Estimated reading time: 13 minutes
Matt Healy is just 25*, but is already setting records and winning competitive ultras.
The plucky Capetonian stepped into the spotlight in 2020 when he eclipsed Ryan Sandes’ One Day 13 Peaks record. Then he cemented his place as an ultra running prodigy when he won his first 100 miler at the 2021 Addo Elephant Trail Run.
He’s decided that trail running will be his career, and he’s just getting started.
Discover how a 25-year-old can develop such an impressive work ethic, who inspires him, and why he doesn’t like shaking hands.
* At the time of this interview in 2021
Another life, another sport
Before running, I was playing rugby at a serious level. Straight after high school I went to the Sharks Rugby Academy.
I love the sport, but I was a lot heavier. That’s one of the reasons I stopped rugby. I felt like in my time with the Sharks, my body was struggling. I didn’t feel great, my back couldn’t support my weight. I had to rethink things, and figure out if it was really worth it.
Since starting running I’ve lost over 20kg, in the form of bulk and muscle mass.
Rugby is a very competitive sport, and ego-driven. I feel grateful I went from that environment to trail running.
From a professional point of view, I felt like I was able to take the best parts the rugby mentality and bring it to my trail running. It’s been helpful for my mental state and the success I’ve had in training and racing.
After hanging up my boots at the start of 2016, I got a BComm in Marketing and Management Science at IMM in Stellenbosch.
Winning my first 100 miler
I was super stoked about my Addo Elephant Trail Run 100 miler win in 2021. It was my first 100 miler (160km). I had quite a bit of confidence going in, and the plan was to win and get as close to the record as possible. Very happy with how it panned out.
I had a good day, but unfortunately didn’t manage to break the record. But I did break the South African record, and the Valley of Tears record. This region is 18km of the toughest, most remote part of the Addo Elephant National Park.
The experience of 100 miles was incredible. Running through the night was extremely humbling. I didn’t quite expect it to be such an experience, in terms of being out there with the wildlife. I saw jackals, warthogs, wild pigs, and buck.
It was humbling to be in the presence of so many other animals, feeling like a guest. It was surprising to feel so strongly about the wilderness experience, as I usually just focus on the competitive aspect of a race.
In the night, as I was trying to move as quickly as possible, a jackal appeared in my path. I had my headlight on, so I’m sure he was a bit disorientated. I checked him out, he checked me out, a primal encounter, both thinking “Is this creature dangerous?”
He stared me down as I ran past, and I didn’t want to take my headlight off him. That encounter was super unique. It’s interesting to think how vulnerable we both were, not knowing what the other was thinking, probably feeling the same way.
Since I am so competitive, the Addo experience changed my outlook and made me more appreciative and aware of the external environment. I won’t forget it for a long time.
In the first 50 kays I suffered a bit, not feeling 100%. I actually vomited 40km in, and again at 50km. I was still moving well, but could feel my body was reacting to the excess adrenaline. I had gone out quite hard from the start.
Eventually after 54km I settled in nicely, when the sun started setting. I made most of my gains in the night, which was the strategy I laid out with my coach ahead of the race.
When the sun rose the next morning, the last 30km felt like a death march to the end. I could feel my quads were shot and I was keen to get it over and done with.
The big FKT
In 2020, I set a 13 Peaks Challenge One-Day FKT (fastest-known time) record, covering the 100km+ in 15h32min.
Not many events were happening in 2020 due to COVID restrictions. My last event prior to Addo 100 Miler was exactly a year before, at 2020 Addo 76km (which I also won on my first attempt). So it had been quite a while without competing.
I tried to make 13 Peaks as race-like as possible. The plan was to beat Ryan Sandes’ first attempt and see how close I could get to his best attempt of 13h41min (known as the Impossible 13 Peaks).
It was an incredible experience. My mates came out and watched me. I tried to orient the run around my community of friends and family.
It being an FKT (fastest known time), and not a race, I could do it my way, which was really special. That was amazing.
