RRW: After the disappointments and COVID trials, Matt Llano is ready to race in Atlanta

By David Monti, @ d9monti
(c) Weekly Race Results 2021, all rights reserved

(February 23) – One Monday last September, Matt Llano was on an easy practice run in Flagstaff when he unexpectedly started fighting. He felt acute shortness of breath and did something that he rarely did in training: he stopped.

Matt Llano training in Flagstaff (photo courtesy Matt Llano)

“I didn’t run that fast,” he said in a phone interview with Race Results Weekly yesterday. “It was supposed to be an easy run and I was breathing so hard. I stopped halfway. I was five miles out on a random dirt road in Flagstaff. I ran for a few minutes which I just don’t do. “

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The day before, he had felt a pain in his shoulders, which he attributed to driving six hours back to Flagstaff from a weekend trip to Telluride with partner Brannon Harbur, where they had spent some time with Harbur’s parents. He also had a severe headache that Monday, but sometimes he gets migraines and that alone wasn’t necessarily worrisome. However, for the 32-year-old 2:11 marathon runner, it was alarming to breathe during a light training run.

“It was at that point that I had to take a test as soon as I got home,” said Llano. “Something is really going on here.”

Llano didn’t realize he could have COVID-19. He and Harbur had stayed home for the most part last summer, staying away from others. Also, he thought, Flagstaff is a safe place, a remote city of 72,000 people surrounded by the nearly two million acres of Coconino National Forest.

“Flagstaff felt very removed from COVID,” said Llano. “It felt very sheltered, and I think a lot of people here mistakenly thought – especially early on – that it wasn’t going to hit Flagstaff. We’re just this little mountain town in the forest and it won’t be here. Although my initial instinct was to get tested, I didn’t even think about what would happen if it came out positive. “

But it was positive and Llano was stunned.

“I was on the phone with my parents when I received the email that your results are available,” he said. “I thought just wait and I’ll check. And I looked at it when I was on the phone with them and there was only silence. I couldn’t even speak because I was just shocked. “

Getting COVID was the second of two major setbacks Llano suffered in 2020. The first came last February at the US Olympic Team Trials marathon in Atlanta, where Llano finished an unthinkable 38th place in 2:17:22. He finished sixth in the 2016 trials and 2020 should be his year to fight for a team spot. He had set a personal best of 2:11:14 at the BMW Berlin Marathon five months earlier and had finished second in the 2018 USATF Marathon Championships the year before. Forming the Tokyo team was a definite opportunity.

But his preparation for the race wasn’t his best. He was self-trained and trained on his own at the time, and while he was enjoying this approach at first, it began to affect him. He started the trials with doubts.

“When I went into this race, I had been training myself for a few months,” said Llano. “I think I underestimated the emotional toll of coaching and training myself.” He continued, “As the months went on, it became more and more difficult to get those extra fitness traits out here and there. Doubts crept in. Am i working too hard Am I working hard enough? That’s all a coach can answer for you, right? “

Llano’s heart wasn’t in the running, it was full of pride. Never taking notice of his time or place, he quickly left the target area. He went home to Flagstaff, and after the pandemic put almost every street race on hold for the foreseeable future, Llano took an extended break from running. He renovated two bathrooms in his home. He explored new ways. He hiked and went paddling.

“I had almost no interest in walking at all,” he recalled. “I don’t think I’ve run for over a month. This is really unusual for me. Usually at every race, especially one that I’m disappointed with, I always strive to get out and train again and get fit again. “

COVID hit Llano as he was preparing to train regularly with his new Under Armor-sponsored team, Dark Sky Distance, under coach Stephen Haas (who is also his agent). Instead, he and Harbur – who did not sign COVID – quarantined together at their home.

“I wanted Brannon to leave the house, possibly for his sake, or at least move to another room,” Llano said. “But at that point he believed that in the last few days, the last week, we were not separated at all. If you have it i will get it. I’ve already faced it. Fortunately, he never got it. I am not sure how. “

For the first week, Llano dealt with body aches, headaches, and other flu-like symptoms like congestion. In the second week he lost his sense of smell and taste. He was unhappy but grateful that his symptoms weren’t any worse.

“It was mild,” said Llano. “I don’t want people to think I have a bad case.”

But getting back to exercise was difficult and he was concerned about the potential for long-term heart damage. He was particularly concerned about myocarditis, an inflammation of the middle layer of the heart wall that can be caused by COVID. He sought help from a cardiologist.

“We came up with a plan that was really conservative and slow, and I did some heart tests with a cardiologist,” he said. “I was nervous after reading some research on athletes. I was nervous about myocarditis, the inflammation of your heart when you return to exercise. The cardiologist fully trained me again after a few weeks. “

It was only in the past two to three weeks, during his final preparations for the Atlanta Half Marathon on Sunday, that Llano began to feel more like the old self. He admits that he’s far from the highest level of fitness, but he’s not afraid to be competitive.

“It was on my mind for a while,” he said of the potential for heart damage. “It’s probably only now… to the point where I have days where I don’t worry about the possible effects on my heart because I feel a little tightness in my chest every now and then. The cardiologist assured me that I don’t have to worry, but still have to be careful. “

The Atlanta race, part of the Atlanta Track Club’s marathon weekend, came at the perfect time for Llano. Held exactly one year after the trials at the sprawling Atlanta Motor Speedway just south of downtown, Llano is grateful that he can have a race that he can finally push forward. Even though he started the Las Vegas Gold Half Marathon on January 23, he dropped out at 10 miles because things didn’t feel right.

“I couldn’t finish this,” he said. “I don’t think it’s COVID related, but another problem has emerged that prevented me from coping. I feel like I’ve really gone around a corner in the past few weeks. I’m starting to feel a lot more confident that my COVID problems are behind me. I’m more excited about this problem because I feel further removed from all of the problems I’ve had. I look forward to having another opportunity to start. “

To motivate him during the race on Sunday, Llano plans to draw on an important emotion: gratitude.

“It is excitement and gratitude for the Atlanta Track Club to host this event in the first place, so that we can have a safe place for us,” he said. “I was grateful to have the opportunity to focus practice on that and I’m looking forward to going out there and just having a solid race and continuing on my way back from a difficult year.” He added, “If I can just feel good, finish strong, I’ll take another step in my training. I think if I go to a race my training will get better and better over the coming weeks. I look forward to this additional incentive. “

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