On paper, 27-year-old Matt Llano is another razor-fit, elite American marathoner with excellent credentials who is on a Zen-like mission to snag one of the coveted top three qualifying spots for the U.S. Olympic team at the Olympic Trials Marathon on Feb. 13 in Los Angeles.
“As a person, as a runner, Matt is quite special,” says his high school coach Dana Hobbs of Broadneck High School in Annapolis, Md. “He is hard work and dedication personified. He is compassionate and empathetic. He’s fierce in competition and kind and soft spoken as a human being. Matt is almost an enigma. His personality traits consist of so many opposites that when put together, they complement each other quite well.”
Like many other hardworking entrants, Llano has been pushing the envelope in training with a steady diet of 120-130-mile weeks. His current coach, Ben Rosario, expresses confidence in his even-keeled protégé. “He’s been looking very good,” says Rosario, who coaches Llano along with the rest of the Flagstaff-based HOKA Northern Arizona Elite team. “I think he’s ready to compete to run a 2:09 if needed to make the team, and we’re going to be ready to go on that day.”
Rosario, a well-regarded elite running coach, ventures high praise only when warranted. He’s known Llano since they founded NAZ Elite together in 2012. HOKA came on board at the beginning of 2015.
“Matt has always led our group by example and sets the standard for the others,” Rosario says. “He goes to bed early, he eats a clean diet, he trains as hard as anyone, and he does everything right.”
“I love Matt’s unrelenting belief in himself,” adds teammate Kellyn Taylor, a 2:28 marathoner who will also compete at the Trials in L.A. “He is one of the hardest workers I’ve ever encountered in any profession. Honestly I feel badly about my work ethic when comparing it to his. He does everything right and I feel certain that it is going to pay off for him.”
In spite of the external optimism, there are approximately 10 higher profile athletes subjectively ranked ahead of Llano at the Trials, and they too have the coaching, training, support, and race times to make the team. But the biggest key for Llano seems to be his newfound peace of mind.
“It was such a huge relief,” Llano says of coming out as a gay athlete on his blog in late 2013, parting ways with substantial inner turmoil. “Prior to that, I’d gone through a year or two in college and just after that time when I was struggling in my personal life with this and it spilled over into my running career. One day it occurred to me that not being able to talk openly about it was holding me back. When I came out it relieved a lot of pressure off my shoulders and things took a huge turn for the best, both in my running and personal life. Being able to be open and be myself has had such a positive effect on my life.”
When Llano came out, he found the nearly unilateral acceptance heartening, which instantly supercharged his spirits and quickly showed up in his training and racing. He was happier, slept better at night and he woke up more excited by each new day.
“It was scary for me,” Llano admits. “You never really know what people are going to think.”
The charismatic Llano was already well-liked and had many friends. But after coming out, nothing else could nag at the back of his mind and sap his mojo. For the next two years, he would focus solely on running.
“I tend to do very well with tunnel vision,” Llano explains. “This really cemented my ability to focus on being the very best I can be at the Olympic Trials.”
His family and friends rallied in unbridled support.
“When he came out as gay in his blog in December of 2013, it was one of the hardest things he’s ever done,” says his mother Sue Llano. “He was overwhelmed and humbled by the support that he received. His hope is that his coming out might help just one other person going through the struggle that he went through growing up.”
The shift was not lost on his coach.
“It was really cathartic for Matt,” adds Rosario. “That’s when he had his huge breakthrough and ran 1:01:47 at the Houston Half Marathon in 2014. You never really know how people are going to react, but when he came out he realized that he was really supported by a lot of people. More than that, he realized he was loved. I think that was the key missing piece of the puzzle for him.”
Still, even if the mind and heart are in tandem, there remains the immutable task of being an unheralded, 2:12 marathoner hoping to knock a few more minutes off of his personal best while taking down some more accomplished runners en route to making the U.S. Olympic team.
Llano was athletic as a youth, tinkering with soccer and swimming. His initial interest in running was sparked when he won a couple of indoor track meets in his junior year in high school. At that point he made the transition from soccer and focused solely on running. One of his high school teammates was Matthew Centrowitz Jr., who has gone on to become one of the best 1,500m runners in the world.
“I’ve had the opportunity to coach some great runners in my years as a coach,” recalls Dobbs. “When Matt (Llano) was a senior, Matt Centrowitz was a junior. I had the best 1-2 punch in the state of Maryland. Watching the two of them train together was awesome. They learned from each other. Seeing what both of them have become is no surprise to me. (Centrowitz) was always headed in that direction. In due time, Matt (Llano) found his way. He learned that longer distances are where his strengths lie.”
Llano competed collegiately at the University of Richmond in Virginia, where he ran 28:53 for 10,000 meters. He also took summer trip to Flagstaff and vowed to one day return.
“I remember really liking it up there, and it had always nagged the back of my mind,” Llano says. “The altitude felt good. I was determined to go back there to train at some point.”
When Llano arrived in Flagstaff for good in 2012, he paired up with Rosario and helped found NAZ Elite. The group now has the full backing of HOKA, which has allowed Llano and his teammates to train as a full-time, professional athletes. Llano recently logged a 143-mile week and fully embraces the monastic lifestyle of an elite athlete.
“I was able to quit my part-time job and focus just on training,” Llano says. “It’s been wonderful to see everything get to this level. Early on HOKA used to sponsor a few middle-distance runners, but they came on really big last year and signed our whole group at the beginning of 2015. They made it really obvious to us that they were fully committed to the sport and to the early development of athletes, and they’ve been such a huge help for all of us.”
Llano is excited for this final phase of pre-Trials training, which will include a 2-week training stint in San Diego, where his team can acclimate to running at sea level.
“Most of the time, when I go away to train I have to do it by myself,” Llano says. “Before Berlin last September (where Llano notched his 2:12:28 PR), I went to Portland and trained there for a stretch but I didn’t have my team with me. We’ll have pretty much the whole team here this time. We are like a family. It will be a lot more fun and I think it will keep everyone loose but focused.”
For Llano and his teammates, years of hard work and sacrifice will come down to one day—the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon on Feb. 13. Whether he makes the team or not, Llano is just starting to build momentum as a marathoner—the sky is the limit, says his agent, Josh Cox, a four-time U.S Olympic Trials Marathon participant in his own right.
“Not just in running but in whatever he wants to do many, many years down the road when his racing career is over,” says Cox. “I’m really fortunate to work with him.”