Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 22 - Matt Fitzgerald - LIFE IS A MARATHON - Part 2 of 3

Well, I think I remember you saying in another interview that you've failed most of your running career and then started to find a modicum of success.

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JESSE: Well, I think I remember you saying in another interview that you've failed most of your running career and then started to find a modicum of success. Do you feel like that-- I don't know how you define failure, but do you feel like that series of not necessarily meeting your own expectations set you up to be like more ready to just continue no matter what?

MATT: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, I've had a few issues. I mean, one I'm very injury prone. I'm dealing with something right now. I'm actually supposed to run the same marathon my brother, Josh is supposed to run on September 21st. I'm going to run the damn thing, but it will not be 100% optimal preparation. So, there's that and that early on, a lot of my injuries were just, or at least some of them were my own fault, just stupid mistakes. But you know, I'm not an idiot. I stopped making the stupid mistakes and I would still get injured. So, a lot of the failure had to do with that, like not always making it to the start line, not always making it to the finish line once I started. But then my mental game had to evolve as well.

So, yeah, I don't know. I ran my fastest marathon at 46 having done my first marathon at 28. So, I mean, that was only possible because I had never reached my potential in my 30s. I lost some of my best years to injury. So, I think that's part of it, but part of it is just also, I have learned a lot. I mean, I have a ton of experience at this point. I did my second Iron Man this spring, having done my one previous Iron Man 17 years before. And I destroyed my time from when I was 31 at 48. So, that's why a lot of-- I've had a lot of unfinished business and I have been able in recent years to sort of clean that up, which has been super satisfying. I still look back on the whole arc of my career as a runner, thinking about what might have been.

JESSE: I think it's hard not to do that not for anybody.

MATT: Yeah. Yeah. But I mean, you have to be at peace with it too because so many people-- I remember. Recently, Bernard the got, say he's like, embarrassed by about his mile PR, I think his PR mile. I mean, you think about all that dude has achieved, you know what, he wasn't-- He had a point, it's really not even that good. I think it's like 347. He just didn't run the mile that often. I think he ran 327 for 1,500 meters. Well, not many people in history have ever done that. But he just only had so many chances. When he looks back at, you know, you can't be a competitor and not have that. If you have a high bar it's a high bar and you're just going to beat yourself up about having run only at 347 mile.

JESSE: Right. There's something that's still nagging at you like no, I like 5000, 10,000 really great those but no, I should have spent more time on them. Yeah, you can't do it all. But yeah, when you have that competitive mindset, there's definitely going to be something where you feel like I didn't leave 100% out there, or there's some little kernel of extra speed I could have gotten somewhere on that course. Yeah. So, it kind of reminds me of like, I really like I haven't yet picked up 8020 running, but I can kind of get the idea because the - principal shows up everywhere. But you had mentioned in another interview having fun, basically 80% of the time and then really needing to suffer 20% of the time to kind of maximize your potential as an athlete. Does that same ratio show up in terms of that mental preparation that you need?

MATT: Yeah. The physical and the mental are two different 80/20s I would say. Because, at least speaking for myself, and I think a lot of athletes, in the same way, the workouts I most enjoy are the hardest ones. So, I love a good easy long bike ride or run. But you know, the ones like I just I circled the calendar, and just can't wait are the ones where I'm just going to turn myself inside out and I don't know what-- it's not masochism, it's just like, it's fun to go fast.

And it is fun to not suffer, but to master suffering to just put yourself in the fire and not blink. To me, it's interesting, it's engaging, and I feel at home there, after having-- I've built a home there. So, yeah, I mean, that's the thing. So, it can become tempting. Well, would I want to do that every day like a CrossFit type of thing, 100% every workout? No, no way. Part of that is the hard workouts are enjoyable is that you only get to do so many of them.

So, yeah, you gotta go easy 80% of the time, but that's not necessarily the fun part. For me, most of the fun is in the 20%.

JESSE: Yeah, that reminds me of-- I don't know who wrote this article, but it wouldn't surprise me if it ended up being you. I had this article saved for a long time, and the title basically captures the whole thing it says, “Your hard days are too easy and your easy days are too hard.” Everybody started-- people go to this like medium speed instead of really like making this dichotomy where, okay, you're taking it easy because it's recover. And then here's that special day we're like, it's time to like really suffer and get to that next fitness level.

MATT: Yeah. A lot of people when they have sort of a shallow exposure to my 80/20 concept, which is really Stephen Schuyler's 80/20 concept, they think, okay, he's saying we got to slow down that our easy days are too hard. But people who get stuck in that moderate intensity rut, which is really mainly a function of just thinking the mentality, every time I get out the door it's got to count and people can't understand how it could possibly count if it's really easy and comfortable.

But the trouble is like when you get into that rut and everything you do, nothing you do is truly easy, then you're never actually really going all that hard too. It's folks like us who really go easy on our easy days, who bust our butts on the select days when we're tended to at a level, the modern intensity folks never touch. So, yeah, it's sort of they're missing out on both sides.

JESSE: I wonder too, it comes up a lot with all the people I talked to where it's like fun is the central theme. And whether I talked to pro athletes, I've talked to high level amateur athletes, and it's like, enjoyment during the suffering is what makes them do it. So, I kind of wonder if maybe part of the equation for the kind of moderate intensity folks is a lack of enjoying the higher end suffering and it's like they get to say, I'll go one to 100, they get to 50. And that's kind of their threshold of like, I don't really want to go any harder than that. I feel like I'm working hard so obviously, I'm putting some work in. But then I don't want to go to 90 because that's way too hard. So, I don't know, it's just complete conjecture on my part, but I kind of wonder if maybe that's part of the case for people that know better, I guess I'll say, not amateurs that just don't know what they're doing.

