Running Down a Dream – The New York Times

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Dear Readers,

In 2017, Matt Fitzgerald lived his dream: He and his wife, Nataki, along with their dog, Queenie, relocated to Flagstaff, Ariz., for 13 weeks so that he could live and train like a professional runner with the pro team Northern Arizona Elite, known as NAZ Elite.

While Fitzgerald, a writer and running coach, is faster than most of us — his goal was to break 2 hours, 40 minutes in the marathon — he was still slower than his new teammates. At 46, he was older, too — 12 years older than the next youngest member of the team at the time.

I talked to him about it this week. Following is an edited version of our interview.

Credit…via Matt Fitzgerald

How did you land on 2 hours, 40 minutes as a marathon goal?

My personal record was 2 hours, 41 minutes, 29 seconds, and I’d run that nine years before my summer in Flagstaff. But I’ve had 2 hours, 40 minutes as a goal in the back of my mind from at least the early 2000s

Other than being coached by Rosario, what else did you do that pros get to do but amateurs usually don’t?

I was living at 7,000 feet of altitude every waking and sleeping moment, so I was literally in a different atmosphere. Other than that, it started with living with a member of the team, Matt Llano, who has since left the group.

I made dietary changes that were really targeted to emulate Llano’s diet, which is immaculate and emblematic of the way the pros tend to eat. It’s very well-rounded, very inclusive and very unprocessed — lots of smoothies, bowls, and one-pots with a dozen or more ingredients representing every category of food.

I saw a sports psychologist, and I was in physical therapy because I was constantly on the verge of breaking down. I was sometimes there five days a week. I also saw a team-affiliated massage therapist. I did about a half-hour of corrective exercise every day, the kind of stuff physical therapists give you to take home and do on your own.

The very last thing I added was napping. Unlike my teammates, I had to earn my income in other ways. I had to do the runs and the strength training and physical therapy and all that, but I also had to write and coach. I resisted the naps until the choice was taken out of my hands by the training load.

We’re in the same boat in that running is not officially our job but it is also a big part of our jobs. What did it feel like for you to do your best to make running your full-time profession?

This was my idea of a perfect summer. I love running and I’ve always wanted to just see what it would be like to be able to simplify life around it — not forever, but for a period of time, what it would be like to really monastically center my life on running like the pros do.

It was one dream summer for me, but I guess it would be a nightmare for someone else.

Running is seen as a very individual sport, but what comes across in the book is that the NAZ Elite team is really a team. They have meetings and group strength-training workouts and often run together, even if they’re not getting ready for the same race — or even if they are and will be competing against each other.

I knew I was going to be an outlier. I was slower and I was older, but I started to feel part of the team immediately. Very early in my first group run, team member Stephanie Bruce intentionally hung back, running slower than she really wanted to, to really make me feel welcome.

As I built my relationship with the team, people started to take me under their wing. When I hurt my groin midway through the 13 weeks, team member Scott Fauble talked me off a ledge. He’d been there. He knew what I was going through. He cared and he offered advice. Stephanie Bruce called me to check in and give me a lifeline of hope. I benefited substantially from the fact that it really is a true team, just like a basketball or hockey team is.

What are your next running plans?

I got sick right around the time Covid hit. I’m almost certain I had it. I was not able to get tested, but the symptoms lined up. I was in Atlanta on Feb. 29 to watch the Olympic Marathon Trials, and then I ran the Atlanta Marathon the next day. I ran really well, was super fit, and then I was so sick I could barely move. Whatever it was, I’ve never been so sick for so long. I was out for a month.

Just for the heck of it I committed to a virtual marathon, which I’m running Sunday. I only had five and a half weeks from when I felt better to crash train for a marathon, so it’s kind of an experiment just to see how far I can come in that short period of time.

If you want to see how Fitzgerald does tomorrow in his virtual marathon, check out his Twitter feed. He’s @mattfitwriter.

Where I live, the temperatures feel like summertime all of a sudden. If you are in the market for a water bottle or hydration system, check out these reviews from Wirecutter, a product reviewing company owned by The New York Times.

And in today’s installment of Running in Place, our new digital event series featuring runners in conversation with Talya Minsberg, a sports editor for The Times, the guest is the comedian Michelle Wolf. It’s at 1 p.m. Eastern on Saturday, May 16. You can R.S.V.P. here.

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