It may be hard to believe, but only a few years ago Matt Callaghan could barely run 2 Kilometers. These year Matt is training for 10 Marathons and 3 Ultramarathons - One of them will be a 246km (~152miles) race to Mount Kosciuszko, the highest mountain in Australia.
Matt and I had been drinking buddies and friends for years. It is funny to me, looking back, how unfit we both were when we met and how far we have come since that day. I have learned a lot from Matt and I hope you will too after reading this interview.
1. Hey Matt, please tell us a bit about yourself. How did get into extreme endurance sports like ultra marathons and Ironman triathlons?
I was a keen sportsman when I was much younger, but then, like a lot of people I strayed into a working and social life where I didn’t do much sport or any at all. I remember looking at the photos of a recent holiday when I was 31 and thinking that I was looking a bit “too comfortable” and that I needed to work on my weight and general fitness. I bought a pair of runners that day and went out for my first jog in years. It was only 2 – 3 km, but it nearly killed me.
At that stage, I had no goal other than to find enjoyment in running and get slimmer and fitter. Once I moved to Australia, I got into running in a bigger way and it wasn’t that long before I signed up for my first marathon, which was just after my 34th birthday (although I signed up to run my first three marathons within 6 weeks of each other). Once I had completed a few of marathons, I was speaking with a very inspirational friend about his recent Ironman, which I thought sounded like a crazy challenge. A year of training (including learning to swim) later, after completing the ironman, I was hunting around for the next challenge, which I wanted to be ultramarathon. I prefer running to cycling and swimming so ultra and marathon is where I like to test myself.
2. What is the longest distance you’ve run? Could you have imagined yourself doing those things a few years ago?
So far, my longest distance is only 104km (the race was only 100km but I got lost early on in the race and ran an extra 4km), but I have longer in the pipeline. It certainly isn’t something that even 2 years ago I thought would be possible. In many ways, even today, I still sometimes think that it is crazy, but I used to think that about a half marathon. Your body and mind are incredible machines and they are capable of much more than you could ever imagine. My goal now is to find out exactly what it is capable of before they genuinely say enough is enough.
3. Why running? What is it that drives you to train harder or work toward seemingly impossible goals?
It is the age old argument about running. It is very difficult for a runner to explain to a non-runner how wonderful it can be (and I don’t need to explain it to a runner). For me however it is where I find myself. It is where I put all the ills of the world behind me and where I am able to tackle anything. Every work and personal problem seems so much more manageable after a run – life becomes more even-keeled.
What drives me on is a genuine desire to find out who I am. Having that mental battle about stopping when I am exhausted is a great place to find out what you are made of. Running the ultramarathons and Ironman always makes me think that any other challenge that life throws up won’t be too hard to take on.
4. Why ultramarathons? What made you decide to start running beyond marathons?
It is not just because the challenge is there. I don’t think that sums it up very well. For me it was more about wanting to find out about who I am. In running, you can generally do this in two ways: run faster or run further. I prefer further. Although I am also keen on running faster too 🙂
I have never thought in a marathon, “I am not going to finish this” so I want to reach that point and still carry on to finish.
5. What are the biggest challenges to running distances far longer than marathons?
It is a very different type of running and often the most difficult challenge is holding back. All keen runners love just dashing out of the door and letting rip. It is the thing in my life that takes me back to being a child – that carefree moment where everything in the world is great. With ultramarathon, you are on your feet for so long that you just can’t do that, you have to set yourself reasonable targets and stick to them.
Also, technique is very important. You are taking so many steps that even the smallest of technique issues will become a serious issue after a time.
6. What goes through your mind when you are running? Are you focused or do you just let your mind wander?
It really depends on how quickly or how far I am running. It varies of course. Sometimes I think about the day or life in general, sometimes I get caught up in the sounds of the environment, sometimes I love the music I am listening to and sometimes I completely zone-out and I only snap back into a few kms later. All feelings are good and you can embrace them all. I am just happy to be able to go out running.
7. Do you listen to your body when you feel pain or do you believe in pushing beyond it?
I regularly have little aches and pains of course, but I generally think that are ok to run through - they always seem to go away within a couple of kms of starting anyway. I have really only had one injury (Achilles tendonitis) that I “listened’ to and rested, but not before running 29 of 31 half marathons in 31 days (for charity) on the injury If I am ill, I do rest however. There is no point pushing when you are ill. My thought is that it is better to have two days off, than push and have to take a whole week off – I have learned this the hard way.
8. Who inspires you? do you have any mentors?
Wow, so many people inspire me. Life inspires me. So many people fight through so much that it is hard not to be inspired to try your best every day.
If I hear a good running story (particularly a first marathon story), that inspires me. People are fascinating and hearing their stories is fascinating. I am in a fortunate position that I am healthy enough to go out running and do other things in life, so if I am not inspired by others to do that, then I feel I would be wasting my life.
