By Scott Bush
After a fifth place performance at the USA Half Marathon Championships in January, where he ran a big personal best of 1:01:47, Matt Llano seems poised for one heck of a 2014 racing season. After seventh place finishes at the USA 20 km Championships and .US National Road Racing Championships last fall, the former University of Richmond All-American has high hopes for this year.
In addition to Llano’s road racing success, he also had a personal victory late last year, deciding to come out and announce he is gay. Wanting his friends to know “the complete me,” Llano put it out there for the world to read.
We caught up with the Northern Arizona Elite athlete recently, talking about his decision to come out, his terrific start to the 2014 season, what lies ahead and much, much more.
Scott Bush (SB): You had a monster performance at the USA Half Marathon Championships last month in Houston. Looking back, how big of a confidence boost do you now feel towards the rest of your season?
Matt Llano (ML): The USA Half Marathon was somewhat of a breakthrough race for me, so it has definitely given my confidence a significant boost. I’ve been just outside of the bubble, so to speak, for a while now, and I think that my new training group provided me with just the right ingredients to make the jump to the next level. I started working with my coach, Ben Rosario, in July and have been making consistent progress ever since, and that was elevated to even another level after we re-branded from Team RunFan to become Northern Arizona Elite, adding five new athletes in January.
As for the race itself, I exceeded my expectations and goals. Going into it, my main goal was to qualify for the World Half Marathon Championships. Our thinking was that if I placed top 5, I should have a pretty good chance at making the team. In order to do that, we thought 62:30 would place high enough, and based on my workouts, that’s about where we thought I could be. Once the race got underway, I knew it was going to be a fast day and trusted my instincts to go with the group. I’m glad I did!
Moving forward, my performance in Houston changed some of our plans a bit and in response, I’ve re-evaluated my goals and I’ll be shooting for a few things I once thought wouldn’t be possible for me. It’s amazing how one race can change your perspective so drastically.
SB: What type of work were you putting in and what do you think pushed you to such a sizable PR?
ML: We actually put our running training up on our website at nazelite.com. To look at my specific workouts, check out http://www.nazelite.com/training-log-matt/. There’s also a cool video compilation of all of my workouts leading up to the half and when exactly I did them on our team’s website.
We typically do our workouts on a 9 day cycle. Since we’re training at 7,000 ft elevation, we need to allow extra time for recovery between workouts in comparison to what we would be doing if we trained at sea level. The actual workouts themselves vary a lot but in general have consisted of more high quality volume than what I was doing before.
In addition to the running, I also incorporate strength training and core a few times per week, swim, aqua-run, ride my ElliptiGO, and have an arsenal of exercises I do for injury prevention (pre-hab, if you will).
It’s tough to attribute my big PR to any one factor, because I think a lot went into it. Consistency in training, positive training environment, an enthusiastic coach and motivated teammates, happiness in my personal life, visualization…I think all of those contributed, along with a number of other things. It’s like everyone says…”There is no secret.” I’ve been training really hard for a long time, and it is finally starting to pay off.
SB: Your performance was pretty impressive; so much so that I would imagine you’d receive an invite to be on Team USA at the World Half Marathon Championships. Have you received your invite to Denmark yet?
ML: I’ve been anxiously waiting for my invitation, but I was told by a USATF executive that they are able to consider any performances run up until March 1st, and as such will be making the final decisions that week.
That said, we are very confident that I will be on the team and going to Denmark, and have been training with everything pointing towards that race.
SB: Late last year, you announced on your blog that you are gay. What was the reasoning behind the announcement and what was the reaction from the running community?
ML: There were a number of reasons I decided to come out. First and foremost, I felt I owed it to myself to be happy in my personal life. Like I said in my blog, it was something that had been weighing on me for years. I suffered in a lot of ways because of trying to quell this integral component of my being – mental anguish like you wouldn’t believe. I reached a point where I didn’t want to feel ashamed anymore, and I didn’t want to compromise on my ability to love and be loved. When it comes down to it, I was ready to live openly and honestly and wanted people to “know the complete me,” as Lauren Fleshman kindly put it in a supportive tweet in response to my post.
It was really conflicting, though. On one hand, I wanted to tell people and take down the protective wall I’d built around myself, but on the other hand, I didn’t feel that I should have to tell people. For the most part it was just something I didn’t talk about. My feeling was that you don’t walk around telling people what color your eyes are, so why was this any different? It is different, though, and letting people know “the complete me” has allowed my friendships to become so much more meaningful, and I’m much happier as a result.
