Matt Wisnioski considers himself a born-again runner.
Take a look at Matt’s 2019 race results — which include a blazing-fast Boston Marathon (2:43:36), a Top 10 finish at the Hokie Half (1:19:40) and runner-up at the Braveheart 5K (16:52) – and it’s surprising to learn that less than three years ago he struggled to run five laps around Pandapas Pond.
“It was excruciating,” said Matt, recalling the summer day he decided to return to running after 17 years.
After running cross country and track starting in middle school and continuing through high school and as a varsity athlete at Johns Hopkins, Matt had stopped training while he pursued a PhD, launched his career and started a family.
“I had chronic knee pain and I was burnt out,” said Matt, now 41. “I tried a few times to start again, but never made it more than a month or two of jogging. In the summer of 2017, I had a lot of stress in my life, and I was headed in an unhealthy direction. I decided I would go to the woods of Pandapas Pond and aim for 20 miles a week as a kind of meditation.”
The goal for his first run: Five laps on the flat, smooth path around the pond.
“My entire body was on fire,” he said of that effort. A few weeks later he made it from the parking lot to the first creek crossing on Poverty Creek Trail and back.
“Somehow, I got it in my head that I should run the Hokie Half Marathon. My plan was to see if I could finish. I wound up winning my age group. While I was sore, the half also felt similar to shorter races I’d run in college, enough that I mulled the possibility of a marathon.”
During the summer of 2018, while staying with his family in Maine, Matt entered the Bay of Fundy International Marathon, which runs from Maine into Canada and back.
“An absolutely beautiful place surrounded by water on all sides. Hilly as hell,” said Matt. “There were 130 marathoners. It’s hard to describe how great it was to finish.”
Matt not only finished – he placed third overall in 2:57:33 and discovered he liked the challenge of the 26.2-mile distance.
“Unlike the shorter races I’d run, the marathon was as much an encounter with one’s self as it was a race. I had never aspired to run a marathon, and it still surprises me that I have.”
“For years after I stopped running, I would tell people that ‘I used to be a runner.’ Eventually, I wouldn’t mention it at all. I am happy to once again say I am a runner.”
Age: 41 | Hometown: Grew up in Rocky Hill, Connecticut; moved to Blacksburg in 2007
Family: Wife, Cindy Rosenbaum, a former Montgomery County teacher of the year; two kids, Isaak (age 10) and Aaron (age 7)
Occupation: Historian of science and technology (associate professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech)
You ran two super-fast marathons in 2019, Boston (2:43:36) and New York (2:44:00). Which of those two marathons was your favorite? I grew up equidistant from both, but I consider myself a New Englander. My father grew up in Boston and I’ve spent a lot of time working there. Still, both races are amazing. Boston is a really big, really fast, extremely well-organized local road race. You begin in the provinces and run into the city, where everyone welcomes you. New York is a monster. It starts on one of the largest suspension bridges in the world, travels through multi-ethnic parties with the best music, and kicks your ass with long, hidden hills and deep potholes. When you’re done, you get a few congratulations but mostly people are pissed because they can’t get across town. My answer is a bit clouded by my performances. My times were similar, but Boston came from a near perfectly executed race, whereas I went for it aggressively at New York and things unraveled in the last few miles.
What’s your advice for training to race that distance? Trust the process and be consistent. A marathon is like writing a book. You need to work on a small piece every day, and have faith that all the parts will come together. There is a logic to those parts and to the order in which you develop them. Like lots of people, when I started, I found a plan on the internet that looked right for me, and I’ve modified it along the way.
How do you balance training at such a high level with work, family etc.? A supportive family, tenure, and a headlamp. I do most of miles alone in the dark, either before everyone else wakes up or after my kids are asleep. My wife has been extremely supportive. I know she’s tired of hearing me talk about running when she’s trying to grade papers. She’ll feel the same way about this interview. But she sees the positive impact it’s had, and it’s better than dealing with me when I haven’t run. It’s also been great to see my kids get into running, we’ve done a few races together, and I’m looking forward to the day they can beat me. I mention tenure because stability is important and allows for my current intensity of training. Still, I think if I’d started running when I was an untenured professor, it would have been a helpful outlet. Any time is a good time to start, and running doesn’t have to be about racing.
Most satisfying running accomplishment? Finishing the first marathon is up there. Still, all told, I’ve run a couple hundred races and none come close to Boston. I ran a 7-minute PR with an 8-second negative split, and I had my fastest miles over the Newton Hills. Overall, I came close to my absolute maximum potential in that moment. I don’t remember many details about the race aside that it happened quickly and a few impressionistic images of passing through sections of the course. The psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi talks about this state as “flow,” and it has become almost a cliché. But there is truth in it. I think I can run faster, but that race felt like a once in a lifetime thing.
Most frustrating running experience? Aside from the time I beat a guy in a half marathon on gun time, but lost by a half-second on chip time … Like everyone else, it’s the injuries. I went from couch to marathon and along the way I’ve had overuse injuries. The first was with my Achilles. That was scary — after rediscovering running, I thought I might be done.
Who inspires and/or motivates you? The NRV running community as a whole is special. Right after I signed up for my first marathon, I made it to my first Pub Run, and I’m now a regular at Track Tuesdays. We all come from different walks of life, and run for different reasons. It is a huge inspiration and motivation to do so together. Part of this is performance-oriented, we make each other faster. But it’s more about sharing in a simplicity that transcends the nonsense around us.
Favorite route to run? Up Horse Nettle, down Snake Root on the trails at Pandapas. When I can, I sneak out in the middle of the weekday to do it. I also love the first run in the snow before anyone else is out. Last winter, I did a 14-mile trail run without seeing a single human footprint or tire-track.
Advice for new runners? Make the time for yourself. Everything else follows. Regardless of what is going on in your life, get out at least 3 times a week. I’ve missed days for injury, or when I’ve listened to my body, or because I’m on an airplane. In the past two years, however, I’ve rarely, if ever, missed a run for work tasks or some show on television or bad weather. I’ve never regretted it.
Favorite race? The next one.
Trails or roads? Anywhere but aqua-jogging.
Any running superstitions or rituals? I consider myself a calm person, but pre-race it’s Rage Against the Machine on repeat.
Funny or embarrassing running stories? When I was getting started, I took a turn onto Snake Root thinking it would loop back to the Pandapas Pond parking lot. It kept climbing and climbing. I had to pause and walk a few times. At that point, I had to see what was at the top. I then jogged down the hill, only to discover I was at the bottom of the Gateway trail. There was no way that I was making it back over Brush Mountain. I hobbled to the Shawnee pool, where after a long recovery, I got a ride back to my car. Next time I took my phone.
Fact many people don’t know about you? I’m not going to tell.
Running goals for 2020? We’re sending a NRV masters team to the Boston Marathon (Vince Baranauskas, Shawn Huston, Brad Paye, Durelle Scott, Michael Stowe and me), and we’re going to make the top 5. My personal goal is to get faster than last year.
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