Zen and the art of running

Mark Matyazic runs Badwater because he believes it’s the hardest run in the world. To him, there is no other race like it on Earth.

In 2011, Matyazic’s goal was to finish in the top 40. That year he finished sixth overall with a time of 27:48. Last year he had no goals and finished fifth at 26:24. On July 15, he could go all the way.

Matyazic resides in Irvine, Calif., where he works as a corporate manager. He is 47 this year and he said endurance racing has been a part of his life since he was 12.

For him, endurance racing started with swimming and gradually grew into running. He participated in cross country at Ohio State University and after graduation, he moved into triathlons. In his lifetime he has competed in 150 marathons, 100 triathlons and nearly 30 ultra-marathons.

To Matyazic, there are three components to the Badwater race — physical training, the logistical preparation and a spiritual component. He believes to be successful in Death Valley a runner needs all three in balance.

“I feel that you can be physically trained for it but if you don’t have the spiritual meditative component, you probably won’t do well,” he said. “At the same time, if you are a Zen master, but you haven’t trained, all the meditation in the world will not get you through Badwater either.”

As far as logistical training, he said bad planning in the logistics can cause everything to fail, especially if a runner has a “bad crew.” The crew chief can make or break a Badwater race. He believes he has an outstanding crew and crew chief.

Matyazic feels his training. To him, it’s not 100 miles per week of road work during the year which gets him trained. He works a rigorous corporate schedule and his job does not allow him to train appropriately for this race. Last year he was all over the country and must have traveled 135,000 miles just for his job. He does not have the time nor the schedule to be training all week long.

“You just figure out what works for you and you follow your own intuition,” he said. “I have been doing this a long time. I train by feel. I don’t really listen to anyone. When I don’t feel like training, I don’t train. There have been some times I take three weeks off just because my body needs some rest.

“There are other times I go into hyper-drive training. I train twice a day just because I feel like it and time allows me. There is really no rhyme or reason. So, if I feel like running 21 miles, I will do that. If I feel I need a cross-fit workout, I will do that.”

His physical training takes the form of running, swimming and biking. For the spiritual side, he practices yoga and meditates. He uses the spiritual side to run in what he calls “a zone,” a place where physically he is there running, but mentally he is somewhere else. He also refers to this zone as Zen. This place allows him to be at peace when he runs and he feels no pain.

“I have always had some component of Zen within me since I was young,” he explained.

“I had an out-of-body experience last year at Badwater. I can’t explain where I go, it is definitely out of body. You go somewhere else and it’s nowhere near the race. There are times I lost track of time, place and distance.”

He said last year he “zoned completely out” from midnight until 5 a.m., and ran a distance of about 30 miles. During this time his crew chief said he picked up his pace.

“I did not take any water, calories or salt during this time,” Matyazic related. “I took nothing for five hours, and I don’t know how I did that. When I came out of it I was fine, but thirsty. It was a long way to go without taking any water.”

During that time his very experienced crew tried to give him water, but he refused.

Getting into a zone like that for a five-hour stretch of time was a first for him. He has experienced faster times. To actually “go somewhere else” requires him to be exerting a lot of energy. He described it as being “in a hypnotic trance.” He is in auto pilot, and his body just knows to follow the path.

At Badwater, he drank 25 gallons of fluids and ingested about 1,500 calories. He said his Zen running allowed him to take as little as 50 calories for 100 miles in another race.

Matyazic runs for himself. He does not go out to win each race. The fact he is running Badwater is enough satisfaction for him. He feels he does not train enough to win it.

“I never want to win,” the Zen runner said. “I look at these events as a celebration of your ability to do the event. I don’t race against anyone but myself. I look at it this way, it’s at the zero-mile mark and I have to go 135 miles. How fast can I get there? I don’t care if there are 1,000 people running or no one is running. My time will be about the same. I don’t have the luxury to train like the guys that win. My goal is to be fairly balanced. I try to be the first-place guy with the most balanced life. I do have a strategy, and that is trying to get to the finish line without dropping.”