9. What is a typical week like when you are training for a race? What do you find most challenging about training?
I am currently training for a number of ultramarathons (which also involves running in plenty of marathons too) so I generally run about 6 times a week (I take Friday off) and cover about 100 – 140kms a week, so without a doubt the biggest challenge is the sacrifice you have to make to your social life. It takes a lot to complete an ultra or ironman so this obviously means that other things suffer. I wouldn’t do it however if I didn’t really love doing it – I don’t want to do it just for the goal and I don’t ever want to take it too seriously.
10. What is your favourite race story?
My absolute favourite running experiences are where I pace a friend or group of friends to their first marathon or PB in a marathon. I trained a group of friends and “friends of friends” in 2009 from non-runners to running a full marathon. Their original goal was to run a half marathon, but they did so well that I persuaded them that if they ever wanted to run a marathon, now was the time to do. Three extra months of training and they all crossed the line together in under 4 hours – to cross the line with them that day and see the look on their faces in recognition of what they had achieved in 9 months was undoubtedly my favourite running moment. I get inspired every time I think about that.
11. Do you recommend any books, products or websites that helped you along the way?
Only one answer to this "Born to Run". Whenever I am tired or not enjoying the running as much as usual, I listen to the audiobook version of it – it inspires me every time.
12. Talk a little about your personal life. What do you think your readers would be most surprised to know about you?
I would say that most people would think in order to run over 100km or complete an ironman, you would have to be a “fitness freak” or really, really dedicated. I guess to a certain extent that is correct, but I definitely don’t take them or things in life too seriously. I like to try to do my best, but I know that there are more important things in life than work or running. As such, I try to get as much enjoyment out of them without getting too emotionally invested.
13. What advice would you give to someone who wants to start running long distance?
I guess in general my single piece of advice for anyone starting running would be to find the fun in it. Do it for 4 weeks, even if you are not enjoying it, and if at the end of the 4 weeks you still aren’t enjoying it, then look for something else. Above all else, it should be fun.
My single piece of advice for a runner that is now looking to run long distances is that you can do it. The battle is mostly mental when you get into the long distances, so believe in yourself and you will achieve incredible things. Another piece of advice is “slow down”.
14. By the way, how do you avoid injuries with so much running?
This is definitely an important one. I have to admit that I never used to read any of the books etc when training. I didn’t even read much when training for the ironman and that was despite not being able to swim before taking on the challenge, however when I started thinking about ultra, I thought that it would be worth reading up on technique. As a result, I completely changed my running style and focus purely on running style for one session a week. Making sure that I run economically and correctly seems to have worked wonders and I haven’t had an injury in over a year. So, technique, technique, technique
15. Does your family/friends crew for you during races? How important is it for you?
It depends. During the marathons, it is not really required but during the long races (ironman or ultra) it is needed for a couple of reasons. Firstly, obviously to provide you with nutrition etc. is very important, but secondly, and far more importantly, the moral support they provide is invaluable. As mentioned, when you get into the long distances, the battle is mostly mental so know they are there cheering you on really inspires you to keep going. It is very, very important
16. How has running changed your life?
My life in unrecognisable compared to a few years ago. Mentally, I feel a lot calmer, more centred and like nothing can phase me and physically I always feel like I can take on anything. I put this all down to running, the people I have met through running and the things I have achieved with it. I never really used to take inspiration from things, but now I seem to find it everywhere – I can’t think of the last day where I didn’t speak to someone and think “wow, that’s amazing, you are inspiring me to try harder”.
Also, I now always want to improve and try other things. Things that I would never normally have been interested in (art, music) have become something that I want to try in order to become more rounded. I know it sounds strange, but I genuinely put that down to running.
17. What is your message to someone who's about to embark on his dream?
It’s a cliché answer, but without a doubt that it is about the journey and not just the destination. Of course, I loved finishing the ironman and ultramarathons, but the real fun has been in the training with friends. Being inspired by others and being an inspiration for others is the best feeling in the world and the journey will take you there.
18. What's next for you? What will be your most challenging competitions for the coming year?
So far this year, I have run in the Hobart Marathon (January) and the Tokyo Marathon (February), both of which were PB’s (down to 3:03, which has qualified me to run in the 2013 Boston marathon) and I would love to crack the 3 hour mark this year. I am signed up for 7 more race marathons this year so I have a few opportunities. Truth be told however, this year my focus is really on distance, rather than speed.
I am signed up for 3 ultramarathons as well. The first is the world famous Comrades Ultramarathon in South Africa; 18,000 equally crazy people from around the world running 89km from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. The second is probably even crazier which 100km around the Botanical Gardens (25 laps) in Melbourne, which I am using as a second qualifying race for the final ultra of the year, which is the 246km Coast to Mount Kosciuszko Ultra in December – that will be the biggest challenge of my sporting life as even the winner last year took 27 hours. I am not sure how I will handle the exhaustion and sleep deprivation, but it will good to find out.