With 13 Peaks, you can choose your route, you can choose your time of day. I had a few restrictions with the curfew at the time.
I can see myself doing it again soon, and trying to improve my time. I’d love to go under 15 hours, and chip away at Ryan’s Impossible 13 Peaks time.
I only started running competitively at the beginning of 2019. Before I put my name out there, I thought to myself “I’d love to make this my career.”
It sounds crazy, but to do ultras, you have to be a little bit cooked!
I’m so passionate about running, and the sport. I’ve always been obsessed with sport and trying to get the best out of my body.
I started talking with ASICS in the third quarter of 2020, and turned pro with them at the start of 2021.
I’m very stoked about that, and grateful that I have partnered with the right brand for me. Not only in the product, but in the brand. I believe in what they are achieving.
I believe in their ethos: A Sound Mind in a Sound Body.
I look forward to a lot of success with ASICS, and a long running career.
They have exciting plans for South African trail running, and I feel like they are the perfect brand for me.
No one in my family has a background of trail running, or running. I haven’t really been influenced by them in that regard. My family has always been big on sport though.
The beauty is that my decision to take on ultras has come from within. It’s my own Why, my own choices.
I haven’t been influenced from a young age, and since all my motivation has come from myself, I maintain that passion and dedication.
At the moment, my coach is James Montgomery of The Run Project. He has been incredible over the short period (eight weeks) I’ve been with him. He’s given me a holistic approach to running, and I’m excited to see where we can take my career. He’s the right guy for me.
Brendan Lombard was my coach before James, and he’s been a massive influence. Beyond helping me physically, he’s mentally set me up for the right attitude, to build my confidence. He’s been an incredible support system for me and I can’t thank him enough for what he’s done for me so far.
He’s my training partner: We go out a lot and run together, and he’s great to be around.
Ryan Sandes has been a huge inspiration. I’ve followed his career closely and I’ve researched him as much as I can. I’ve watched every YouTube video, read every article, seen every picture. I’d like to pick his brain and see how he goes about things.
To see a South African make it has inspired me. If Ryan can do it, why can’t I? How he’s structured his career through not only his athletic successes, but from a branding and business point of view, he balances running and family.
He gets it right and I’ve taken tips from that, and hopefully I can have as successful a career as he has had.
“Consistency is the most important thing with running.”
Annalise Scholtz has been a super supporter in my ultra running journey, and her mentality is similar to my own. She’s inspirational, with her incredible achievements in a short time.
My two other favourite athletes are Lewis Hamilton and Anthony Joshua. They have been inspirational within their sport and beyond.
I appreciate their mentality. As I say to my parents, “I feel like they have cracked the code to life.” Their belief system, sporting perspective, confidence, and ability to do their best is incredible.
My family may not be runners, but they have been incredibly supportive of my career.
Sometimes my dad Grant will join me for a certain section of my run in the mountains. He’s big into his mountain biking, and he’ll link his ride into my run, and cycle next to me, which is awesome.
My mom Nicky is always supporting me in races, and she actually gets more nervous than me.
My extended family are also interested and supportive, which really helps.
At Addo, I flew up with my girlfriend, Chelsea Taylor, and my family decided to drive up and make a trip of it. They were there at the race, tracking me and getting involved, enjoying the whole experience.
My family has been an incredible support structure, and they are just as excited as I am for what’s coming next.
It sounds crazy, but to do ultras you have to be a little bit cooked.
Sacrifice and gratitude
I would like to highlight the sacrifices made in endurance sport. It’s really time consuming, and if I’m not running, I’m resting and trying to sleep. From that point of view, my family and Chelsea deserve more than a pat on the back.
The one tough thing with my running career is I’ve had to put aside certain family events, and struggled to see mates. That time will forever be lost, unfortunately.
The immense sacrifices makes a supportive and understanding family so necessary. Their acceptance that running is the focus is invaluable, especially when doing ultras and prepping for 100 miles. You don’t have time for anything else. I appreciate people who understand that.
