After 46 marathons and 45 ultras, Kevin Matthews is feeling fresher than ever. Fuelled by a rejuvenated love for running, the Aussie better known as "Big Kev" shares his personal journey from a once time-obsessed road runner to a new-found trail run advocate hungry for the next adventure.
Back in my early days of running, trail running was seen as something you did when you decided your running career had peaked and your best was behind you. Nothing mattered more than time and speed, and the most obvious terrain to achieve that was on the road.
Slaves to our GPS watches, we were cocooned in a world of hours, minutes and seconds. Never did we consider the idea of just enjoying the journey rather than concentrating on the destination and the time it takes to get there because nothing matters more than a PB. We’d pay a king’s ransom for anything that even hinted at some sort of performance benefit and were continually looking to finish doing what we love as quickly as possible, because, you know, PBs.
Yes, I once one of these animals where the only thing that mattered was your finishing time. But that all seems like a lifetime ago now.
My road career was derailed by a combination of three things, first a 5cm calf tear in, then a bad case of plantar fasciitis, and finally old age. Throw in pandemic and by 2020 I was lost. My days of running for speed were behind me and being a competitive animal I needed a new challenge, I still needed to compete.
I found salvation in 2020 with three ultra marathons and some great trail events that, for the first time, made me see it was ok to stop and smell the roses while enjoying the journey. Hell, when you run trails you can smell the roses, take a selfie with the roses and even google the Latin name of the roses. Time is not your enemy. You find yourself smiling as you enjoy the serenity of just being alive on the trails doing what you love. You also find competitors suddenly become friends, and good ones, travelling together enjoying the same sense of freedom that running trails gives you.
There is something primaeval about being in nature, powered by the human body and doing what we were meant to do, albeit without the hunting part of course. This was a new world to me, and I have to admit it felt good. It was the rejuvenation I’d been looking for and no longer was I lost. If anything, I felt more at home than ever.
"Hell, when you run trails you can smell the roses, take a selfie with the roses and even google the Latin name of the roses. Time is not your enemy."
Looking back over the last couple of years, I've found that, more often than not, any images of me running trails usually show a grin a mile wide. Trail runners smile a lot more and even if you think a road runner is smiling it's normally a grimace or they're about to lose control of their bodily functions because they've pushed themselves too hard. Don't get me wrong, trail runners can push themselves but it's a different kind of effort. You cannot help smiling on a good trail even if you're in top gear and tucked up in the pain cave, it's just not possible.
I’ve also come to learn that the only thing better than a short trail run is a long trail run. Beginners won’t believe me but it’s only a matter of time before they discover that when it comes to trails, the longer the better. Over the years I've podiumed in races ranging from 4km to 200 miles and my all-time favourite distance is by far the 200 miler. They all have their pros and cons, but a trail ultra becomes more than a race, it becomes an adventure and that is the magical ingredient you just don't get on the road.
The adventure continues when the sun goes down, or before it even comes up. On comes the headlight and the whole world is condensed to this small beam of light that extends out ahead of you. The sounds and smells of the trail are magnified and never is it more clear that you are alone in nature - lost in time, lost in your own thoughts, and experiencing the moment to its fullest.
As a trail runner, you also begin to crave more and more difficult challenges. Gone are the days when only flat courses are considered as you strive to take a few seconds of that PB. Now, the more elevation the better and distances soon become bigger and bigger as you try to test yourself more and more. I've forgotten how it felt to think a marathon was a big deal, distance-wise, and now it becomes the distance between drink stations while navigating endless miles of forests, rocks, rivers and whatever other unexpected obstacle comes my way. It's all relative, I suppose, but impressing work colleagues around the drink fountain has become more and more difficult as I keep raising the bar. They've become numb to the extra-ordinary.
"[Running a trail ultra] becomes an adventure and that is the magical ingredient you just don't get on the road."
From a competition point of view, trail running has also allowed me to once again compete at the pointy end of the race. It seems that in trail running age is far less of a factor than it is in road running. Add in more and more distance and all of a sudden running becomes more mental than physical and luckily I am very mental, according to my few non-trail running friends and my current wife. Last year I managed to win three events, a feat I thought was beyond me after my last road race victory four years previous.
The stark contrast between the two kinds of running probably became most clear to me the time I suffered my way through the Melbourne Marathon and the Feral Pig 100 miler just a month apart from each other. Although it was probably a bad idea from the start, it would be inaccurate to describe the on-road Melbourne Marathon as any form of fun as I stumbled home a long way from my expected finish. There was no smiling, no happiness and certainly no high fives, albeit I was injured and running on anti-inflammatories. Four weeks later I ran the Feral Pig 100 miler. Being heavily under trained it could be argued that this was equally as bad of an idea, but I just wanted to finish and ran with poles from the start. The Feral Pig is a midnight start after a two hour bus ride and it is brutal. Undeterred I got my head down and just had fun with good friends on the trail, recording a five hour personal worst but having the absolute best of times while doing it. Thing is, in the sport of trail running, an extra five hours on the trail is actually a positive, it's five hours extra doing what you love.
But it’s not just about trails. Trail running is also about meeting and making good friends - becoming part of a community where your running talent isn't as important as who you are as a person. Whether you finish first or last, it feels that within the trail run community you are treated equally and everybody is working together to get all runners to the finish line. The best trail runner in the world is the one having the most fun, not the one breaking the finishing tape. The love you feel from the trail running community is unique and not like any community I’ve experienced before. Filled with positivity, it’s a community bound by like-minded people doing what they love to do surrounded by nature at its best.
"The best trail runner in the world is the one having the most fun, not the one breaking the finishing tape."
Only a trail runner knows the feeling of that early morning sunrise or racing the sunset bathed in glorious light surrounded by beauty, alone or in the company of good friends. This feeling is something you just can't replicate while surrounded by a concrete jungle and being targeted by silent electric scooters or loud middle aged men in lycra. On the trail you feel alive, on the road you have to concentrate to stay alive, avoiding all the man made traps designed to bring on tears, sprains or breaks. Don't get me wrong, the trail can be just as unforgiving but you concentrate on what you do, skipping from one foot to the other while making forward progress. The environment is more controllable and you can relax and experience the pure joy of running.
Above all, trail running has given me back my running mojo. It feels like a second wind in my running journey and it has allowed me to continue to compete while at the same time taking in my surroundings and once in a while just stopping, looking around and breathing it all in. The future is bright and I'll be there watching many more sunrises, or chasing many more sunsets, smiling like a Cheshire Cat while skipping along glorious trails, and why wouldn't you?
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