runs 15:20 on their first attempt at Western States. What are you hungry to do next? What do you think your potential is there? You know, give us a hot day, give us a you race pretty smart among crazy racing, how does it go for you?

Daniels: Oh, that’s a tough question.

iRunFar:  I love putting you on the spot, though.

Daniels: If I had a good day and everything went right—nothing ever fully goes right in a 100 miler. But if I have a good day, I think I could compete for the win.

There are a lot of really good guys. I know that Jim Walmsley is always in incredible shape. This is his home course. Jared Hazen is, for whatever reason, always the most overlooked runner in the history of American distance running, and he’s going to be there again. You’ve got Hayden Hawks, you’ve got Tim Tollefson. The list goes on and on, right?

If I play my cards right, and I run smart and don’t go out too hard—kind of how I ran in 2019 where the first 50k was really nice and in control and then I kind of just did what I do through the canyons and started moving up. If I have a day like that and maybe spend a little bit less time at the aid stations, I could definitely go under 15. Who knows? We’ll see.

iRunFar: No sitting around and eating ice-cream sandwiches and popsicles and stuff this time?

Daniels: I mean, that’s nice and it definitely helps when you’re feeling down in the dumps, but I’ve got to be a little more professional this go around and not spend 15 minutes at Foresthill.

iRunFar: I love it. I noticed on UltraSignup that you’re signed up for the Western States Training Camp. Are you going out there in a couple of weekends?

Daniels: Yeah. I went out there two years ago. It was my first time on the course and I had a ball. It was such a good time. There are a couple of other Nike athletes and other athletes who are coached by David Roche, my coach as well. We’re all going to stay together at an Airbnb and just have a good time and get some good training in. I’m looking forward to it. We didn’t know until probably about a week ago if we were all going to go or not. But now we’re all vaccinated and feel pretty comfortable about it and excited to go rip on the trails for a weekend.

iRunFar: Right on. I think it’s, is it five-and-a-half weeks or six-and-a half weeks still? A little over a month until race day? Anyway, you have a couple of weeks to train hard and then a couple of weeks to taper down. Give us a look at what a week of training is going to look like.

Daniels: It’s been a little bit more of a condensed block for me. Just because of the injury, we’re taking a few more risks than I normally would. Instead of doing a two-and-a-half or three-month-long block of a lot more mileage and vertical, I’m condensing it into what’s been eight weeks with four pretty big weeks in the middle.

Since I just got done racing, this week’s just to build back up. But the mileage is up there. I’ll be over 100 miles again this week. Over the next few weeks, the intensity is building a little bit, still keeping the mileage up. Obviously at the training camp, we’ll have that big three-day block, which will be good. And then focusing a little bit on vert and just getting the quads and the legs used to the pounding and the downhill.

I’m probably looking at something between 100 and 130 miles a week for the next few weeks. And, anything from probably 15,000 to 20,000 feet of vert. Not as much as what Jim Walmsley and those guys do out in the Grand Canyon, but it works for me. Then I’ll taper down for probably two to two-and-a-half weeks out and get the legs fresh and get ready.

iRunFar: Right on. Are you going to use the building heat of Colorado’s spring as your heat training or is there going to be any specific heat training in there too?

Daniels: Yeah, not this year in Colorado, it’s been cold.

iRunFar: We’re waiting for it, aren’t we?

Daniels: Last weekend at Smith Rock, it was the first time I had run in anything over 55 degrees Fahrenheit in months. It was a huge shock to the system. But I have a sauna here at the house. I’m going to start utilizing it with some treadmill hikes—getting in some good powerhiking and vert—and then going straight into the sauna. Hopefully it will be warm out at the training-camp weekend. That’ll probably be about all the heat training I do. That’s another thing I have to be careful with, not doing too much heat training. I tend to just fry myself and I’d rather be fresh on the start line.

iRunFar: No fried-egg conditions. It’s pretty awesome you have a sauna at home, though?

Daniels:  Yeah. I bought one after we moved here. It was the first investment I made when we moved to the home. I was like, “I have to have a sauna for training because it’s so cold here.”

iRunFar: Amazing. Congratulations on your win last weekend at Smith Rock Ascent. Talking to you has gotten me pretty excited about the month of June. I know you probably want a couple of weeks to train, but I’d like time to pass and for us to get to race day.

Daniels: I would too.

iRunFar: Congratulations to you.

Daniels: Thank you so much.

Meghan Hicks

is the Managing Editor of iRunFar and the author of 'Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running.' The converted road runner finished her first trail ultramarathon in 2006 and loves using running to visit the world's wildest places.