Zach Matthews was looking to revive his competitive spirit.
He had played sports all his life, excelling in football to the point of being named Forsyth County News Defensive Player of the year as a senior at Lambert. He even broke school records in the 400m and long jump in track the following spring.
Matthews tallied 103 tackles in 2013, helping him land a spot at Georgia Tech as a walk-on.
And by the time his playing career at Tech ended, Matthews was a regular contributor on special teams, playing in every game and making 13 tackles for the Yellow Jackets.
Prior to his senior season, Tech offered the former walk-on a scholarship.
“That was everything I had been working for, since I was a freshman at Lambert,” Matthews said. “I really didn’t play much until I was a senior, so I was just thrilled to get on the field. Then I went to Tech and it was kind of the same thing, starting from the ground up. By the time I was a senior I played on special teams and got put on scholarship. That was probably one of the best moments in my life, when they put me on scholarship.”
Three months and 11 games later, the season was over – and so was Matthews’ playing career.
“It really didn’t hit me until my last college football game,” Matthews said. “We played Georgia, and I guess when you’re in the season your only focus is practices and the games, and you don’t really think that it’s going to end at some point. Then it does and you’re just like, ‘Wow, I spent the last however many years doing this and you just have this big hole in your life.”
Matthews continued lifting, but there wasn’t much competition involved.
So Matthews kept searching, until one day his best friend, Noah Schaich, encouraged him to run a marathon with him.
Schaich ran track with Matthews at Lambert, and the two remained close while they both studied at Tech.
But Matthews wasn’t a distance runner; he was a sprinter. His body specialized in quickness and acceleration, not pace.
“I started running at like – I tracked it on my phone – it was like a 6-minute pace, which for me at that point was way too fast. I had to stop and walk halfway back,” Matthews said with a laugh. “You know, distance running was very hard for me at first, because I didn’t have the background and my body wasn’t used to it. I struggled a lot, and I think that’s why I didn’t like it at all to begin with, just because it was so hard. Over time, I noticed the runs started getting easier and I started to realize I needed to pace myself.”
Matthews continued plugging away, eventually growing to enjoy the training itself.
He entered himself in a few marathons – one in California and two others in the Washington D.C. area. His first marathon was rough. His second marathon nearly qualified him for the Boston Marathon.
So Matthews found his new goal: get to Boston by reaching the 2:58:21 threshold needed to qualify.
He did that at the 2020 Publix Atlanta Marathon in March, where he finished with a 2:51:10, his fastest marathon time.
When – or if – the Boston Marathon takes place April 2021, Matthews will be there to test himself against the world’s best runners.
Of course, Matthews is aware the race might get canceled because of COVID-19.
“It’s hard because, even at this point, Boston may not happen next year,” Matthews said. “I guess the way I think about that is, with marathon training, you spend four months training for one race, so you have to enjoy the training. You kind of have to enjoy the process, otherwise it’s going to be miserable. For me, I do enjoy that. So, if I train and the race doesn’t happen, it would be kind of sad, but I’d still be happy that I put in the effort.”
Matthews is currently a second-year medical student at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, a federal medical school Matthews describes as the “West Point for medicine.”
While the pandemic threatens his goal of running in the annual marathon, the idea of helping people though medicine is something that excites Matthews.
“It definitely makes me more motivated and excited to be part of a community that gets to face challenges like what we’re facing right now,” Matthews said.
He’ll continue running about 50 miles each week, then ramp up his training toward the end of December.
Tracking his progression as a marathon runner, Matthews is reminded of how his football career followed a similar path.
“Coming into high school, I was definitely not the strongest guy on the football team. Coach Maxwell, he had a very good strength program, and he also said, ‘You just put in the work for four years and you’re going to like where you end up at the end.’ So that was a long process for me, just building up that strength,” Matthews said. “It kind of mirrored what it was like for me to start distance running.”
“So I was like, ‘Well, I’ll just keep at it and see what happens. That’s kind of the approach I take to a lot of things: I’m going to put in the effort and see what happens. I’d rather do that than not try at all.”