It’s been tough with my mates, and them not seeing that I don’t have the time I had before. Unfortunately I don’t get to see them as much as I’d like, and go to everyone’s birthday parties and so on.
Chelsea has been incredibly supportive in coming out and picking me up at random places along the Peninsula and the mountain, and dropping me off before the sun rises.
A happy and a scary memory
The most recent memory I have really enjoying myself on the trails was doing my recce for 13 Peaks. Being out in the mountains, exploring new trails, figuring out the best routes and little shortcuts was fantastic.
Getting to know the mountains we call home in an adventurous way, rather than a full-on training type run was really cool. Exploring Silvermine and getting to know my backyard is a great memory.
A scary memory was a time I ran out at Stellies (Stellenbosch) and Coetzenburg, and got chased by two guys.
It felt like a life and death situation. I didn’t have much on me, I wasn’t even wearing a shirt. These guys chased me for at least 45 minutes.
Luckily I had seen them before, and my gut told me to be concerned. As soon as the first dude popped out on the trail, I instantly decided not to run to the university. I knew there was another guy, and heading back down is what they’d expect of me, so I took a quick left, and headed up the mountains, climbing as fast as I could, with them chasing me.
Luckily my training worked out for me and I was able to take little breaks as I climbed, making sure to conserve my energy. Looking back now, I should have thrown down rocks at them, but my main aim was to evade and run.
I vaguely knew the path came to a dead end, and didn’t know that section of paths very well.
Eventually they disappeared out of sight. I ended chilling up there for a couple of hours until sunset, shirtless and scratched up from having bundu-bashed a bit. I came off the mountain way after dark.
This was early days in my running, and it’s something I’ll never forget. I’m actually surprised I kept trail running after that!
Internationally, my dream race is Western States 100. It’s the first-ever official 100 mile race in the world, so it’s definitely the most prestigious.
It seems like a race that would suit me: it’s runnable and hot, and ticks off everything I enjoy. That would be my big goal in the future.
Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) 100 miler from Chamonix is one of the most famous races in the world, and on my bucket list.
Locally, Ultra-trail Cape Town was the first race I heard about which I thought I should do. It’s one of the races that originally got me into running in the mountains.
Lately I’ve been intrigued by Ultra-Trail Drakensberg 100 miler. The altitude and remoteness appeal to me.
Advice for aspirant trail pros
1. Find your Why. Figure out your reason for running, and then your reason for wanting to make it a career. I think that’s important, because often in training and races you’re going to be asking yourself questions. Especially during ultra runs, you go to some dark places and that’s when you’re most vulnerable mentally and as a human being. You’re going to ask yourself “Why am I doing this?” If you have a strong Why, that’s going to put you ahead of many other runners.
2. You need a support structure. Outside of a coach and a family, you need to surround yourself with the right people. It’s helpful to spend time with people who inspire you. You also need a team in place, including a physiotherapist and a mental coach (whether a friend or professional). That’s super important. Make sure your circle always have your best interest at heart.
3. Connect with the right brand. Don’t just go with the first brand that approaches you. Really connect with brands that you believe in, that hold similar values to you.
4. Be present. Always enjoy the process. As runners and competitive people, we can get stuck in thinking about what’s next, living from one race to the next. Instead of focusing on the races and results (which are important!), be present in the process and enjoy the training and learning between the races. I’m still working on this. Understand that you may not be where you want to be now, but every day you can improve as a runner and a human being. Every single session I do, I get better.
5. Consistency is the most important thing. It takes a lot of work and a solid foundation to condition your body to run a fast five kay, all the way to a 100 miler. Consistency is something I pride myself on, and put in the work every day. Try and compromise as little as possible. If you want to be successful with running, you have to be a bit selfish. Put yourself first.
Lives Cape Town Born 19 May 1995, Cape Town Profession Ultra runner Age 25 Height 1.67m Mass 61kg
Sponsors ASICS, Protein2Go, Compex, Versus Socks, 30 South, Zlaant, Waterfront Physiotherapy Clinic, Squirrel’s Nut Butter