On a related note, I’m a strong believer that you have to be happy in your personal life to be successful in running. I began to wonder if my refusal to accept and be confident and happy with myself may have been holding me back in running. I was pondering goals for 2014 and what I would do to work towards achieving them, and relieving that burden lingered incessantly in my mind. Once I made the decision to come out, it was the quintessential example of “knowing when the time is right” to do something, and I felt the difference immediately. I can assure you that the metaphorical weight on one’s shoulders is real and was lifted as soon as I hit “Publish Post.”
Additionally, I saw athletes in other sports coming out and noticed that was something that the running community lacked. We are extremely fortunate to have Nick Symmonds, for example, who has been very vocal in fighting for LGBT equality, but he doesn’t have the personal experiences that many struggling gay athletes have. I do, and people can relate to that. In my mind, it only takes a glimmer of light to illuminate a room in darkness. One person can make a difference. That post received over 10,000 views on my site alone in just a few days, and it was also posted on my team’s blog (I’m unaware of how many hits it had on there). People still contact me every week to confide in me and ask me for advice. I encourage it. I didn’t have anyone like that to talk to for a long time, and really wish I did. If I can be that person for any number of people, I’ll be making a difference and using my successes for something greater than myself.
Truth be told, the responses were overwhelmingly positive and moved me to tears. I probably shed enough tears of joy in December to relieve Flagstaff of our winter drought. People of all different stages of my life were reaching out, along with other professional runners, gay athletes, parents with gay children, race directors, people who’d never run a step in their lives but were led to my blog in one way or another, and so many more…it really blew me away.
SB: Last year, NBA veteran Jason Collins came out and then very recently NFL hopeful Michael Sam came out and announced he was gay. What thoughts do you have around what seems to be a trend to where athletes are feeling more comfortable talking about who they are?
ML: For me personally, I thought people would hate me if I acknowledged openly that I was gay. To my surprise, I found that as I told more and more people, the responses I was getting were so supportive. As a general population, we aren’t as closed-minded as we used to be. I started to realize that people who know me on a personal level aren’t as hateful as the stigma led me to believe. It has really helped to restore my belief that people are inherently good-natured.
I imagine and hope that may have something to do with others’ decisions to come out, but like with anything else, everyone has their own personal motivations behind the things they do, and I can’t really speak for anyone besides myself.
I think it’s also probably a result of the shift in people’s views on being gay and the changing political climate in the U.S. right now. As just one example, 33 states in the U.S. currently prohibit same-sex marriage, but 17 states plus Washington, D.C. now authorize it. We’ve come a long way in securing equal rights for people regardless of their sexual orientation in the last few years, and the movement continues to build steam. That’s significant.
SB: You’re part of the new training group Northern Arizona Elite. What’s the team dynamic like?
ML: Northern Arizona Elite was born from a re-branding in January of Team RunFan, which was formed in the second half of 2013. We were having success on a small scale with 4 athletes, only two of whom were racing at the time, and my coach decided at that point that he wanted to go all-in and assemble a training group that could rival any other group in the country. We added five new athletes and are well on our way to establishing that level of credibility.
The team dynamic is awesome. We all jive really well and help to elevate one another’s training by bringing our personal strengths and perspectives into each workout. When you put together such a talented group of highly motivated, hard working, and goal-oriented individuals, you’re bound to produce great results. We’ve seen that starting to come to fruition already in just a few weeks, and we are confident that we will continue to progress toward the highest level of our sport.
SB: What are your goals for 2014? You’ve been pretty darn successful on the roads the past two years, but any chance we’ll see you take a shot on the track or go long and run a marathon?
ML: My coach and I have played around with a few different race schedules for this year, but things are starting to become more finalized since the half in Houston. While I was originally considering stepping back onto the track this spring, that’s not where my heart is right now, so I’ll be sticking to the roads. As far as goals are concerned, I want to set another personal best in the half marathon to move up on the US all-time list and be in the top 10 at the World Half Marathon Championships. I also want to win some US road championship titles and will be chasing the American record at the US 25k in May. After that, there’s a good possibility that I’ll be stepping up to the marathon this fall, but I’ll save the marathon goals for another time.