Family Fitness: Ultra Running Father & Son
It all started with a simple goal: run. At 38 years old, Matthew Strickland was overweight, out of shape, and felt like he was missing out on life. On Facebook, he saw friends and family posting about daily training runs, 5K events, and even marathon completions. He watched as a close friend worked up to his first 5K, then half marathon, then marathon, and eventually long distance ultrarun events. The idea of hitting the pavement and running several miles at a time captured his attention, and over a few months he started thinking about how he could start running, too.
When he saw his older aunt start posting about 5K events, Matthew knew he had to take action. He told himself, “There’s no reason I can’t do this.” Matthew says he is a very goal oriented person and knew that running could be a great way to accomplish goals while also getting in shape and taking back his life. While visiting his ultrarunner friend over Christmas that year, he took in as much as advice as he could on how to start running and improve over time.
“When you go out and run, just barely run until you’re breathing hard. Then walk until your breathing returns to normal. Then run again, and repeat that for 30 minutes,” Matthew recalls his friend saying. “From there, your body will be able to run longer periods of time before you have to walk again until one day, you’re able to run straight through without stopping.”
Though Douthard was only 8 at the time, Matthew wanted to include his son in his training because, “He’s my life. I wouldn’t want to do anything without him.” Matthew wasn’t worried about Douthard not being able to keep up, especially during those early runs. “He’s young and very healthy,” Matthew remembers thinking. “When we race, he wins.”
Douthard wasn’t as clear on what his dad meant when he said he wanted to start running. “I thought he meant racing, not running,” Douthard says, explaining that at first he thought his dad wanted to race around the yard. Excited to race his dad, Douthard remembers thinking during their first run together, “We’ve been running for 14 minutes. Where are we going?”
Since then, running together has become a part of daily life. After working through the first few weeks of hardship as their bodies adjusted to running, Matthew and Douthard decided it was time to sign up for their first organized 5K event. After completing their first event together, Matthew and Douthard decided to keep training and competing in events as they worked on upping their mileage.
Keeping both of their bodies healthy and avoiding injury has been a major concern since Day 1, especially as run distance has increased. Early on, Matthew took Douthard to the doctor to make sure running great distances was safe for such a small child. After receiving the go-ahead from their doctor and reading up on the best ways to prevent injuries and take care of their bodies, Matthew felt comfortable pushing up to marathon distance and beyond.
Running together has improved both of their lives in ways they didn’t anticipate at first. While Matthew has enjoyed the health benefits of running like weight loss and improved cardiovascular health, the most notable change has been in their social lives. As father and son have worked up through distance events together, they’ve been welcomed by the running community throughout their home state of North Carolina. “I love that about running,” Matthew says of the running community. “People always want to talk to Douthard,” he says, “because they see such a young kid out there running a marathon, a double marathon. He recently finished his first 100 kilometer run.” Now that both Matthew and Douthard have started running 40+ mile ultra run events, they have found an even more tightly knit community of running enthusiasts. After their first couple of ultra run events, Matthew felt they both had really proved themselves to be true ultrarunners. “In ultrarunning in particular, it really is a family,” Matthew says.
It’s not always easy, and the hard days are when Matthew and Douthard are especially grateful to have each other for support. Both father and son have rough days running, but the other is always offer motivation and encouraging words. “During long ultras, Douthard goes through some meltdowns,” Matthew says. “It’s hard for him to get through and hard for me to get him through.” But pushing through the mid-race exhaustion makes the finish even better for Douthard, whose confidence has grown with every step. “I’m aiming to do 100 miles in 24 hours,” Douthard says. After seeing his dad get a 100 mile belt buckle during a recent event, Douthard set his mind to getting one for himself. To date, the longest official event Douthard has completed was 100 kilometers. “I’m jealous of Daddy,” Douthard says, eyeing the belt buckle.
In just over a year of competing in events, Matthew and Douthard have just now started to experiment with running separately. While they still train together every day, Douthard is eager to try running some events alone. After completing a 5K event with his parents cheering him on, Douthard has started to run some trail laps with other adult running friends instead of his dad. Still, the desire to support each other through the highs and lows of every event keeps the duo together most of the time. “Now that we’ve proven ourselves as ultrarunners, we both want to drop back to 50 kilometer events and just have fun with it,” Matthew says.
Even as Douthard’s desire for independence grows, both Matthew and Douthard want to keep running side by side for years to come. “We’ve always been close, but you can’t put a price on these type of experiences,” Matthew says. Together, father and son have run hundreds of miles on pavement and trails alike and experienced beautiful scenery from dense mountain trails to lighthouses dotting the coast. To other parents interested in crafting similar experiences with their children, Matthew says, “More families could benefit from being active together.” Douthard says that one day, he would like to run with his own son or daughter.
To those interested in running, Matthew says, “It’s just about putting one foot in front of the other. It’s just that simple.” Douthard likes to remind people, “If I can do it, you can do it!” While running takes a lot of practice and dedication to training, the opportunity to improve your health and confidence, forge new friendships in the running community, and travel to events makes every training day well worth it. “We’ve worked through the hardships together and helped each other reach our goals, and I wouldn’t trade this experience my son for anything,” Matthew says.