MATT: Yeah, well, as a coach that that is my experience is that actually, I just got through reading a David Goggins book, Can't Hurt Me. And he makes exactly the same point in there, which is basically, every endurance athlete is seeking a challenge, but they're only seeking challenge to a point. And credit to anyone who chooses to sign up for a marathon or a triathlon because you're doing better than most people, you know. But within that self-selected population of people who enjoy a challenge, there's a sub-population of people who are really interested in finding their limit just racing, truly leaving it all out on the racecourse and preparing in a way that allows that to be possible.

JESSE: Yeah, and I think you mentioned this again another interview since that's where I did most of my research on you is mentioned basically, training yourself over time to be able to get to the point that you can leave it all out on the racecourse. And I think for me, personally, I can count the number of-- Like I said, I've raced-- this is year 19. I can probably count on one hand the number of races where I truly really feel entirely satisfied that I could not have physically pushed my body any harder. And getting to that peak is, at least for me incredibly difficult.

The one that comes to my mind the most often was the first time I went under 16 for 5K, and that I previously I don't think I'm like 1630 or so, so it was a big jump. And the last thousand meters of the race, my entire body was on fire. And in for those not doing the quick math a 1,000 meters at that pace lasts about three, three and a half minutes. So, you've got three and a half minutes of just complete agony. Try to will yourself forward and in and that's not even my fastest 5K but it is the most-- it's the race I'm most proud of probably because I don't know that I've achieved that level of suffering and intensity in any other setting.

MATT: Right. Yeah. I mean, there are some people who just, they do it from the very first race they ever do. They just flip a switch and they leave it, they leave it all out there. They're just animals. Scott Favell, one of the members of the pro team in Flagstaff that I trained with two years ago is just one of those guys where there's just-- Well, if he were sitting here, he would say, well, I've cultivated it but still, there's just something in him. For the rest of us, we got to bootstrap our way there, but that is like the measuring stick. Yeah, there's performance, but that's why you know, some champion athletes, they take no pleasure in winning easy because that's-- When it comes down to it actually, it's not about winning.

They want to win, but they want to win and know that they found their absolute limit. And a lot of them, Dave Scott's a great example, he won Iron Man six times. And if you ask him like what is your absolute favorite the race you're most proud of? He'll say it's when I got well, second to Mark Allen in 89 because it was just the greatest race ever run and it was his fastest Iron Man in Hawaii, ever. And then when he got second again at 40, when he came back, it's like dude, he was the world champion six times and he's legend and his two favorite races he got second because those are the ones where he felt like he truly found his limit.

JESSE: Yeah. Well, I think it's that matter of even if you're going to win, like to me, you only want to win by a slim margin. Because you feel like was there something more out there? Was I really tested both by myself, by my own mind, and by my competitors? So, I feel like there's more and I've only recently won my first race ever. And I was satisfied with it because I had to claw back several minutes on the run. It was a triathlon. I was several minutes down on the bike and caught this gentleman on the run, and then put time into him.

But anyway, it would not have been satisfying it had been you know, I was out of the water first, he put time on me in the bike. If I had just been wire to wire been like, find [??? 13:27] faster guys out there and like, it wasn't satisfying. So, I think it's a matter of, at least for me, a test of both my personal aptitude and then knowing that somebody else wants it just as bad as I do and that I came out triumphant in that particular battle.

MATT: Yes. That's why when I was a lot younger, I used to wonder because really, I thought that all I really cared about was getting faster. And I used to wonder well when I reach a certain age and I'm not getting faster anymore is like the rug gonna get pulled out from under me. So, I'm going to have no reason to want to continue doing this. And that was just naivety and immaturity. When I actually got older, and sort of had to come to terms with the peak and the downward slope, I realized well there's a few things that keep me in it, but part of it is that you can still keep improving the mental game. It's like your ultimate limit is like this asymptote. You can get closer and closer to it. Do you ever absolutely reach it and know it?

JESSE: It's always diversity to infinity.

MATT: Yeah, to me, that's why I feel like I can just keep getting better. My body is not going to get stronger at this point but I can keep getting better at that aspect of it. And just things like the challenge I'm facing right now, I got pretty darn fit for this marathon in September then I had a setback. And now I'm actually just really enjoying the challenge of scrambling it. I love that term from golf, you hit an errant tee shot, the plan goes out the window because the ball ends up in a - that you never practice for. So, right, you have to fall back on a lot of stuff. You got to keep a level head, you've got to just fall back on the experience you've acquired over time and some people are really good scrambler, you know. And that's what I'm doing as a runner right now.

And I was telling a guy I coach recently, just start asking me how it's going. And I said my goal at this point is to imagine there are 100 different people in exactly the same situation I'm in. I want to manage this thing better than the other 99, that will be winning for me. I know I'm not going to run the time in the marathon that I would have if I hadn't had the set back. Whatever that time ends up being, I'll be satisfied or dissatisfied to one degree or another. But the ultimate satisfaction will be knowing, oh, yeah, I could not have managed these last several weeks since I had to set back any better. And it's fun, I'm enjoying it.

JESSE: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I mean, that's part of the game, right, is just like, like we talked about earlier dealing with it as it comes, whatever it is.

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