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Waiting for the Big Run

Air Force 2nd Lt. Zachary Matthews ran in the 2019 Marine Corps Marathon to help qualify for the Boston Marathon.

By Vivian Mason

It’s said that running a marathon -- 26.2 miles -- “takes guts, carbohydrates, and a whole lot of training.” U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Zachary Matthews, a second-year medical student at the F. Edward Hébert School of Medicine, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU), agrees. 

An elite runner can tackle a marathon in about two hours or so. Last year’s Boston Marathon winner clocked a time of 2:07:57, but a world record time of 2:01:39 was set at the 2018 Berlin Marathon. And even more impressive, Kenyan long-distance runner Eliud Kipchoge entered a time of 1:59:40 in a non–world record-eligible event last year. Matthews has a personal best so far of 2:51:10.  According to Mara Stats, a site that collects and analyzes marathon and half-marathon statistics, only about 1% of the population has run a marathon in under three hours, and even running a sub four-hour marathon isn’t something most runners can do; the average completion time for a marathon is about 4 or 5 hours. 

Matthews qualified for the Boston Marathon earlier this year by running faster than the official qualifying time of 3:00:00, but due to the timing of the registration window, his qualification fell to the 2021 race. He was a little disappointed to have to wait more than a year to run in Boston. However, with competitive racing put on hold due to the pandemic, he considers himself lucky. “I really feel for everyone who gained entry to the 2020 Boston Marathon and then received word of the first cancellation in the race’s 123-year history. I hope the race organizers are somehow able to honor these runners’ qualifications,” says Matthews.

Completing a marathon training schedule, which often involves early morning or afternoon runs, is difficult enough. But throw in his academic schedule, clinically-based small work groups, upcoming exams, and the unpredictable Washington, D.C. weather, and running is at an entirely different level. 

“But it makes me happy,” says Matthews, “and it’s a quick getaway from the pressures and stress of med school.” In view of the current COVID situation, he makes a special effort to maintain proper physical distancing while running, especially when pausing at stoplights or passing by other people on the running trails. 

Two men running down the middle of a road.
USU medical student, Air Force 2nd Lt. Zachary Matthews
and friend, Josh Sutterfield, complete a morning run in
Washington, D.C. [Image credit: Courtesy of Zachary
Matthews]

“I ran track in high school, but I was a sprinter,” says Matthews. “I hated distance running.” However, after playing football for four years at Georgia Tech, he quickly found himself missing athletic competition. His best friend, an avid distance runner, suggested that he run a marathon with him in California. So, he signed up for the race, found a random training plan online, and began training for it. 

In his first marathon, he admits to not putting forth his best effort and the race reflecting it. “I felt tired the first 13 miles,” he says. “Miles 14 and 15 were just horrible. I really didn’t think I’d run another marathon again. But, afterward, I kept seeing my friend enjoy his running. I thought that there had to be something that I was missing in all of this. So, I decided to sign up for another marathon, but this time I set a time goal for myself. I really wanted to stick to a training plan to see what I could do.”

Matthews’ second marathon was held in the D.C. area, and he wanted to run under a time of 3:30:00. Throughout his training, he noticed that he was getting faster. “I started to enjoy seeing the progress I was making,” he explains. “I thought maybe what I was missing from running was seeing actual results.” Due to his commitment, training, and endurance, he completed that marathon in a remarkable time of 3:13:47. “For only my second race, I really surprised myself with my time. Then, I realized that the qualifying time for the Boston Marathon was just under three hours for my age group. I began to feel that I could actually do that.” 

To work on his time, he raced in the Marine Corps Marathon last October and admitted to having trained very hard going into that race so he could qualify for the Boston Marathon. He joined his USU classmate Liz Reynolds (who has a personal best marathon time of around 2:56:00) and her friends on some long group runs, which was when he really started to enjoy long distance running. 

The day of the Marine Corps Marathon was rainy and humid. 

“I don’t know what happened,” he says, upon reflection. “I had a horrible race and ended up running slower than any of my previous runs. I was discouraged because I felt that I’d let all that training I’d done go to waste. I knew I wasn’t going to hit the time that I wanted. My goal to qualify for the Boston Marathon didn’t happen that day.” He didn’t despair for long and talked himself into immediately signing up for another marathon. 

“I decided to do the Atlanta Marathon with my friend. I trained by running 60 to 70 miles per week. But, I thought that I might have come off the previous race too soon. My race was March 1 of this year, just before things with COVID started to worsen.” His finishing time was 2:51:10, which equaled an average per mile time of 6:32:00. He admitted that he always feels “horrible” during the last 10K (or 6.2 miles) of a marathon. However, by the time he reached mile 21, he didn’t feel quite so bad like he usually did. So, he picked up the pace and was able to make up some time that allowed him to qualify for the 2021 Boston Marathon in his age group and gender. 

Zachary Matthews running.
Air Force 2nd Lt. Zachary Matthews at mile 21 of the 2020
Atlanta Marathon. [Image credit: Courtesy of Zachary
Matthews]

But, for Matthews, that’s exactly what he likes about running. “I enjoy the progress and the process of it all,” he says. “Anyone can improve the harder you work at it. It’s encouraging.” Of course, he remembers being in a few races where he hardly had anything left and had to walk the last few miles. Nearly every runner has those memories.

And when asked how he keeps himself going when he’s hit the wall, he replies, “I think of all the work I’ve put into training to prepare for the race. It’s not only that day, it’s all the days of training. In the last marathon, what helped me was remembering those long training runs with friends. That’s what keeps me going when running gets so hard.”

He also has a favorite quote he uses during difficult times, one savored by many runners: “Run the mile you are in.” 

“When things start to get really difficult, I just think about finishing the mile that I’m running. Once I finish that one, I focus on the next and so on. I tell myself to finish the mile I’m in and then finish the race. I did the training, and I owe it to myself. Pain is inevitable, but it doesn’t last forever,” he says.

Once the pandemic is resolved, he can’t wait to pursue the Boston Marathon experience―the challenging course, his fellow runners, the amazing crowds, and the excitement. But, for right now, he’s just going to continue to train hard, stay motivated, and wait.