The inspiring ascension of Matt Daniels
A hula hoop race didn’t appeal to Matt Daniels. Neither did any of the team races at second grade track and field day. So, based on his teacher’s recommendation, Daniels signed up for the long distance race.
“I won the race and continued to win that race every year during field day until I was finished with elementary school,” he says, noting it was two laps around the school field, likely under a half-mile total. “I think we are always drawn to things we are good at. For me, I decided I wanted to try and become great.”
In 2000, Daniels signed up for summer track in his hometown of Arlington, Texas. He didn’t know it at the time but that would lead him to a running journey that took him through high school, college and well beyond. “That's when I really fell in love with the sport of running. I made it my life and haven't looked back.”
After being competitive at the state level in track and cross country, Daniels joined the Navy. After serving for three years, Daniels enrolled at Adams State University, a strong Division II running program. At Adams State, he ran a sub four-minute mile, led his team to two national cross-country titles and earned 12 all-American honors.
When he graduated from college, his running journey would continue.
For the love of the trails
Daniels signed with Hudson Elite, moved to Boulder, Colo., and qualified for the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials with a 1:03:43 half marathon. While he didn’t achieve the result he wanted at the trials, he soon discovered the lure of trail running.
He continued to train with Hudson Elite in the spring of 2016 when Hayden Hawks visited the team during his last semester of college.
“I can remember us going on a run together and discussing our love for being out on the trails,” Daniels says. “After that conversation I found myself doing all of my easy runs up in the mountains and having no desire to be out on the roads, so I decided I'd have fun with my summer schedule and sign up for a trail race.”
Things were going well for Daniels. He was loving the trails and looking forward to his first trail race, the Golden Gate Dirty 30 12-miler in June. At the same time, he was preparing for his August wedding to the woman he had been dating since 2011.
But on the eve of the Dirty 30, they broke up.
“I had nowhere to go and a race to run early the next morning,” Daniels recalls. “Luckily my good friend, now Nike trail teammate and amazing mountain ultra runner Addie Bracey lent me her spare bedroom to get some sleep so I could get up early and still attempt to run my first trail race.”
It worked. Daniels not only won the race, he broke the course record.
“I had so much fun and success that I knew I wanted to do another right away,” he says. “That’s when Hayden and I decided we would enter the U.S. mountain championships. I was living with Andy Wacker at the time (multiple U.S mountain team member) and his enthusiasm for the sport sparked more interest from me.”
Daniels, Hawks and Wacker all made the world team that year.
“From then on my heart was into the trails and mountains,” Daniels says. “While running track I was someone who wanted to have a lot of range in distance. I wanted to be able to compete in the 800-meter and also wanted to run a fast marathon. The trails have been no different. I want to be able to compete with the best in the world at the shorter trail races and eventually in the 100-milers as well!”
While Daniels focused on his passion for mountain running, the training allowed him to cast aside any feelings of negativity related to the breakup. At least temporarily.
“It allowed for me to dive into this new sport of mountain running that summer and almost kind of forget about or not dwell on the fact that my fiancée, at the time, and I had split up,” he says. “I think because I was so laser-focused on running and making the world team I ignored any feelings of depression or relationship failure I had deep down.”
But after the world championships concluded, Daniels hit a rough patch. He raced infrequently between July 2016 and October 2018.
“I hit a deep, dark hole,” he remembers. “While I had amazing friends here in Boulder at the time who were always there for support, I kept it in and tried not to show the state I was actually in. In early September I realized I needed to surround myself with family to help get me out of the funk I was in.”
Happy New Year indeed
Daniels moved back to Texas to be closer to family, and returned to Colorado to celebrate New Year’s with some friends. During that trip he met Lauren, his now wife.
“I knew right away I had to move back to be with her,” he says. "Things continue to be amazing since that day. Just going through the motions of life has been like an ultra race for me. There are many highs and plenty of lows, but what remains consistent is I have had an AMAZING crew and team in my corner. Whether they (Lauren, my family, coach David Roche and my friends) realize it or not it’s there support that has made life worth living for me.”
Matt and Lauren decided to move to Hawaii where he trained for mountain racing and ran in the world long distance mountain championships and a race in Switzerland called Sierre Zinal in the summer of 2017.
“Neither race went well for me, so I decided I wanted to give the ultra distance a try,” he says.
That September, he ran and won his first ultra, the Flagline 50K. Nike took notice and offered him a contract, starting Jan. 1, 2018. So he and Lauren moved back to Boulder. Injuries sidelined him through March and he returned to racing at Spain’s Zegama-Aizkorri in May. While technically a marathon, the loop course offers 9,000 feet of gain.
Spreading around positive vibes
Around the same time, Daniels reached out to David Roche to see if they could work together as coach and client.
“I really was having a difficult time enjoying the process so I reached out to him asking if he'd be interested in coaching me,” Daniels says. “His outlook on the sport is what really drew me in. I needed someone to help me not be so uptight and put so much pressure on myself and he was just the coach to do that!”
But Roche’s influence goes well beyond his positive outlook.
“To say David has helped me grow as a runner is an understatement,” Daniels says. “David has helped me grow as a human being, and I'm figuring out that unless you are happy with yourself and your life then your running isn't going to be much to begin with. David's philosophy of unconditional acceptance and support has done two things for me. One, It helped me not take myself so seriously and re-ignited a passion and love for the sport that I was quickly losing and two, it completely changed my outlook on life.”
The inspiration has even reached beyond Daniels. “Now that I can accept the fact that life isn't about going out and cutting throats or winning the rat race, I have been able to enjoy helping others and looking at everyone I race against or coach as being on my team,” he explains. “That mindset has taken my running and coaching to a new level.”
Right now, Daniels is preparing for Black Canyon in February. Roche’s influence has helped Daniels re-align his goals from past expectations.
“My goals for 2019 have changed drastically from what I would have stated in 2018,” Daniels says. “This year my biggest goal is to enjoy the process. Sure there are races that I would love to do well at but the goal for the year is to not put so much pressure on myself and make the most out of what I do decide to sign up for. I will be working on my 2019 schedule after Black Canyon. I wanted to wait and see how this race goes before planning out the future!”
Regardless of the outcome at Black Canyon, Daniels — and his athletes — have bright futures.
“I feel fortunate to be coaching so many great athletes outside of my own running,” he says. “I learn so much from getting to coach so many great people. It has given me purpose and enjoyment that is immeasurable.”
Name: Matt Daniels
Hometown: Arlington, Texas
Number of years running: 19
How many miles a week do you typically run: 60-120
Point of pride: Coaching so many amazing athletes
Favorite race distance: I have two — the mile and the 50K.
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Pizza and wine the night before. Unived prerun mix drink and a toasted bagel with butter right before.
Favorite piece of gear: Nike Zoom Wildhorse
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Don't listen to music when I run but outside of running I listen to everything. Blue River Waltz being my favorite tune.
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: The uncertainty keeps me striving for excellence.
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Website: www.mattdanielsrunclub.com
• Instagram: @mattdaniels480
• Twitter: @mattdaniels480
• Email: firstname.lastname@example.org