It was December of 2010 and Dakota Jones, Bryon Powell, and a group of others were across the room at the Marin Brewing Company in Marin, California. It looked and sounded like they were having a great time, celebrating. I sat across from Matt Flaherty and we were a lot quieter, so much so that neither of us approached the other group of ultrarunners in the restaurant.
Hours earlier Flaherty made his ultramarathon debut, and ran alongside Jones for the first 28 miles of The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championships (TNF 50). Jones won, and Flaherty fell way off the lead pace in the race’s second half, finishing 18th. “My quads just imploded on the downhills,” Flaherty chuckled at the memory. Despite being a lifelong runner, and a former NCAA cross-country runner at the highest level, the impact of significant downhills was a surprise shock to then 25-year-old.
He raced TNF 50 two more times, but never had a good race there. The next several years went much better though.
Flaherty holds back, and finally when pressed starts to recount some of his successes. “I was second at the JFK 50 Mile in 2013 behind Zach Miller in 5:44. In 2014 I was second at the Ice Age 50 Mile behind Max King, and we both broke–I think–a 25-year-old course record. I guess I had some really good races where I was second.” He won the 2013 Tussey Mountainback 50 Mile too, lowered his marathon best to 2:21 at the 2014 Boston Marathon, and raced on the U.S. team at the 2016 IAU 100k World Championships.
It was perhaps the races where he wasn’t so successful that he’s most proud of though. He was 27th at the 2017 Sierre-Zinal race and was fifth at the 2018 Eiger Ultra Trail 101k. “Eiger was 12-and-a-half hours and 23,000 feet of climbing, that’s sooo far out of my wheelhouse,” Flaherty emphasized.
But then, come 2019, Flaherty raced just a scant, single time. He was fourth at the Ragged 50k in New Hampshire. “It was the least I raced since 1996,” he confessed.
Something bigger was out there though, and Flaherty backed up to 2017 to retrace his new journey. At first a lawyer out of college, he’d transitioned into a great five-year run of professional running, coaching, and writing. “It was a really great, cool, awesome time,” he said before admitting, “but I knew it wouldn’t last forever. I needed to be involved in something intellectually stimulating, and those things all can be, but none were quite the right fit.”
He wanted to work in the public interest, on something that reflects his values, and to help direct policy, and that all led him back to school. Flaherty researched his options nationwide, but nothing matched the excellence of his local Indiana University’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He completed a five-semester program from August of 2017 to December of 2019 and earned a dual master’s degree in public affairs and environmental science. Along the way he worked summer jobs at the regrettably now defunct International Centre for Trade and Development in Geneva, Switzerland and in Washington, DC at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Flaherty is cheery while running through his story without pause. He’s in the backyard with his four-month-old Bernese Mountain Dog puppy, Eiger, and only stops long enough for a momentary clean-up.
Locally his eyes had opened too and he was becoming increasingly involved in local political issues, and that led to his next adventure. “I was frustrated with some [Bloomington, Indiana] City Council decisions,” he said of his entry into the Council race. “I campaigned for four months. Bloomington’s a college town, mostly Democratic like other college towns, and so there was a primary for the at-large seats. There were six of us running for three seats. Two incumbents won and I won. I unseated a 20-year incumbent,” he explained. “I had a message that resonated, but I just can’t overstate how all-encompassing this process was. I had no idea.”
Flaherty, while campaigning, took part in candidate forums, completed various questionnaires, organized fundraisers, and did tons of door knocking. He estimates that he visited 3,000 people by going to door-to-door. And to perhaps better his chances at success, he did it without the mustache spotted in many of his earlier race photos.
“It’s been interesting so far. I just started January 1 (on a four-year term), and it’s crazy now,” Flaherty said on March 25, while the U.S. is battling the COVID-19 pandemic. Indiana’s statewide stay-at-home order had just taken effect a day earlier. Flaherty’s City Council meetings have gone virtual, and the city has acted to maintain its essential services–police, fire, water, and transit–while also helping the city’s 85,000 people with actions to prevent evictions, temporarily stopping utility shutoffs for non-payment, and by offering free rides on public transportation, among other measures.
Prior to all of this, Flaherty said that City Council is supposed to be a quarter-time position, but recognizes that it’s really 20 to 30 hours per week if one wants to do it well. His biggest goals are to help impact his city’s position on climate change. He puts out an audible shrug and then points to “the increasingly dire problem of global climate change. There’s greater work that cities and states can do to help lead this effort.”
In the middle of all of this–graduate school, public office, getting a puppy–Flaherty got married too. Running understandably took a backseat, but he’s registered for the Boston Marathon too, now scheduled for September. He insists that he’s not done with ultras either. “I’m 34, I think that’s the age that Rob Krar was when he got started. I’ve got a lot left,” Flaherty closes with a bit of force.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
Calling all Matt Flaherty stories! Racing, training, politicking, you name it, we’d love to hear your experiences with Matt.