Why I Run: Nothing But the Truth
Photo: Martos Hoffman

Why I Run: The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth

As a professional runner, I am often peppered with questions from inquisitive minds, usually lingering in the mundanity and minutiae of my sometimes monk-like existence. While I am always happy to field these queries, there’s one problem: I’m a people-pleaser, and I generally know what people want to hear. I’ve become accustomed to just regurgitating canned responses about nutrition, workouts, goal setting, etc.

Today, I want to break free from these self-imposed restrictions and half-truths, and I want to start by genuinely answering the question, “Why do I run?”

Training on the streets of New York before the 2016 New York City Marathon. Photo: Justin Britton

I’ll start with the easy, yet still truthful, answers. Firstly, I run because it’s my job. Since graduating from college in 2011, I’ve made a living putting one foot in front of the other, at times supplementing with a part- or full-time job. In January of 2014, I took a leap of faith and made the switch to full-time professional runner, and I still can’t believe this is actually my life. I also run because I love living an active and healthy lifestyle. While most of my teammates—past and present—bask in the glory of their rest weeks, stuffing themselves with as many Dairy Queen Blizzards and Little Caesar’s Hot ’n’ Ready pizzas as they can, I loathe time off.

Running is far and away my number one passion, and I get cranky without it. It gives me the highest highs. I can think of few things more satisfying than the feeling you get when you experience a flow state in a race or workout—it is truly transcendental. I could go on and on about why I run; the list is almost endless. While all of these reasons certainly ring true for me, they aren’t the fundamental reason I search incessantly for my limits.

To get to the nitty-gritty of it, first I need to backtrack to my youth. I was very active in school and sports when I was growing up. I was a straight-A student and Boy Scout, the National Honor Society president, bona fide teacher’s pet—the list goes on. I won so many awards at my class graduations, including “Most Likely to Succeed,” that people almost stopped clapping when they heard my name again, trading in their applause for tuts and eye-rolls. I played soccer, baseball and basketball, I swam, I ran and I even sailed (albeit for a short time).

In college, I was a triple major with a 3.95 GPA, a successful NCAA Division I three-sport athlete, I was involved in the theater department, and in my senior year I was handpicked by the university president to serve on a special committee aimed at tackling the 10-year strategic plan for the university. All of this is to say that I was, and still am, the quintessential overachiever, profoundly motivated by something deep within. I’ve spent years trying to decipher the root of my intrinsic ambition.

A light moment before a hard workout in Flagstaff. Photo: Ben Rosario

At the risk of sounding a bit cliché (though I believe clichés exist because they generally expose some fundamental truth), I always felt like I was different from my peers when I was young. I favored Barbie dolls over monster trucks, pretty much all of my friends were girls (but I had no real attraction to them), and I had a bit of a flair for theatrics. To me, these were all just inconsequential pieces of my identity. But as I got older, I realized I’d begun subconsciously hiding some of the facets of my personality that made me truly 1 in more than 7 billion. I began doing this because I was gay, and the society I was growing up in was adamant that this was not OK.

Don’t get me wrong—I grew up in one of the most loving homes I could have ever asked for, and I had a wonderful and blessed childhood. My parents have been married for 33 years and counting, and both sets of my grandparents were married for 52 years before my grandfathers passed away.

I was always encouraged to be who I am and chase after my dreams and anything that makes me happy.

Yet for some reason, I was terrified to tell my family this paralyzing secret I’d been guarding. I’m not even sure “terrified” is a strong enough word to describe my fear and apprehension. The first person I came out to was my aunt. I sobbed on her back porch into the wee hours of the morning on my 21st birthday, a sort-of gift I wanted to give myself to mark my transition into adulthood.

Her reaction was what every LGBT person would hope for when they decide to start living true to who they are—resounding acceptance and love—and I had no reason to expect anything different from my family (and it is ultimately how it was received by them as well).

Still, I struggled for years after that to say those two words—“I’m gay”—to anyone, including myself.

Why was I so afraid? I was conditioned from my early childhood to think that being gay meant being “less than.” In any school hallway, classroom, playground or sports field, phrases like “that’s so gay” and “dude, don’t be gay” were tossed around regularly. Of course, in that context, “gay” was generally being used to mean “lame” or “disagreeable,” so to my overly sensitive ears and overly analytical mind, it was constantly being reinforced that to be gay was to be lame or disagreeable. This was also the age that pretty much any physical contact between two people of the same sex was taboo and often elicited a paranoid “No homo!” reaction by one of the involved parties. Again, to show any kind of physical affection toward what few male friends I had was frowned upon.

Have you ever walked down the street in a big city and seen two men holding hands? Be honest—have you ever thought it was weird or had an urge to stare? I have, and sometimes I still do. In my case, it’s not because I think it’s wrong by any means, but it’s still so uncommon. The same goes for the media and entertainment industry. It’s still rare to see people of minority sexual orientations with leading roles, stories about same-sex love as a central storyline in major films, or openly gay athletes in sports. People are still afraid to be themselves and love who they were born to love. This heteronormativity and lack of exposure of the normalcy of all forms of love perpetuates the idea that people who happen to be gay (or lesbian, bisexual or transgender) are less than. And that’s no way to live, let me tell you.

So, in getting back to the point of this piece, why do I have such an intense drive to succeed? Why do I put myself through the daily rigors of being a professional runner?

I run to challenge all of the stereotypes about gay men that I’ve had both subconsciously and explicitly so deeply instilled in my being by a society that is still more focused on exclusivity than inclusivity.

I run to prove that I am NOT less than, that I am capable of achieving just as much as, if not more than, my peers, regardless of their sexual orientation. I run to build up the self-esteem and confidence that I never had in my youth.

I run to bring out the best in myself, that which has been stifled by years of repressed emotions.

I run to connect with and inspire generations of people, not just in the LGBT community, but in every community, to aspire to greatness in whatever they’re passionate about, to live their truths, and to figure out what makes them authentically who they are.

I run to leave this sport and this community just a little bit better than I found it.

This is why I run.

My goal is to connect with and inspire generations of people, not just in the LGBT community, but in every community. Photo: Martos Hoffman
Matt Llano

Matt Llano is a professional marathoner who runs for the Hoka-sponsored Northern Arizona Elite team in Flagstaff, Ariz. He owns a 2:12:28 PR and placed sixth in the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon.