Canyonlands and Arches are 2 of America’s most beautiful national parks. The Utah landscape is wondrous: deserts, canyons and slick rocks, ringed by spectacular mountains.
Many Westporters have driven through those lands. Some have hiked them.
Matt Pedersen ran through them.
But the 25-year-old — a personal coach at Sherpa, the Post Road running, cycling and triathlon training center — did not simply jog through, marveling at the splendor.
He really ran. Matt raced 238.3 miles — at an elevation of 10,500 feet, with an ascent and descent of 29,467 feet.
And he did it in a little over 4 days. Specifically, Matt covered the enormous loop in just 105 hours, and 37 minutes.
That’s about the time it takes to get to New York these days on Metro-North. Or through some of the lights downtown.
Matt was not alone. He completed the Moab 240, an annual event for a few dozen
Matt grew up in Indiana — a place far from both Connecticut and Utah. After earning a master’s in sports performance from Ball State University, he wanted to see the world beyond his flat home state.
Sherpa — which takes endurance training to the next level, for clients ranging from competitive athletes to “normal” folks seeking a challenge — was perfect.
He’d already finished his first marathon, 6 years earlier. Then he saw a video of a 150-mile runner.
“That blew me away,” Matt says. “I never thought anything like that was possible.”
He signed up for a 50-mile race. He completed it, and — despite the agony — was hooked.
He tried a 100-miler, but twisted an ankle. Determined to finish, he entered another 100-mile race. He did — and conquered a few more.
Last year Matt heard about the Vermont 200. It’s a brutal course: 20 loops of 10 miles each.
He made it through 90 miles.
“I didn’t eat right,” he concedes. “I was ignorant. I was really frustrated that I’d quit, and let myself down.”
Then someone told him about Moab.
Matt thought it was way out of his league. But — have you figured out that ultra-runners are ultra-competitive? — he ordered elevation maps. He tacked them to his wall, and studied them the way a monk studies spiritual writings.
He scoured Facebook for ultra-runner groups. He found encouragement and support there — and practical advice, like how to take care of blisters.
And he trained.
Boy, did he train.
You might have seen Matt on his runs through Westport. He was the guy hauling a tire behind him.
He did back-to-back runs, of 8 to 10 hours each.
On previous ultra races, he’d gotten lost at night. So — to train himself to deal with sleep deprivation — Matt stayed awake for 48 hours. He worked, did a 9-hour run, worked the next day, then did a 9-hour “power hike.”
“I felt awful,” he admits. “But I knew I could do it.”
Mental training is as important as physical. “I was not going to quit,” Matt says. “My body and mind could be in hell. But I would keep going forward.”
Earlier this month — 5 days before Moab — he was in Chicago. A Sherpa client ran that city’s marathon. Matt cheered him on. The atmosphere inspired him.
He was ready to run nearly 10 times that marathon distance.
Matt knew he’d be in a lot of pain during his 238-mile ordeal. But he had no idea exactly how brutal those nearly 5 days would be.
Matt recalls, “At times, every step was agony. Going up and down the mountains, I’d say to myself, ‘You’re miserable. Just quit. Why go on?'”
Then he’d answer himself: “There’s an aid station coming up. You can get food, a quick nap. Then you can go forward again. Don’t stop!”
No one can run 238 miles at once — not even Matt. He broke the event into segments — 13, 18 miles between aid stations. (Of course, each “small” part was close to a major race for the tiny minority of human beings who even attempt one.)
The 150-mile point was the worst. It was pitch black, and 9 degrees. He fell often, and lost his food. The next aid station was miles away. For 5 hours he rationed his water and Gatorade. He was exhausted, hungry, beaten.
“I’d walk for 10 minutes — just bushwhacking. I’d stop and have a pity party.”
Slowly – v-e-r-y slowly — he got it done. “It was literally one step at a time,” Matt says. “I knew it would get better.”
Finally, it did.
But if the lows were brutally low, the highs were spectacularly high. After a quick nap and food, Matt would feel elated. He’d smile. Sometimes he sang to himself.
Then the end was in sight. Suddenly, the last mile loomed.
It was a straightaway.
All the emotions of the previous 4 days kicked in. Matt ran to the end, crying.
Yet when it was over — all 238.3 miles of mountains, deserts, canyons and rocks of it — Matt says, “I couldn’t fathom what I’d done.”
More than a week later, Matt is still processing his accomplishment.
Fortunately, he took time along the way to appreciate his surroundings.
“I’m an Indiana boy. I’d never seen mountains,” Matt notes. “Everywhere I turned, there were beautiful sights.” From time to time, he took videos and photos. “Pictures can’t capture what I saw,” he admits. “But I’ll always have those images in my mind.”
The nights were equally incredible. Matt saw “every constellation — like in a planetarium.” Sometimes he turned his lamp off, and stared at the sky.
“I’d think, ‘Everyone else is asleep. And I’m here, looking at God’s creation.”
When he got back to Sherpa, people stopped their workouts. Clients and colleagues — many of whom had sponsored him financially, and tracked him online during his run — gave him a hero’s welcome.
Matt downplayed his accomplishment.
“Yeah, I ran this. But if a 10k sounds crazy to you, sign up. That can be your 238-miler.
“I’m not a genetic freak. Anyone can do far more than they think they’re capable of.”
So what’s next? Matt has no idea. He’ll start lifting at Sherpa. And then…
“You forget how miserable running is. You look for races, sign up and do it again. I’ll probably start again in January.”
He’s not kidding.
The Moab race director asked on Facebook if anyone would be interested in a 500-mile race.
“I can’t believe I’m even thinking about it,” Matt says. “I’m an idiot.”
Perhaps. But an idiot who just ran 238.3 miles through some of the toughest, least forgiving geography on the planet.