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After Trials Disappointment & COVID, Llano Ready To Race In Atlanta

02/24/2021
By David Monti, @d9monti
(c) 2021 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

(23-Feb) -- On a Monday last September Matt Llano, a 2014 RRCA Roads Scholar, was on an easy training run in Flagstaff when he unexpectedly began to struggle.  He started to feel an acute shortness of breath, and he did something he rarely does in training: he stopped.

"I wasn't, like, running fast," he told Race Results Weekly in a telephone interview yesterday.  "It was supposed to be an easy run, and I was breathing so hard.  I stopped halfway out.  I was five miles out on some random dirt road in Flagstaff.  I walked for a few minutes, which I just don't do."

The day before had felt achiness and soreness in his shoulders, something he attributed to driving six hours back to Flagstaff from a weekend trip to Telluride with his partner, Brannon Harbur, where they had spent some time with Harbur's parents.  On that Monday, he also had a bad headache, but he sometimes gets migraines and that alone wasn't necessarily concerning.  But struggling to breath on an easy training run was alarming for the 32 year-old, 2:11 marathoner.

"It was right at that point that as soon as I get home I need to go get a test," Llano said.  "Something is really off here."

It didn't dawn on Llano that he could have COVID-19.  He and Harbur had mostly stayed at home last summer and kept away from others.  Besides, he thought, Flagstaff is a safe place, a remote city of 72,000 surrounded by the nearly two million acre Coconino National Forest.

"Flagstaff felt very removed from COVID," Llano explained.  "It felt very protected, and I think a lot of people here mistakenly --especially early on-- were thinking it's not going to hit Flagstaff.  We're just this little mountain town in the forest and it's not going to be here.  Even though my initial instinct was to get tested, I didn't even consider what would happen if it came back positive."

But it was positive, and Llano was stunned.

"I was on the phone with my parents when I got the e-mail that, oh, your results are available," he said.  "I was like, just hang on and I'm going to check this out.  And I looked at it when I was on the phone with them and there was just silence.  I couldn't even speak because I was just shocked."

Getting COVID was the second of two big setbacks that Llano endured in 2020.  The first came last February at the USA Olympic Team Trials Marathon in Atlanta where Llano finished an unthinkable 38th in 2:17:22.  In the 2016 Trials he had finished sixth, and 2020 was supposed to be his year to contend for a team spot.  He had run a personal best 2:11:14 at the BMW Berlin Marathon five months before, and the year before had finished second in the 2018 USATF Marathon Championships.  Making the Tokyo team was a definite possibility.

But his build-up to the race wasn't his best.  He was self-coached at the time and training alone, and while he enjoyed that approach at first it began to wear on him.  He started the Trials with doubts.

"Going into that race I'd been coaching myself for a couple of months," Llano said.  "I think I was underestimating the emotional toll of coaching myself and training by myself."  He continued: "As the months wore on, it was getting harder and harder to eek out these extra bits of fitness here and there.  The doubts started to creep in.  Am I working too hard?  Am I working hard enough?  That's all the questions that a coach can answer for you, right?"

Llano's heart wasn't in the race, but driven by pride finished.  He never took notice of his time or place and quickly left the finish area.  He went home to Flagstaff, and with the pandemic shutting down nearly every road race for the foreseeable future Llano took an extended break from running.  He renovated two bathrooms in his home.  He explored new trails.  He hiked and went paddle boarding.

"I had almost no interest in running at all," he recalled.  "I don't think I did run for, probably, over a month.  It's really unusual for me.  Usually, coming off of any race, especially one I'm disappointed with, I'm always eager to get back out and train again and get back into fitness."

Getting COVID hit Llano just as he was gearing up to train regularly with his new Under Armour-sponsored team, Dark Sky Distance, under coach Stephen Haas (who is also his agent).  Instead, he and Harbur --who did not contract COVID-- quarantined together in their home.

"I wanted Brannon to leave the house, potentially, for his sake, or at least move to a different room," Llano said.  "But by that point his belief was we haven't been separate at all the last couple of days, the last week.  If you have it I'm going to get it.  I've already been exposed to it.  Fortunately, he never did get it.  I'm not sure how."

In the first week, Llano dealt with body aches and headaches and other flu-like symptoms, like congestion.  In the second week he lost his senses of smell and taste.  He was miserable, but was thankful his symptoms weren't worse.

"It was mild," Llano said.  "I don't want people to think I had a severe case."

But the return to training was hard, and he was worried about the potential for long-term heart damage.  He was especially concerned about myocarditis, an inflammation of the middle layer of the heart wall which can be brought on 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 testing with a cardiologist," he said.  "I was nervous, having read some of the research about athletes, I was nervous about the myocarditis, the inflammation of your heart when you return to training.  The cardiologist cleared me fully back to full training after a couple of weeks."

Only in the last two to three weeks, during his final preparations for Sunday's Atlanta Half-Marathon, has Llano felt more like his old self.  He admits that he's a long way from peak fitness, but he's not afraid to be competitive.

"It was still on my mind for a while," he said of the potential for heart damage.  "It's only probably just now... getting to the point that I have days when I don't worry about the potential effects on my heart because every now and then I feel a little tightness in my chest.  The cardiologist has assured me that I don't have anything to worry about, but to still pay attention to it."

The Atlanta race, part of the Atlanta Track Club's Atlanta's Marathon Weekend, came along at the perfect time for Llano.  Held exactly one year after the Trials and at the sprawling Atlanta Motor Speedway south of the city center, Llano is grateful to have a race he can finally push in.  Although he did start the Las Vegas Gold Half-Marathon on January 23, he dropped out at 10 miles (16 kilometers) because things didn't feel quite right.

"I wasn't able to finish that one," he said.  "I don't think it was related to COVID, but another issue popped up that prevented me from finishing.  I do feel that in the last couple of weeks I've really turned a corner.  I am starting to feel a lot more confident about my COVID issues being behind me.  I'm more excited about this one because I feel further removed from all of those issues that I've had.  I'm excited to have another opportunity to get on a starting line."

To motivate him during Sunday's race, Llano plans to draw on one key emotion: gratitude.

"It's excitement and gratitude to the Atlanta Track Club to even put this event on, to have a safe place for us to run," he said.  "I was grateful to have the opportunity to point the training towards, and I'm excited to go out there and just have a solid race and continue my way back from what's been a tough year."  He added: "If I can just feel good, finish strong, kind of take another step up in my training.  I find if I go to a race it always levels up my training in the coming weeks.  I'm excited to hopefully have that extra stimulus."

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