Danny Mathieson: Inspired to compete by the runners he coaches

118C560C-3E9B-40C4-A381-43A5D1402869Two years of living in the Navajo Nation helped Blacksburg’s Danny Mathieson find his career as an educator and coach — and a love for running.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Virginia Tech in 2012, Danny joined Teach for America in Kirtland, New Mexico, a tiny town about an hour from the Four Corners where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado meet.
He taught 8th grade science and coached the distance runners on the track team.

“I wasn’t yet a runner but saw the opportunity as a great way to engage with my students and connect with the community,” he said. “Distance running is integrated into many facets of traditional Navajo culture and it showed in my athletes’ raw ability, dedication, and joy of the sport.”

It also got Danny moving.

“Coaching not only forced me to put in the work to keep up with 7th graders running 5-minute miles, but it also shifted my paradigm about what running can offer individuals and communities,” said Danny, now age 30.

He ran his first 5K in 2013 – and “got bitten by the bug.”

After two years with Teach for America, Danny returned to Virginia Tech to earn a Master’s in STEM Education in 2016, a route he chose based on his experience working with the Navajo Nation.

“It was a hugely influential experience and the sole reason I am still in education today, said Danny, now a technology education teacher and cross country coach at Christiansburg Middle School.

He ramped up his training after moving back to Blacksburg.

“At the time, I was doing a lot of long-distance backpacking and was intrigued by the idea of running longer distances through the mountains,” he said. “The rest is Strava history.”

That Strava history includes some impressive results the past few years, including winning the 2019 Bel Monte 50 miler, back-to-back victories in the Old Glory 50K and a 2:50 marathon finish in the Down the Mountain Marathon from Whitetop last year.

But, ask him about his proudest race moment, and you won’t hear about those.

“A few years back I threw down pretty hard in the closing miles to take first in the VT Ultra Fatass 50K, only to falter into the finish and find the guys I was fending off had decided to call it off early, skip the last few miles and hang in the parking lot with their feet up,” he said. “While I finished first, they most certainly won. Glory isn’t always about finishing faster or in a better place, but who had the most fun that day.”

He competes hard but winning isn’t necessarily the focus.

“The best days come when I feel prepared at the start, there’s a balanced ‘fun to pain ratio,’ and I come out on the other side healthy enough for a shakeout run. Of course, it’s nice when the chips fall your way.”

From left: Aaron Bradner, Jordan Chang, Danny Mathieson and Trevor Stewart completed a 70+ mile traverse of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park along the Appalachian Trail (elevation gain of 18,660 feet) with crew support from Royce Jacomen and Josh Starner .

Danny Mathieson

Hometown: Born in Virginia Beach and now happily calls Blacksburg home.

Employment: Technology Education teacher at Christiansburg Middle School

Most satisfying running accomplishment? Almost all of them come from coaching – winning individual county and regional championships, coaching breakthrough PRs, and watching kids continue to be successful at the next level.

As far as my running, there are some obscure course records (aka CRs) that I hold close to my heart. Running the Smokies Challenge Adventure Run (SCAR) — 70 miles on the Appalachian Trail traversing the Smokies — was one of the most satisfying days I’ve ever spent outdoors, start to finish. And then there was one time where I broke Jordy (Jordan Chang) at Mountain Lake. That one still helps me get out the door in the morning.

What have you learned from coaching? Coaching has been so influential to who I am, both professionally and personally over the last decade that it’s hard to distill. One thing I’m consistently amazed by is the character of endurance athletes. It seems that the most dedicated, hard-working, compassionate, and earnest kids are the early adopters of distance running programs. A personal challenge has been to leverage that correlation to bring more kids into the sport who may benefit from such a positive peer group.

Who inspires and/or motivates you? I unabashedly dote over the few athletes that I coached as middle schoolers who are now running at the collegiate level. I’m always appreciative of the motivation that the Blacksburg running community has to offer. It’s nice to fill a week’s worth of running plans by just replying yes to any number of text threads.

Advice for new runners? Variety is the spice of life. Run solo, run with friends. Run trails, run roads. Run fast, run slow. Run uphill, run downhill. Have type 1 fun, have type 2 fun.

Favorite race? I really enjoyed running the fun run of the TWOT 100. It’s one 26-mile loop on The Wild Oak Trail. It’s grassroots, free, well organized, and super hard. I think that camaraderie and challenge without the pomp and circumstance epitomizes my trail running ethos.

Favorite places to run? Locally, I’m all about The Classic Loop – up Gateway Trail from Heritage Park, down Snakeroot to Poverty Creek, up Jacobs Ladder, and back down Gateway. It’s the perfect fitness test with a mix of technical, steep, fast, and flat sections. If given the opportunity to get out of town – any part or all of the Catawba Runaround. My now wife and I did our first backpacking trip on the Triple Crown while in college, so the AT sections are especially nostalgic.

Any running superstitions or rituals? Nothing too idiosyncratic. I like racing in VT gear especially when competing further from home.

Suggestion for growing/improving our running community? Bring back the Beer Mile.

Fact many people don’t know about you? I can will away the hiccups.

Running goals in the next few years? A bunch – working towards lofty projects keeps me motivated and focused on training sustainably. Here are a few:
• Take a shot at the Beast Series. (A six-race competition through some of Virginia’s most rugged Blue Ridge mountains)
• More human-powered adventures: Run a Catawba Runaround starting and finishing from my front door (~85 miles).
• Fast pack longer sections of the AT.
• String together some big bike-run loops.
• Run and race in the Four Corners region: Grand Canyon R2R2R and Zion Traverse.
• Race Antelope Canyon Ultra, Canyon de Chelly, or even the Shiprock Marathon.

There are just so many adventures and not enough time!

You might also like these stories:

Hokie Half champ credits hill training and positive thoughts for strong finish

Skip Slocum: From occasional 5K to 50K in one year

Jordan Chang shares his passion for running and community.

Danny Rau: ‘Running is a cruel mistress’

Jenn Fleming’s comeback story continues with win at Holiday Lake 50K


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